The Great Falls of the Missouri was Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery’s nightmare. The five waterfalls forced them to portage for a month. Their daunting nightmare should be your beautiful dream destination in Great Falls, the biggest waterfall’s namesake Montana city.
Lewis said the Great Falls were “the grandest sight I ever beheld.” We agree. Great Falls is one of our favorite cities. Encircled by mountains, surrounding the Missouri River, Great Falls, Montana, will enchant you with its art, culture, cuisine, and recreational opportunities.
These are the best places in Great Falls.
1. The River’s Edge Trail
The 60-mile River’s Edge Trail connects many of Great Falls’ signature attractions, but the trail is itself an attraction. Walk, bike, or ride your horse. Whatever your mode of non-motorized transportation, the sound of the water lapping at your side and the breezes blowing the fresh air in your face will invigorate you. Peer through a free telescope at Warden Park Gazebo. Watch for birds at Sacagawea Island. Bring your skateboard, horseshoes, or tennis rackets to the trail’s Elks Riverside Park.
Known as “The Jewel of the City Parks System,” Gibson Park features flower gardens, a duck pond, a walking path that connects to River’s Edge Trail, and more. It also has a playground, so it’s a great stop for kids. Plus, its right across from The Children’s Museum of Montana!
Pro Tip: Rent a bike from Knicker Biker. Based on your experience and interests, they’ll tell you which trail segments to explore and which to avoid.
2. Waterfalls And Dams
The five waterfalls are (from east to west): The Great Falls, Crooked Falls, Rainbow Falls, Colter Falls, and Black Eagle Falls. Black Eagle, Crooked, and Rainbow Falls are all in the Great Falls urban area. Crooked Falls, with its irregular shelf, looks just as it did when the Corps saw it in 1805. Sadly, Rainbow Dam’s construction has submerged Colter Falls.
Black Eagle Falls
Stand above Black Eagle Falls on the river trail to see the Sun River’s confluence with the Missouri. The view from Black Eagle Memorial Island affords a magnificent close-up view. The thrum of the dam’s turbines feels like the pulse of the world’s heartbeat.
Great Falls And Ryan Dam
The Great Falls is 20 minutes east of the city. The river trail extends the entire way and it’s also a beautiful drive. Ryan Island Park features the best views. Park on Ryan Dam Road and walk across a suspension bridge. Picnic under the tall cottonwood trees and enjoy watching the waterfall and the Missouri River downstream.
Morony Dam And Sulphur Springs
Visit an important site on the Corps of Discovery’s expedition at Morony (MOH-roe-nee) Dam. It’s 16 miles northeast of Great Falls on the Sulphur Springs Trail. During the Corps’ portage ordeal, Sacagawea fell ill. Sulphur Springs water helped in her treatment. Interpretive signage on the trail explains the expedition and hydroelectricity.
Pro Tip: To see the waterfalls at their peak, come in the late spring when snowmelt fills the Missouri River.
3. Lewis And Clark Interpretive Center
Built into the side of a bluff, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center shows the Corps of Discovery’s battle against the waterfalls. In that exhibit, the men strain to push their heavy gear uphill on their long portage around the falls. They expected to portage for less than a mile. Instead, the portaging lasted 18 miles and required a month of torturous labor.
Begin your visit by watching the introductory film, then explore the Corps’ arduous journey. If you’re lucky, Buddy, a 200-pound Newfoundland dog, will be there to represent Lewis’s dog Seaman. After you attempt to drag one of the boats, you’ll better appreciate the courage, stamina, and determination the Corps members displayed on their 8,000-mile journey through the unmapped West.
Pro Tip: Your America the Beautiful Pass will pay for your admission.
4. Explore Area State Parks
Giant Springs State Park
Enjoy the gorgeous blue and green water at Giant Springs State Park. The springs pour out 156 million gallons of water each day. The 201-foot Roe River flows from the springs into the Missouri River. It’s one of the world’s shortest rivers. Follow it from source to mouth on a paved sidewalk.
The springs supply 650 to 700 gallons of water per minute to the Giant Springs Trout Hatchery. At the hatchery, track trout production from eggs to release. Watch the fish in the hatchery’s show pond.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park and National Historic Landmark is an archaeological site where you can see what could be North America’s largest bison cliff jump and explore the 6,000-square-foot Visitor Center.
5. C.M. Russell Museum
Immerse yourself in the life and work of acclaimed cowboy artist Charles Marion Russell at his namesake museum. The museum complex includes his log cabin and studio, as well as his personal cowboy gear and Native American artifact collection. A permanent exhibit explains the impact of bison on the Northern Plains. This museum is one of the best art museums we’ve visited.
6. The Milwaukee Road Depot
The Chicago, Milwaukee, and Saint Paul Railroad, also known as The Milwaukee Road, built a beautiful brick passenger depot in 1915. The brick tower with its bright yellow Milwaukee Road sign is a Great Falls icon. The depot is part of the Railroad Historic District Walking Tour.
7. Sluice Boxes State Park
At Sluice Boxes State Park, 40 minutes southeast of Great Falls, limestone cliffs and steep canyons tower above Belt Creek. Find historic mine and railroad remnants. Enjoy hiking, fishing, birding, and rafting. Rafters must have at least intermediate paddling skills and be prepared to self-rescue.
Pro Tip: Bring river shoes. You will get wet feet.
8. Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Twelve miles north of Great Falls, Benton Lake is a 5,000-acre wetland famed for birding success. Migratory birds flock to the wetland in spring and fall and 28 mammalian species reside there. In the fall, hunters can bag upland birds and waterfowl.
Pro Tip: Ten numbered stops guide visitors on the Prairie Marsh Wildlife Drive. The best times are early mornings and late afternoons in the spring and fall.
9. Montana Mosaic
Pick up the perfect Montana-made souvenir at Montana Mosaic. The gift shop features pottery, sculptures, framed paintings, and more!
10. Hi-Line Climbing Center
Perfect your rock climbing skills at The Hi-Line Climbing Center downtown. Before you visit, complete your waiver online.
11. Paris Gibson Square Museum Of Art
The Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art is housed in a beautiful 1896 building that once served as the city’s first high school. After perusing the exhibitions, pop into The Square Gift Shop to browse artisan jewelry, food-grade ceramics, original artwork, stationery, and apparel crafted by local artisans. Admission to the museum is free, but note that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Great Falls Restaurants
The Montana Club
The Montana Club holds special memories for my husband and me. I flew from Kansas to Montana on Thanksgiving Day to visit my husband. He had been working a temporary job and we hadn’t seen each other for nearly two months. After I landed in Great Falls, we went to The Montana Club for our Thanksgiving meal. They had run out of turkey. Instead, we savored a glorious prime rib dinner with all the Thanksgiving sides and drank huckleberry cocktails. That was the perfect romantic reunion celebration.
Pro Tip: The Montana Club celebrates happy hour daily.
The Celtic Cowboy Pub and Restaurant
Robert Vaughn, the area’s first European settler, was from Wales. He became known as the Celtic Cowboy. Located downtown, The Celtic Cowboy Pub and Restaurant honors his legacy in the Arvon Block building that he constructed. (Arvon for “R. Vaughn.” Get it?) The menu invokes his Celtic heritage with items like the shepherd’s pie — and the cowboy he became with dishes like the beef medallions. Stay onsite at the Hotel Arvon.
Pro Tip: Fill growlers from any brewery out of their taps.
Sip ‘N Dip Lounge
Great Falls is a long way from the ocean and even further from the tropics. But that distance evaporates at the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge downtown. It’s easy to imagine that Scotty has transported you to Hawaii while you watch mermaids swim in the tiki bar’s lagoon, but don’t let the mermaids distract you from the food and drinks. Stay next door at the O’Haire Motor Inn.
Mighty Mo Brew Pub
Whether you order by the slice or by the pie, the pizza at Mighty Mo Brew Pub downtown is a delight. Pair it with their beers and you’ll wish dinner would last forever.
Buy Fresh At Great Falls Farmers’ Market
Buy from local farmers and artists at Great Falls Original Farmers’ Market every summer Saturday. Enjoy numerous ready-to-eat options while you shop, plus live music and pony rides.
Explore More Of Big Sky Country
Great Falls is 2.5 hours southeast of Glacier National Park, 3.5 hours northwest of Billings, and three hours northeast of Missoula.
Pro Tip: Great Falls makes for a great pit stop on your way from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park.