More than 100 bird species have been spotted at Giant Springs.
Surrounded by sandstone bluffs and a rolling patchwork of farmland, Great Falls, Mont., lies between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks on the banks of the Missouri River. The river has defined the area since long before Lewis and Clark portaged around its five waterfalls in 1805. Today the Missouri provides the backdrop for a city of 57,000 with a lively core and abundant hiking and biking opportunities.
A stroll along nine blocks of Central Avenue just east of the river takes you through downtown, where antique brick mixes with midcentury modern. Shoppers hunt for vintage cowboy boots at Browser's Corner or for hand-painted martini glasses at Dragonfly Dry Goods. To the south, trendy design showrooms and cafés have cropped up in the old warehouse district. You can sit in a defunct elevator shaft at the Breaks Ale House & Grill and order locally brewed Pigs Ass Porter to wash down a spicy sandwich stuffed with chicken and andouille sausage.
For a view of the area's largest waterfall, drive 12 miles north from town to Ryan Dam, where water plummets 150 feet. Downstream, Ryan Island offers exceptional vistas.
Northeast of downtown, the C.M. Russell Museum holds one-fourth of the namesake artist's lifework—from paintings and sculptures to illustrated letters with folksy quotes such as "Good friends make the roughest trail easy." Nearby you can pick up the River's Edge Trail, which traverses 30 miles of the Missouri's shoreline, attracting bicyclists, joggers, and dog walkers. Threading past Black Eagle Falls, the path leads to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, where starting in October the exhibit Mammoth or Mastodon? will feature fossils and hands-on activities for children. Farther down the trail, more than 400 acres of prairie grassland and groomed lawn draw picnickers to Giant Springs State Park. The site is home to both one of the world's largest freshwater springs, which bubbles forth 156 million gallons daily, and one of the world's shortest rivers, the 201-foot Roe.
After sundown cross the Ninth Street Bridge into Black Eagle, where Borrie's, a candlelit supper club, serves handmade ravioli. For nightlife, the Sip-N-Dip Lounge in the O'Haire Motor Inn features women in mermaid costumes twirling in the pool behind the bar. Beware the Fishbowl, a nine-shot wallop served in a goldfish bowl on a stem that will have you thinking you're closer to the South Pacific than to the Missouri.
Photography by Lynn Donaldson
This article was first published in September 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Idaho & Montana map, Northwestern CampBook, andIdaho, Montana & Wyoming TourBook. For further information, contact the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, 100 First Ave. N., (406) 761-4434, www.greatfallschamber.org. Area code is 406 unless otherwise noted.
Borrie's 1800 Smelter Ave., Black Eagle 761-0300. The Breaks Ale House & Grill 202 Second Ave. S., 453-5980.
Charlie Russell Manor $90–$150, AAA discounts. 825 Fourth Ave. N., (877) 207-6131. O'Haire Motor Inn$49.50–$75, AAA discounts. 17 Seventh St. S., (800) 332-9819, www.ohairemotorinn.com.