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Scenic Drive, Fun Road Between Great Falls and Helena

I 15I have the opportunity to take the drive between Great Falls and Helena quite often. Sometimes I'm scrambling, in a hurry to get there when I didn't allow enough time. Other times I just have a lot on my mind and I'm a bit grumpy.

Well, it doesn't take long to relax and improve my mood when I head south on I-15 from Great Falls. I drove this route a week ago and stopped several times to take photos.

When I left Great Falls I saw rims of mountains to the west (Rocky Mountains), the Little Belt Mountains southeast, and ahead of me on the Interstate I could see the Big Belt Mountains. Another jagged range of rock outcroppings is called the Adel Mountains. 

The Adel Mountains are eroded remains of a pile of volcanic rock. They basically flank the Missouri River for forty miles as it winds through the canyon. The volcanic activity probably occurred 75 million years ago and continued for several million years. 

canyonIn the 1930s a modern paved highway connected Great Falls to Helena. It passed through the volcanic outcrops of the canyon and crossed the river twice, near Hardy Creek and Wolf Creek.

Today, an exit for Hardy takes travelers to recreation homes, multiple river access sites for floating and unlimited fishing opportunities. Wolf Creek is a small town straddling the highway and it is a great entrance to amazing river recreation. 

Present day Interstate 15 was constructed in 1960 and bypassed the original US 91 highway. I'm thankful the old highway is still in good shape. It's an awesome motorcycyle ride, or just a relaxed ride in any automobile. And, you can experience a Great Depression-era road.  

You'll find some small local restaurants and taverns along the way - great places to stop and chat up the locals. 

Time for a another drive on I-15? I think so!





Great Snow - Good Time on X-C Skis

X-C skiingThe first time I ever went X-C skiing I took my two young children. It was a learning experience for all of us and I came home just a bit stressed.

I wasn't sure I was learning the sport as well as I could and the kids didn't seem too happy either.

Fast forward one week and both kids were asking if we could go again!

That was many years ago and I once again was at Silver Crest X-C Ski Area in the Little Belt Mountains.

The area has had many improvements - a nice warming hut at the trailhead, better trail markings, it is groomed twice a week and the parking and rest room facilities are much nicer. There are even dog sled trails in the area!

We hadn't had much snow in Great Falls and all week I worried that the snow wouldn't be great. My concerns went away the day before we were going when X-C warming hutMother Nature dumped 4 - 5 inches of fluffy snow on a solid base. 

I can't say enough good things about the day.

It felt so good to get out of the office and spend the day exploring the X-C ski trails. The sun came out after we were there about an hour and outer jackets came off. Well, the exercise kept us warm too. 

It was mid-week and we only saw one other vehicle with two gals in it. We chatted briefly with them before they started on one of the trails.

We didn't see any other X-C skiers for the rest of the day. It felt like our private mountain! What an experience!

Silver Crest is a real treasure and it is an easy drive on US Hwy 89, about 60 miles southeast of Great Falls.

Jim Dpna XcX-C ski rentals are available in Great Falls and you can find lodging near the recreation area in Neihart, Monarch and White Sulphur Springs.

There is still amazing snow at Silver Crest in the Little Belt Mountains even though snow at lower elevations has melted.

My advice - take a "snow" day and enjoy winter in Central Montana.





Snowmobiling? I'll Give It A Try!

We wanted to get some photos and video of snowmobiling in the region and I started asking around for some Be;t sunrisecontacts. I mentally went through a list of friends and turned up nobody who had a snowmobile. Actually, I needed several snowmobiles to photograph and one for me to ride on. Okay, now remember that comment about me "riding on" a snowmobile.

I was lucky to find a guy who is the president of the Montana Snowmobile Association and believe me, he had contacts!

One day my phone rang and the guy said "I'm supposed to call you about snowmobiling". I explained what we wanted to do and when we could go and he said he'd get back to me.

Another phone call and the guy said he had lined up several snowmobilers and some type of pull-behind vehicle for our videographer. He said he'd have a sled for me too. Awesome - everything was coming together.

Our snowmobile day arrived.

Snowmobile 1I was up early to make the drive south on US Hwy 89, past Neihart and then into the Kings Hill Winter Recreation Area. I did make a few stops to grab some sunrise photos a few times.

Four snowmobilers were waiting at the winter recreation area and one of them had a cart-like thing hooked on to a snowmobile. Our videographer checked it out and said it would work well for him.

My snowmobile contact walked me over to a snowmobile and said, "here's your ride". It obviously was for one person which meant yours truly was not just "riding" I was "driving" the snowmobile. Oh dear. The last time I drove a snowmobile I got so stuck that several people had to help get the sled out. On that excursion I believe I said that was the end of my snowmobiling career! 

Well, after a few pointers, plenty of "you'll do fine" comments and off we went - very slowly for me but I was managing to keep up with the group. 

It didn't take me long to relax and start enjoying the views. Majestic mountains, plenty of snow, an old Snowmobile cabinmoss-covered cabin, a perimeter of snow-covered trees and not one more snowmobiler to be found. We had the entire area to ourselves!

Elevation in the Little Belt Mountains varies from 6,000 feet to 8,000 feet. Average annual snowfall is 150 - 200 inches. Oh yeah, that's a lot.

And, the area is a snowmobiler's dream - there are 325 miles of groomed trails. 

The Kings Hill Winter Recreation Area is about 65 miles southeast of Great Falls. Nearby towns include Neihart and Monarch right on US Hwy 89 and White Sulphur Springs, about 35 miles south of the recreation area. 

The day went well, we were snowmobiling with the pros and all of us had a fun time. I'm actually glad I was able to drive my own sled now. It was a great experience!




Downhill Skiing at Showdown Montana Ski Area

skiingShowdown Montana Ski Area is located in the Little Belt Mountains on the Lewis & Clark National Forest. I was fortunate to spend some time there last week checking out all they have to offer.

First of all, if you've ever had to drive on snow-packed gravel roads to get to a ski area, you'll appreciate being able to simply turn off US Hwy 89 and drive in to Showdown's parking lot.  

Showdown Montana is the state's oldest ski area. It was originally called King's Hill Ski Area because it is located atop King's Hill Pass.

A note of trivia - King's Hill mountain pass is the highest mountain pass in Montana that is maintained year 'round. US Hwy 89 is a pretty major traffic route, from passenger vehicles to truck traffic so the road stays clear all winter.

I arrived at the ski lodge early, eager to check out what they had.

snowboard jumpThe T-Bar coffee bar was busy and I could smell something yummy baking - that turned out to be homemade brownies. I suspect they were consumed before the day was over!

I saw lots of Showdown's staff - all busy taking good care of customers. Several school groups were arriving with their chaperones and everyone was helping to get them fitted for boots and skis and then to give lessons and get those kids on the slopes.

The lifts started operating at 9:30am and soon I could see skiers making their way down Big Seven. Groups of school kids were in the lesson area, eager to get on the slopes.

This area was once a motherlode for miners and Showdown's ski runs are named for former mines. Glory Hole, Ripley, Golden Goose...the names are varied and many. There are 34 ski runs at Showdown and the terrain split is ski lift30-40-30. Thirty percent are green (easy) 40 percent are intermediate and the final 30 percent are black (most difficult).

I heard comments about great grooming and that the mountain slopes were in good shape for the amount of snow.

Everyone I saw was having a great time - from youngsters to some definite oldsters, they were out experiencing some pretty amazing recreation.  

I was glad to be out of the office! What a great day.




Supper on the Slopes at Teton Pass

Teton Pass lodgeLast Friday I pointed my wheels toward Choteau, Montana. I love to attend some of Central Montana's unique events and this one sounded amazing. Supper on the Slopes was calling my name!

Teton Pass Ski Resort is located about 25 miles west of Choteau. My friend and I drove to Choteau, parked my car in the parking lot behind Main Street Express and took the free shuttle to Teton Pass. There were eight of us on the shuttle.

I whined a bit that it was almost dark at 5:30 because the scenery as you head in to the Rocky Mountain Front is truly spectacular, especially with a little snow.

With recent snow, and a bit of ice, our driver took the road carefully and it took us about 40 minutes to get to the ski area. It was a relaxing drive though and we made new friends as we traveled along in the cozy shuttle.

As we turned south off the Teton Road I saw the lights of the ski lodge. In Choteau most of the snow had melted but we were now in some pretty deep white stuff. Elevation at Teton Pass Ski Resort lodge is 6,190 feet and at the summit it is 8,600 feet so it's no Inside Teton Pass lodgewonder there was a lot of snow.

There was a snowmobile with a driver waiting for the shuttle in case anyone needed a ride up to the lodge. We walked and it felt good to stretch. It isn't far, just a bit steep.  

I was absolutely amazed when we entered the ski lodge! It was decorated beautifully with a warm and cozy feel. We were greeted by staff and then headed up to the dining area.  

Our menu for the evening was based on Thai cuisine and what a treat it was!

The first course was caramelized onion naan and Thai carrot ginger soup. OK...I could have been satisfied with a large bowl of that soup and a couple more pieces of naan. Oh my, both were just perfect.

But, there was more to come!

When we purchased tickets for Supper on the Slopes ($35 and that included an Carrot ginger soupalcohol beverage) we had two options for our entree - Thai grilled shrimp pasta with sesame peanut sauce or chicken curry over coconut rice. My friend chose the shrimp so I decided to try the chicken and we could share samples. Both entrees were beyond excellent.

I was almost full but had a little bit of room for dessert, of course!

Coffee cardamom ice cream with shortbread was my dessert choice although the coconut tapioca pudding with cayenne spiced mango sounded tempting too. 

We met incredibly interesting people at our table. Two Brazilian ranch interns kept the conversation lively, a bed and breakfast owner and ranch couple also chimed in. One other couple had been on the slopes all day and had stayed for supper. 

I'm not sure how many people were at Supper on the Slopes but I would estimate about 55. Capacity for seating was probably about 70. 

I was so impressed with the food, the shuttle ride, the decorations, the comfy Shrimp Teton Passlodge - I guess I was impressed with it all! And, I thought is was reasonably priced.

Teton Pass Ski Resort plans to do another Supper on the Slopes on Valentine's Day.

I'll be figuring out how to schedule another trip for Supper on the Slopes.





Pie a la Road Is Born

Huckleberry pieLast April several of us came up with the idea of doing a pie trail in Central Montana. We put the word out to search for restaurants and cafes that served homemade pie.

Ideas soon started arriving in my email and I was eager to begin.

At first, I thought I couldn't cover that many miles unless I grouped them together. Then, the first time I stopped at two cafes in one day (and consumed two pieces of pie in one day) I realized I couldn't continue to eat like that! 

Also, my goal of getting to all of the suggested cafes in a couple of months was not going to be met. In fact, I'd be lucky if I visited all of the cafes before summer was over. 

One ground rule I set was to not have ice cream with my pie and I managed to only break that rule twice! My rationale -  the first time it was a warm summer day, I was hungry, and it really was the perfect treat on top of that piece of pie. The second time the cafe owner said it simply was part of the pie. OK, I fell for that and it was worth it!

Peach pieSo, just how many pieces of pie were consumed in my travels? Nineteen. Yes, nineteen pieces of pie, although it took me four and a half months. That averages out to about one piece of pie a week.

Since my tastings covered summer and early fall I began to see the pie offerings change. Some of those light fruit pies were gradually being replaced with pumpkin pie and mincmeat pie. 

Many folks have asked me where my favorite pie was.

Well, each one had something special that I really liked. Most of all I enjoyed meeting the hard working pie bakers and hearing their stories. I also met so many local people and if they discovered what I was doing, the stories started to flow. I tried to put many of those stories in the comment section on the bottom of our Pie a la Road page on our website. 

Looking back on my "research" I have decided that pie evokes memories for many people. Perhaps it was a grandmother or aunt that made the perfect flaky pie crust, the tallest meringue, or someone's mother who peeled apples for hours to make pies for a harvest crew. I enjoyed the stories as much as the yummy pie I consumed.

My advice - hit the road, Pie a la Road, and enjoy a piece of pie.  





New Year's Day Drive

Black Eagle Falls winterWhen the weather turns cold and the snow flies I tend to not want to get out and explore. I decided I just need to set aside a day every now and then, grab my camera and go!

Although I didn't get too far from my home base, I did learn a little history on my New Year's Day drive.

I stopped at the overlook for Black Eagle Falls on the south side of the Missouri River, across the road from Eagle Falls golf course. A few photos were quickly taken and the falls actually looked like they were frozen! I know my fingers were frozen by time I put my camera away. There was water going over the hyrdoelectric dam but some of it had frozen.

A large interpretive panel at the overlook gave history of the area. Black Eagle Falls are the uppermost falls in the series. Originally there were five falls but when the dams were constructed one became submerged.

In June 1805 Meriwether Lewis scouted the series of falls, probably thinking, oh crap, how will we ever get around these! When he was at the uppermost falls he saw an eagle nest in a cottonwood tree on an island in the river and noted that in his journal. That eagle nest frozen fallsbecame key when the area was named.

In 1891, eighty six years after the Lewis & Clark expedition portaged the falls, the Boston and Montana Mining Company built a smelter complex on the north side of the river overlooking the island that had the eagle nest. They processed copper at this site until 1918 and then the Anaconda Mining Company converted the smelter to a refinery for copper and zinc.

I vividly remember the 506 foot smokestack, visible from all directions when you were driving toward Great Falls. It no longer exists and the smelter is also gone.

The workers and their families living near the smelter and refinery became known as the town of Black Eagle. Today, Black Eagle is still a community of hard working folks, many with memories of family who worked at the smelter and refinery.

I hope the original employees at the smelter and refinery were in awe of the views of the waterfalls as much as I was on New Year's Day.




Geology Lesson at Giant Springs State Park

trees and cloudsI was at Giant Springs State Park this morning looking for some photo ops. Before I drove the short distance from my house in Great Falls, I looked at the sky and said "yup, good sunshine coming through the clouds". As I was driving along River Road I saw that sunshine slip behind the clouds and only saw glimpses of it after that.

I had fun taking photos at the state park though and the first one (at left) has some sunshine and interesting clouds poking through the treetops. 

I saw one vehicle in the parking lot when I got there and what looked like a grandpa and grandson strolling along with a fishing rod and tackle box. It would be a chilly day for fishing.

While I was taking photos of the actual giant springs I saw some interesting geology signs.

I learned that the water I was looking at started a downward trek from the Madison limestone formation in the Little Belt Mountains southeast of Great Falls. The limestone is exposed at the land surface in the mountains and water then travels through the formation down the mountain towards Great Falls.

water at giant springsAt Giant Springs the Madison Formation is still there but it is about 400 feet below the surface. Pressure caused from the rock layers pushes the water up through cracks in the top layer of sandstone. It bubbles, it gushes and it is relaxing to watch.

The water temperature is a constant 54 degrees year round. It's cool and refreshing in the summer and frosty and rather brisk feeling during winter. When the temperature really dips there is heavy frost around the springs and lots of mist in the air.

I didn't stay too long at Giant Springs this morning but it felt good to get out, walk along the manicured lawns and stroll by the springs. A great way to start the day. 




From Europe to Sunburst, Montana

European AntiquesMany people have not heard of the small community of Sunburst but I had a fun visit there recently.

So, where is Sunburst? It is north of Shelby, between Sweetgrass and the port of entry, and a very easy exit off I-15.

I noticed a sign for European Antiques which definitely intrigued me. The new-looking log building was beautiful with nice landscaping.

I went up to the door only to realize that they weren't open on the particular day I happened to be there - bummer! But, there was a sign directing interested people to the large house behind the antique store. I debated about whether I should go. After all, I was just a curious "looker" not an antique shopper but I really wanted to see the inside. I decided to peek around the corner and was met by the owner who had seen me drive up to the antique store.

She was more than pleased to open the store and show me around. I learned that they had begun as a small antique store, relocating from southern Montana. They also had a deli in the antique store but that was phased out and there was more room for antiques. Before they ended up in Montana they were from Europe, hence the name and the connection to European antiques.

Antique fire helmutsThe first thing I noticed was a group of cowbells - huge, huge bells with beautifully decorated straps. I also have some decorative cowbells but they are about 3 inches long, nothing like these bells!

I spent a lot of time looking at unique china and glassware (a weakness of mine).

As I roamed around I must have had a puzzled look on my face and the owner began to explain that I was looking at very old firemen's helmets. There were also grenades from World War II, furniture (a beautiful and very old cradle) and other things I couldn't identify!

My stop in Sunburst was a blast. I did not expect to find such a unique store in this tiny town. My advice - take time to visit some of our small towns with locally owned businesses.

And really, couldn't you use an antique fire helmet?




For the Love of Neon

Sports Club neonThe last time I was in Shelby I took a few minutes to stroll down Main Street and gawk at all of the uber-cool neon signs.

Shelby's Main Street is dressed to the nines with retro neon signs, all pointing to locally owned small businesses.

Some of my favorites include The Mint sign (lounge), Sports Club (lounge and restaurant), The Alibi (lounge) and The Roxy (theater sign). And, these businesses are all still operating.

I'm sure there would be some good stories behind each sign, also behind each of these small businesses that have weathered many ups and downs in the economy.

Shelby sits at the crossroads of US Hwy 2 and I-15. It's well worth an exit off the interstate or a diversion from traveling US 2. The best time to enjoy the neon signs would be evening, not super dark but just enough to see the glow. Even during full daylight hours they are interesting to look at.


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