Central Montana, where the soaring Rocky Mountains meet the sweeping Great Plains, is perhaps the state at its finest. This is the land of sprawling cattle ranches, trout-laden rivers and small Western towns that easily could have stepped from an old homespun tale. The area is rich in history, from the intrepid Lewis and Clark Expedition’s path down the Missouri River to the eerily raw landscape at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Central Montana is home to the Wild West as it truly was — and as it remains today. The region is dotted with small communities that preserve and live this history daily. Here are a few of our favorites, ready to welcome you.
1. White Sulphur Springs
Home to the famous mineralized hot springs from which it draws its name, White Sulphur Springs is surrounded by historic ranches. Rich in Western flavor — it’s not unusual to see — White Sulphur Springs is the gateway to the Smith River, famous for its permit-only, multi-day, fly-fishing float trips. Stop by “The Castle,” an 1892-built mansion that is now home to the Meagher County Museum. The Victorian home was created with hand-cut granite mined from the Castle Mountains, and today the museum is filled with period furniture, clothing and artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Swing by 2 Basset Brewery for a locally made craft beer. The town has risen to fame as the host of the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival, which draws nationally known artists and music lovers from around the country each July.
2. Great Falls
The largest town in Central Montana, Great Falls boasts an impressive past of its own. A rich historic district showcases period architecture and modern parks. Try the Railroad District Walking Tour to start exploring, then make your way to the C.M. Russell Museum or the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to gain an appreciation for the area’s past. Great Falls is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, rife with opportunities for mountain biking, hiking, running, fly fishing, boating and more. The expansive River’s Edge Trail runs right through town, winding past the historic district, parks and breweries for more than 60 miles. Looking to relax after a day exploring? The Celtic Cowboy, dubbed “Montana’s best Irish Pub,” is in the downtown district serving up quality burgers and brews. Bert & Ernie’s is another local favorite for the pleasant atmosphere, classic American food and a wide selection of beer and wine.
A well-preserved agricultural community, Lewistown is surrounded by vast plains and several island mountain ranges. Home to five historic districts and many well-preserved buildings, the “Heart of Montana” also has an impressive walking and biking trail through town. Visitors can experience the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, a 56-mile, round-trip train ride while enjoying a prime rib dinner. Autumn visitors can enjoy the Chokecherry Festival every September and a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities are waiting year-round.
Settled by early homesteaders, Shelby is now better known for its agricultural and oil trade. The wildlife-rich Sweetgrass Hills, sacred to nearby Native American tribes, are an ever-present view from Shelby. The town is home to the Marias Museum of History and Art, which features special-interest exhibits including Native American artifacts, dinosaur fossils and railroad industry artifacts. Curated room displays allow visitors to step into the shoes of historical figures, experiencing life as it was in the days of the Wild West. The Frontier Bar & Supper Club east of town is a local favorite for its blackened prime rib. Run or walk along the five-mile Road Runner Recreational Trail and top that off with a ride on Shelby’s indoor carousel. Drive just north of town and camp at Lake Shel-oole, the perfect base for an adventurous outdoor weekend.
The town of Choteau,nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountain Front, is perhaps best-known for its paleontological significance. The region was once a dinosaur breeding ground, and paleontologists have made significant finds in the plains and hills surrounding the town. Egg Mountain, which has produced more information about the Cretaceous period than any other dig in the world, is a mere 12 miles west of Choteau. Cyclists can tackle the 23.6-mile scenic ride from Choteau to nearby Augusta, and golfers will find a beautiful course at the Choteau Country Club. Stop by quaint retail stores, Mountain Front Grocery for local produce—and be sure to save enough time to decide on what kind of homemade pie you’d like at The Log Cabin restaurant.
Located in north-central Montana not far from the Canadian border, Havre rests just off Highway 2, near the scenic Milk River and surrounded by craggy mountains. This small agricultural community draws history buffs to Wahkpa Chu’gn, home to the Native American Buffalo Jump Archeological Site. There you’ll learn about the culture and practices of the people who made the area home for more than two millennia. Drop by
Fort Assinniboine, which was the largest military post in the state when it was built in 1879. It remained active until 1911, and it’s now home to the Northern Agricultural Research Center. Tours are available throughout the summer to learn more about the fort and the state’s frontier heritage. Visit the High Line Heritage House Museum for another view of the area’s rich frontier history. After a busy day recreating, those in the know head to Triple Dog Brewing for a local beer or Vine 19 for a glass of wine.
7. Fort Benton
Known as the “Birthplace of Montana,” Fort Benton is one of the oldest settlements in Montana. Beginning in 1860, steamboats powered their way up the Missouri River from St. Louis, supporting settlers, fur traders, and other up-and-coming enterprises. Today, Fort Benton is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Visitors can stroll along the steamboat levee, delve into historic downtown, and immerse themselves in the region’s history at four museums. Fort Benton is the gateway to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, which offers stellar canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and fishing opportunities. Fort Benton’s annual Summer Celebration commemorates the area’s wealth of history and the importance it played in the settling of Montana. Stop in to the Banque Club, a local bar and restaurant housed in a former bank, and live a bit of that history.
Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Central Montana.
Featured image provided by Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development