Helena today is a much different town than it was 100 years ago, obviously. Yet, the smaller size of Helena, coupled with a very nice job of restoring the Last Chance Gulch area, makes Helena a very unique capitol city – and one that is well worth seeing.
However, as a word of warning to new arrivals, simply getting around Helena can be a rather confusing task. While Helena is fairly easy to figure out once you’ve been there for a bit due to its smaller size, for new people, Helena can be a confusing mosaic of roads that take off in all sorts of odd angles and directions. I highly recommend stopping by a gas station in town and purchasing a map of Helena. Doing so will save many frustrating moments when venturing around town!
Essentially, Helena has three parts to it today. The first part, what I call the newer shopping area, is, not surprisingly, located around the Interstate highway – and is also the largest part of the town. The second part of Helena consists of the Capitol Building and related state government offices. This part of town is located up on the lower elevations of the small hill that rises to the west of town. While the capitol building is fairly easy to spot if you know where to look, it’s easily missed if you don’t venture away from the shopping area part of town. The third part of Helena today consists of the downtown, which is located in Last Chance Gulch. The downtown of Helena, which has been very nicely restored, sits in a very beautiful setting and is well worth seeing.
Unfortunately, getting to see the Last Chance Gulch area (downtown Helena), though, is a small battle in and of itself. Since downtown Helena lies hidden in a canyon (Last Chance Gulch), you really can’t see downtown from anyplace except from the top of Mt. Helena. While many signs point the way towards Last Chance Gulch from other parts of town, if you miss the signs, you’ll likely never find the downtown since you don’t “drive through” the downtown. Instead, the canyon that downtown Helena is located in resembles a box canyon – with about 6 major roads leading into it from various confusing angles but with only 1 road (a small, narrow, twisty road that leads into the Helena National Forest) leading out of it.
Thus, what I’m saying is that if you want to see downtown Helena (and it is well worth seeing), you need to make some effort to see it. Downtown Helena lays quite a bit away from both the main shopping areas and the Interstate highway. And while it is fairly close to the capitol building, in order to get to the downtown from the capitol building requires some driving on smaller, less than obvious roads that go through residential areas.
Yet, assuming you can figure out how to get there, downtown Helena is well worth taking the time to explore. Today, downtown Helena consists of numerous nicely restored buildings and, much to my surprise, a pedestrian mall that cuts right up through the middle of town. The pedestrian mall, called the Last Chance Gulch Mall, is flanked by historic buildings that are home to specialized shops, restaurants, nightclubs and offices. This pedestrian mall also contains a rather bizarre collection of bear statutes; all dressed up in some of the strangest paint combinations found anywhere.
For someone new to Helena, though, it’s easy to miss this pedestrian mall. To find it, make a point of driving up the road called Last Chance Gulch. Where the road ends, the pedestrian mall begins, so just find a place to park (less than easy in Helena, admittedly) and start walking. The best place to park to see the downtown (much of the parking is reserved parking during the day) is on the SW end of either Cruise Avenue or Park Avenue, in case you’re wondering.
While you’re visiting downtown Helena, another neat place to see is the historic fire tower. This historic fire kept watch over town for many years, looking for forest fires that were frequent up in the nearby mountains. The fire tower is easy to find from downtown Helena – it sits up on top of the canyon hill to the SE of the downtown area. By taking the short walk up to the fire tower from downtown, you can also get a nice view of Helena and the downtown historic district.
And, if you’re really into views of Helena, make a point of driving up to the Mt. Helena City Park. Mt. Helena is the small mountain that rises just outside of town. The city turned much of this mountain into a protected park. Going up to the park and then taking the one minute hike up to the knob by the parking area provides excellent views of all of Helena, including the broad, expansive valley that lies to the east of town. It’s an easy drive up to the park, if you can find the sign that points the way off of Park Avenue (drive past the downtown area – heading SW – and you will see the sign. You know you went too far if the road you are on cuts into a deep canyon!).
The state capitol buildings are also, of course, well worth seeing. The building and the surrounding law area is very attractive and well maintained, although at the time of my last visit the front stairs to the building were falling apart. Tours are available of the state capitol as well. Now, if only I could figure out why they built this ungodly ugly building right next door to the capitol building – eating up much of the lawn on the south side of the capitol, not to mention being an eyesore.
For those of you into shopping, Helena does have a small mall. The malls, as well as the other shopping centers in town, are located in the vicinity of the Interstate highway. This area also plays host to most of the hotels and motels in Helena as well (see our listings of Helena Hotels and Motels).
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