HELENA, Mont. - Montana's capital is perfectly positioned as a halfway point between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, but visitors often decide to extend their stopovers once they get a feel for the city's burgeoning art scene and its accessible hiking, biking and skiing trails.
Helena is a city built on gold. It was founded in 1864 when four miners who had been searching unsuccessfully for the precious metal decided this spot on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains would be their "last chance." They struck gold, and Last Chance Gulch became the main street of the city that by the late 1800s boasted more millionaires per capita than any other in the world.
That history of wealth can still be seen in the ornate homes of the Mansion District, the state Capitol and the gothic Cathedral of St. Helena, but you don't have to be a millionaire to enjoy what this city has to offer.
Here are five free things to do in Helena.
THE HELENA RIDGE TRAIL
A free shuttle wends its way up Grizzly Gulch south of town and drops hikers and bicyclists off at the trailhead of this National Recreation Trail. After an initial ascent up a set of switchbacks, it's a pleasant 6-mile stroll or ride through the Helena National Forest along the well-marked trail back to town. The trail provides stunning views of forested mountains and the Prickly Pear Valley, but the payoff comes at the end at the summit of Mount Helena. The 5,400-foot peak gives visitors a bird's-eye view of the city laid out below.
Hundreds of otherworldly sculptures are hidden amid the ruins and overgrown fields of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts just outside of the city. A self-guided walking tour of its 26 acres shows the renowned center isn't just about making homemade vases. Each corner turned reveals another surreal offering from its former residents. The Bray was created in 1951 by brick marker Archie Bray to stimulate creative work in ceramics. It offers very competitive artist residencies, and a visitor who hangs out long enough outside the studios may get an invitation to check out the works in progress.
THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE
The MacDonald Pass cross-country ski area offers more than 10 miles of trails in the backcountry of the Continental Divide 15 miles west of town. In other seasons, hikers can wander the trails around the pass and link up with the Continental Divide Trail, but on winter weekends, residents flock to the pass, with practiced skiers gracefully dodging families out for their first try on the classic ski tracks. Come early or on a weekday, and a visitor will find peaceful silence skiing among the ponderosa and lodge pole pine trees.
There is something for everyone on these interconnected trails, from the relatively flat 3-mile Old Cabin loop to the more harrowing Meadows Loop with its steep, sharp turns. Most of the trails are groomed by the Last Chance Nordic Ski Club, and it asks that visitors either leave their pets behind or take them to the other side of U.S. Highway 12 for a romp in the snow on the pass.
FREE OUTDOOR CONCERTS
Residents stake out their spots early for the annual Symphony Under the Stars on the Carroll College lawn with blankets weighed down by canned goods that will later be donated to the Helena Food Share. By the time the 75-piece Helena Symphony strikes up its first overture, some 12,000 people are sipping wine, sampling from the food trucks or rolling with their children down the steep grassy slope of the lawn. The free concert is being held this year on July 20, when the sun doesn't set until after 9 p.m. The music is capped with a fireworks show. Other free summertime concerts downtown include Alive at 5 every Wednesday evening and Out to Lunch every Thursday at 11:30 a.m. in the Great Northern Town Center.
For a schedule, see downtownhelena.com
THE FARMERS MARKET
Buskers on violin and guitar provide the soundtrack for the place to see and be seen in Helena on Saturday mornings. It's a slow-moving procession down the three blocks of the farmers market as neighbors stop to chat, dogs romp and kids dart around the grown-ups' legs chasing one another. Lining the street on either side are vendors selling their locally grown produce and meat, along with local artisans selling everything from bath soap to birdhouses. Treats include the giant bags of kettle corn and Flathead cherries that come later in the summer - but you'll have to open your wallet to sample those.