Montana’s Capitol: Helena


Helena was just one of three western Montana cities on my itinerary during Day 6, so I’m afraid I only had time to check out a few of its attractions.  There are two places you should definitely stop: Downtown Helena–specifically “Last Chance Gulch”–and the Montana State Capitol Building.


 Helena, Montana is located at the intersection of US Hwy. 12 and Interstate 15.  I-15 runs along the eastern side of town, while US 12 slices right through the middle.  If you’re entering from the west (from Missoula) follow Business 12, and watch for Last Chance Gulch (AKA Main St.) on your right.

My Visit

If it wasn’t for Last Chance Gulch, there’s a pretty good chance that Helena wouldn’t exist.  It was here in 1864, that four gold prospectors made a last-ditch effort to find the precious metal, before giving up, and heading home to Georgia.  Not only was it their last chance, it was the last chance they needed.  When they found gold, they started a massive rush of prospectors into the area.  Over the next 20 years or so, the gulch produced about $3.5 billion dollars of gold.

Nowadays, Last Chance Gulch is the center of activity in Helena, providing a nice mixture of wild west town and modern tourist attraction.

Everything you’d expect to find is here–stores, restaurants, and bars.  At the southern end of Last Chance Gulch, the road turns into a pedestrian mall.

The area surrounding Last Chance Gulch has the feel of a modern city, with a few exceptions like this old hotel sign, hanging from the side of an obviously old building.  I must admit that I found Butte more appealing, just because it has so many old buildings that retain a trapped-in-the-past feel.

Walk out of the gulch in either direction, and you’re headed uphill.  It’s worth a detour to  check out the spectacular St. Helena Cathedral, which overlooks Last Chance Gulch.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an angle that wasn’t partially obscured by trees.  But then again, I had just walked up the steep slope from the gulch, and I guess I was in no mood to climb any further.

Helena is not only the capitol of the state, it’s also the county seat of Lewis and Clark County–which I believe is the only county in the U.S. to be named after two people.

Capitol Building

The Montana State Capitol building is located a couple of miles from downtown, oddly enough, in the middle of a residential section.  Find 6th Avenue and head east from downtown.  You’ll pass block after block of houses, then suddenly, a huge capitol building appears!  If you’re coming from the interstate, use the Prospect Ave. exit, head west, then turn south on Montana Ave.

Montana has one of the most beautiful capitol buildings I’ve seen, either from the outside…

There’s a new design in the 6th Avenue flowerbed every year.  It’s hard to tell from this angle, but the 2006 design was shaped like the state.

… or the inside.  You’ll find lots of brightly colored stained glass, and murals painted on the walls.  This is the Grand Stairway, and above it is a painting donated to the capitol building in 1903, depicting the golden spike-driving ceremony.

The door to the Senate chamber was locked, unfortunately, but for the most part, you’re free to roam around and check out the building.

This window looks out the front of the capitol building, onto block after block of residential homes.

Helena was selected as the capitol of the Montana territory in 1875 (prior to that, Virginia City was the capitol).  Helena won out over Anaconda (near Butte) to be the state capitol in 1894.  Construction began on the current capitol building in 1899, and the final building was dedicated three years later, in 1902.

Once you’re finished exploring Helena, hop on I-15 south and head to Butte.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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