Step onto bison hunting grounds, follow in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps and more in ‘The Electric City’ – Great Falls

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For a genuine trip back through time, pay a visit to Great Falls, Montana.

More than 210 years ago, the explorers Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark first laid eyes on the beauty that is Great Falls. They traversed more miles of land in the state of Montana than any other in the U.S. It was in Montana that they first saw snow in the summer, and the natural beauty continued to fascinate them, as evidenced by a journal entry written by Lewis:

“The hills and river Clifts [sic] which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to a height of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of a remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water…the earth on the top of these Clifts [sic] is a dark rich loam, which forming a gradually ascending plain extends back from 1/2 a mile to a mile where the hills commence and rise abruptly to a hight [sic] of about 300 feet more.”

You and your family can re-create the thrill of their journey at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. The center affords gorgeous views of the Missouri River thanks to its perch on a bluff. Visitors can enjoy videos in its theater, hands-on exhibits and interpretative programs with a park ranger. Or explore the trails on your own (kind of like Lewis and Clark, except that you can grab a souvenir at the Portage Cache store afterward).

To get a remarkably accurate picture of what Lewis and Clark saw more than two centuries ago, venture out into the largely unspoiled Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, less than an hour outside of Great Falls. Stretching some 140 miles, the designated Wild and Scenic River corridor is home to elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, wolves, bears and more. On and along the river you can float, fish, camp and hike. A number of local outfitters can also take you on a three- to seven-day guided river excursion. (There are time and location restrictions on motorized boating.)

Wild and Scenic Missouri River, Great Falls, Montana
Wild and Scenic Missouri River, Great Falls, Montana

For hundreds of years, Native Americans hunted bison by driving them over cliffs. An example of this type of hunting grounds can be found at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park – one of the largest buffalo jump sites in the country. Remnants of the drive line are still evident on top of the cliff. Be sure to stop by the on-site visitor center for an educational presentation, story-telling circle, culture exhibits and bookstore. The park also offers picnic areas and an interpretive trail.

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park

Approximately 80 years after Lewis and Clark passed through the area, Great Falls was established by Paris Gibson – an entrepreneur and future politician – and James Hill – a railroad magnate. The pair founded Great Falls as a “power city,” harnessing the force of the falls through the construction of the Black Eagle Dam and earning the city its nickname: The Electric City. For more town history, stop by The History Museum in downtown Great Falls.

Great Falls played a vital role in WWII, thanks to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which was established in 1942. Through 1945, equipment and supplies were flown to Fairbanks, Alaska, from Great Falls on their way to the Soviet Union. Still an active base, its Malmstrom Museum and Air Park displays historic aircraft and ground transportation.

C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana
C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana

Since its founding, an Olympian, two Pulitzer-prize-winning authors, politicians, actors and artists, have all called Great Falls home. One of its most famous homegrown talents was Charles Marion Russell – or C.M. Russell. Russell was a cowboy, writer and, most famously, prolific artist. His more than 4,000 works of art and memorabilia tell the story of the American West in all its rugged glory. The city’s C.M. Russell Museum was founded to preserve and celebrate his legacy in the art world.

Find out why Great Falls is the gateway to Genuine Montana. Plan your trip at genuinemontana.com.