Thirty-six miles north of Great Falls on Mont. 87, you can drop down to the historic town of Fort Benton. The town faces the Missouri River, which formed its destiny. There is a pleasant waterfront park with an interesting series of murals detailing the town's history.
The Lewis and Clark expedition made a critical decision a short distance downstream from Fort Benton, where the Marias River enters the Missouri. The expedition was divided on which was the main branch of the Missouri. The vote was 30-to-2 for the Marias being the main branch. The two who went for the other branch were Lewis and Clark. Had they chosen the Marias branch, there is a good chance that the expedition would have failed, because they would not have been able to get over the Rockies before winter. A statue of the explorers at this decisive point dominates one end of Front Street in Fort Benton. A small visitor center at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office on Front Street offers some information about this event.
Next to the Lewis and Clark statue is the Keelboat Mandan, a full-scale replica 62 feet long and 13 feet wide built for the movie The Big Sky. In the heyday of keelboating, broad-shouldered men could push a boat upstream at a pace of about 2 miles a day. There is also a monument on the riverfront to Shep, a dog whose master died and was sent East by train for burial. After that, Shep met every train in Fort Benton from 1936 until 1942, waiting for his master's return, until -- hard of hearing and arthritic -- the old dog met his end one wintry morning on the tracks.
The first steamboat reached Fort Benton in 1850, and 600 of them stopped here from 1859 to 1870. Furs, goods, and gold were all shipped through the town. The Museum of the Northern Great Plains, 1205 20th St. (tel. 406/622-5316; www.fortbenton.com/museums), tells the story of settlement. There is a vast collection of farming equipment here, testifying to the fortitude and ingenuity of the settlers on the Great Plains. The Museum of the Upper Missouri, at Old Fort Park and Front Street (tel. 406/622-5316; www.fortbenton.com/museums), has an excellent historical collection, including the rifle that Nez Perce Chief Joseph surrendered at the Bear Paw battle, and the history and personality of Fort Benton as expressed by the artist Charles Russell, the preacher Brother Van, and the infamous "Madame Mustache," the woman who reputedly introduced Calamity Jane to prostitution. Both museums are open late May to late September Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm and Sunday noon to 4pm. Adult admission is $5 for one museum or $10 for both (which includes access to three other attractions in town), and kids 12 and under are $1.
The BLM manages 149 miles of the Missouri here as a federally designated Wild and Scenic River, and canoeing and keelboating are both good ways to take in the landscape. Contact the Fort Benton Chamber of Commerce (tel. 406/622-3864; www.fortbenton.com) for a list of river outfitters.
For lodging, you can't beat the Grand Union Hotel, 1 Grand Union Sq. (P.O. Box 1119), Fort Benton, MT 59442 (tel. 888/838-1882 or 406/622-1882; www.grandunionhotel.com), right on the river. Built in 1882 at a cost of $50,000, it was completely restored to its original splendor in 1999. Said to be Montana's oldest operating hotel, the Grand Union has 26 luxurious guest rooms in a range of sizes (with modern conveniences: phones, free Wi-Fi, and TVs), a top-notch restaurant in the Union Grille (dinner entrees, such as roasted chicken and grilled beef tenderloin, are $19-$30), and a pub. The three suites are largest. During the high summer season, rates start at $115 for a double and go up to $190 for the suites; rates include a deluxe European breakfast.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.