Just beyond the city limits, the area is chock-full of recreational opportunities, with blue-ribbon trout streams, downhill ski areas, and millions of acres of public land.
There are several stretches of prime fishing along the upper stretch of the Missouri River. The section from Toston Dam downstream to Canyon Ferry Lake offers brown and rainbow trout in the 2- to 10-pound class. Floating with large streamers, wet flies, and lures is the most popular and productive way to catch these fish as they make their way upriver to spawn. The fishing gets progressively better from late spring to fall. The section below Hauser Dam to Beaver Creek offers a chance for really big trout. Other popular fishing areas include Park Lake 15 miles southwest of Helena, Lake Helena, and the Smith River to the east of the Big Belt Mountains.
Pro Outfitters, P.O. Box 621, Helena, MT 621 (tel. 800/858-3497 or 406/442-5489; www.prooutfitters.com), offers customized fly-fishing trips on the Smith River, considered in fishing circles one of the best in the state, and in the world. The company offers all-inclusive 3-day trips ($2,050 per person) and 5-day trips ($2,850 per person) from mid-May to mid-July, as well as day trips ($450 for one or two anglers) on the Missouri River.
Mount Helena City Park covers 628 acres on Mount Helena, a 5,468-foot peak that looks out over the city. Nine trails cover the park, the easiest of which, the 1906 Trail, follows the base of the limestone cliffs past Devil's Kitchen to the 5,468-foot summit. To reach the 1906 Trail, take W. Main south of downtown and turn right on Reeder's Village Drive. Drive up the hill to the dead end and you're at the trail head. Hogback Trail is a rough and rocky hike that leads from the peak to the exposed Hogback Ridge. Contact the Helena Convention and Visitor's Bureau for information.
There are more than 700 miles of trails in the Helena National Forest. The Trout Creek Canyon Trail offers a spectacular view of Hanging Valley. Helena is also the gateway to the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. For a serious hike in the wilderness area, you can go to Mann Gulch, the site of a forest fire in August 1949. Sixteen firefighters parachuted into Mann Gulch at about 6pm on August 5. Within 2 hours, all but three had perished. The incident is the subject of Norman Maclean's book, Young Men and Fire. You can get more information about hiking into Mann Gulch from the Helena Ranger district, with offices in Helena at 2001 Poplar St. (tel. 406/449-5490; www.fs.fed.us/r1/helena).
Helena was founded on gold mining, and the area is still rightly famous for its gemstones, particularly Montana sapphires. Sapphires, a variety of the mineral corundum, are harder than any natural stone except a diamond. The Helena area has several commercial areas that allow visitors to dig for sapphires. Diligent treasure seekers can also uncover garnets, moss agates, fossils, and hematite. The Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine & Gold Fever Rock Shop, 5360 Castles Rd. (tel. 406/227-8989; www.sapphiremine.com), south of Hauser Lake lets groups dig buckets for $60. The record sapphire taken from here was 155 carats.
Three major trail systems are within a 30-minute drive of Helena. The Minnehaha-Rimini area grooms 120 miles of trails, and the Marysville and Magpie-Sunshine areas, with views into the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, each groom 45 miles of trails. For details on these trails, as well as special event information, contact the Helena Snowdrifters Snowmobile Club (www.helenasnowdrifters.org).
Canyon Ferry Lake Recreation Area, managed by the Bureau of Reclamation (tel. 406/475-3921), is a 25-mile-long lake within 20 minutes of Helena. In the spring, summer, and fall, the lake is primarily a rainbow trout fishery, but it does have numerous campgrounds, picnic areas, and boat ramps. The lake is especially popular with water-skiers, jet-skiers, and water-tubers, though you'll see sailboats racing as well. This is also a prime bird-watching area.
Watersports fans also head to two Helena-area state parks that are centered on man-made lakes: Spring Meadow Lake (day use only) and Black Sandy at Hauser Reservoir (campsites are $13-$15). Spring Meadow is a 30-acre, spring-fed lake on Helena's western edge, noted for its clarity and depth. Open to nonmotorized boats only, the lake is popular for swimming and fishing. To reach Spring Meadow Lake, take U.S. 12 west, then head north on Joslyn to Country Club. One of the only public parks on the shores of Hauser Reservoir, Black Sandy is an extremely popular weekend boating, fishing, and water-skiing takeoff point. To get to Hauser Reservoir, drive 7 miles north of Helena on I-15, then 4 miles east on Route 453, then follow signs 3 miles north on a county road. Information on both is available by calling the regional office (tel. 406/495-3270; http://fwp.mt.gov) and each sports a $5 per vehicle day-use fee.
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.