Taking its name from the city it surrounds—Helena, MT, the state capital—the Helena National Forest covers 976,000 acres of land that straddles the Continental Divide. Mountain ranges appear in and around this forest though no peaks inside it reach higher than 10,000 feet. The unusually low peaks in the area are one reason the Lewis and Clark expedition chose to cross the Continental Divide here. That expedition spent months in this region, establishing that no navigable water access crossed the continent. Inside this forest, there is a Wilderness Area—The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area—and a Wildlife Management Unit in the Elkhorn Mountains. Though there were attempts to develop this forest in the early years by ranchers and miners, most of the land sits just as the Lewis and Clark Expedition members found it.
The Sauerkraut Wall Trail is a level pathway that wanders beneath aspens, ponderosa, lodgepole pine, and Douglas fir trees. Intermittent meadows break up the trip as you follow the path past old mining excavations. In the spring and summer months, wildflowers line the route.
Length: 1.7 miles
The Crow Creek Falls Trail is an in-and-out pathway that leads hikers along Crow Creek to a scenic waterfall. Though the path goes up in elevation by over 800 feet along its course, the entire trip is between 5,000 to 6,000 feet in elevation. At the waterfall, guests see equipment left from when miners redirected the water to create a sluice. Recently reconstructed to its original form, the waterfall serves as an excellent background for personal photos.
Length: 5.9 miles
The Arrastra Creek Trail climbs over 1,200 feet along a narrow valley that follows the Arrastra Creek into the Montana backcountry. It is a point-to-point trail that runs at elevations over 5,500 feet. Most of the pathway is hidden beneath a dense cover of coniferous trees, with an occasional meadow providing a moment of sunshine. During spring and summer, this path is alive with wildflowers.
Length: 8.1 miles
The Heart Lake Trail is a point-to-point pathway that remains relatively level as it passes beneath aspen and pine to picturesque Heart Lake. The path wanders beneath fir and pine with breaks where bare rock gives hikers a firm perch to peer into the valleys below.
Length: 2.6 miles
The Lewis and Clark Pass Trail does not take you over the Continental Divide; it takes you to the break beneath the mountain pass that Meriwether Lewis crossed on his return trip from the Pacific Coast. The short path begins as an easy trail that gradually climbs the slope of a hill. At the final stage, where the climb is sometimes vertical, you see the massive effort required to carry packs of food, guns, ammunition, and recording devices that hampered the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Length: 1.7 miles
Angling is a significant draw bringing visitors to Helena National Forest, especially from nearby communities. The upper reaches of the Missouri River flowing in this forest is dammed, creating immense reservoirs where fishing is excellent. Angling for trout along the many streams inside the forest is also popular. In addition, there are several highland lakes, left purposely unpublished, where the elusive brook trout feeds to the angler's joy.
While geocaching is welcomed in most of the Helena National Forest, it is not allowed in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area or the Wildlife Management Unit in the Elkhorn Mountains. Make sure to check your locations against maps available at the forest's visitor centers before engaging in this game.
The wildlife in Helena National Forest holds dominance in this area. When you encounter wildlife, back off, especially when it is a grizzly or black bear. Other predators include wolves, bobcats, wolverines, mountain lions, and Canadian lynx. Small populations of bighorn sheep and mountain goats are protected, while elk, mule deer, and white-tail deer are being successfully reintroduced.
Much of the Helena National Forest occupies lands above 5,000 feet in elevation, and communities are distant from most locations inside the forest. The resulting night sky is a beacon to stargazers. Seeing the night sky, visitors begin to understand why early civilizations found so much fascination with constellations.
Address: 2808 Skyway Drive, Helena, MT 59602
Fee: Entry fee $0
Highways bisect Helena National Forest with signed junctions leading to isolated locations accessible by road. An RV can travel those roads, getting you closer to your destination while providing a comfortable facility to return to after a day of adventure. Local anglers and hikers use RVs for overnight stays, and other visitors will also appreciate the convenience of using an RV during a lengthy visit.