Montana has so many classic Old West historic towns that it’s hard to choose what to see. Red Lodge and Helena were on our route and they turned out to be great towns to visit and explore. These are two great examples of historic western towns that are worth your time to visit.
I hold a special place in my memories for Red Lodge. In 1993, when I was a junior at Penn State, we had an 8-week geology field camp out west. For 2 weeks, we stayed at the Yellowstone-Bighorn Research Association Geology Field Station at the edge of Red Lodge. It wasn’t as quaint as it is now, but I remember it as a very utilitarian town, it had what you needed, but there was nothing it didn’t have to have. As college students, we were happy it just had a laundromat and a grocery store (that sold beer).
The area around Red Lodge was originally deeded (1851) to the Crow Nation until coal (1866) and gold (1870) were discovered in the area. Once these were discovered, the government renegotiated with the Crow (1880) and the area around Red Lodge was able to be settled to exploit the resources.
In summer, Red Lodge more than doubles its population of about 2,000 simply due to tourists coming to explore the Beartooth Mountains and ride the Beartooth Highway (completed in 1936) over to Yellowstone National Park. In winter, there are dozens of snow related activities in the area from snowmobiling to cross country skiing, sledding to downhill skiing.
During our visit, we saw so many great old west buildings, from mining to milling, general stores to mercantile shops, we felt transported to another time. Many other more modern stores are also along the main road, from cafes and coffee shops, wine bars to metal fabricators, to antique stores and restaurants, you’ll have everything you need for a great visit. There are some economical and luxury accommodations to fit every budget. A walk down Broadway is a like a walk back in time.
MT 78 A Road for Riders
On the way out of Red Lodge, we took a beautifully scenic road to the highway. Between Red Lodge and Columbus State Route 78 is 45 miles of beautifully paved, winding road through farm country. With sweeping turns and sweeping views, it’s a must do when traveling through the region. Amazing ranches and farms dot the landscape with horse and cattle grazing, old tractors, huge distant barns and lodges. The sky is as big as it gets in Big Sky Country, with southerly views of the Beartooth and Absaroka Ranges. It’ll take your breath away.
Helena was a city we didn’t expect to be as charming and historic as it was. Founded as a gold miners camp during the Montana gold rush, the city was established in 1864. The spot that became Helena was picked for good reason as they extracted over $3,000,000,000 (today’s value) of gold from within the city limits (that’s over 60 tons!). At one time in the early 1900s, Helena was the richest city in the world, per capita. Oh, and one thing we did not expect…Helena has a stunning cathedral that looks as if it’s been plucked from a grand city in Europe.
The “downtown” is a nice walkable area with lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. The main drag is Last Chance Gulch, the main location where most of the gold was found. An interesting note is that many of the roads in Helena were leveled and graded using the tailings piles from the mines. Since not every piece of gold was recovered during mining, the tailings had gold in them. That means that the roads in Helena are literally paved with gold!
About 3 blocks worth of Last Chance Gulch is a pedestrian only street with shops and such all along it. At the north end is a cool recreation of miners sluicing gold from Last Chance Gulch, a tip of the hat to the old days and the very reason Helena exists today. The main drag is lined with historical buildings with the architecture of the Old West. It’s pretty fun to walk around and check out the Old West offerings in the stores, certainly with a bent toward mining. We found a great lunch spot to feed our appetites after exploring, right on the main pedestrian way. Taco del Sol makes great burritos, like the ones we’re used to in San Diego. Packed with great stuff including avocado, fresh cheeses and amazing salsas, we felt like we were at home.
The Cathedral of Helena seems quite out of place in the old west of Montana. The cathedral looks like it was transported from one of the great cities of Europe and dropped in place here by mistake. But it’s no mistake, the cathedral was designed by architect A.O. von Herbulis to mimic the Votivkirche of Vienna, Austria; most of the approximately 59 stained glass windows were made by a Munich, Germany based company. The windows were some of the finest they had ever made. Construction of the cathedral started in 1908 and the first Catholic mass was held in 1914. The construction was finally completed in 1924 and the cathedral was consecrated. The total cost was $645,000, a pretty large sum at the time.