Montana in the fall is one of the prettiest places on earth. I had the privilege of visiting Great Falls during this year’s peak color. The night before this day trip in Great Falls, we flew in and a snowstorm was blowing off the mountain. We landed in heavy snow and by the time I finished my walkaround, there was already one-quarter inch built up on the wings. After leaving the plane, we walked through the terminal and met our now-frigid van driver to pick us up. He took us on the short drive to our hotel next to the Missouri River and across from downtown.From Mermaids to Mountains, Great Falls has it all Click To Tweet
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My Day Trip In Great Falls
Hotel in Great Falls, MT
Our layovers are at the Staybridge Suites, one of my favorite hotel chains. The rooms have a large living area with a kitchenette that has a full refrigerator, microwave, and they always have a great pool and workout rooms. This hotel is located next to the trail system, across from downtown, and has several restaurants within walking distance.
Great Falls Restaurants
Part of your day trip in Great Falls should include a great restaurant. There are a surprising number of cool restaurants and fun places to hang out. I was pleasantly surprised by the cities options. Right in our own parking lot is a microbrewery and barbeque restaurant called Big Mouth BBQ. There is also the Kobe Seafood and Steak restaurant next to it. If you just want a quick meal from a chain, Buffalo Wild Wings and a KFC are within a short walk as well.
Notable: At the end of your Great Fall day trip, If you are looking for more of a party atmosphere, go to the Cowboy Bar and Museum. We walked in for about five minutes and it was young, loud, and full of people singing a lot of country karaoke. On one wall was a display of tons of old cowboy guns and other collectibles. The reason we ended up stopping in was that we were so late the other restaurants were closed and the Cowboy Bar sold frozen pizzas … plus the mermaids were too far to walk to in this cold.
Downtown Great Falls
You can’t miss downtown on your day trip to Great Falls. Historically, Downtown Great Falls was built in the late 1800’s around a planned hydroelectric power plant. Today, the downtown area has many old buildings, shops, and walkable streets worth spending some time exploring. But it is most famous for the Sip and Dip Lounge, a retro tiki bar with swimming mermaids, and on Tuesday, mermen … so don’t screw that up. Walk the historic downtown area to 1st Avenue and 7th Street, slide into the O’Hare Motor Inn and head upstairs to the Sip and Dip Lounge where you can Listen to Piano Pat hammer the ivory while sipping your favorite tiki drink as the mermaids swim behind the bar.
River Edge Trail in Great Falls, MT
As with most western cities, there is a large focus on the outdoors. This is completely understandable when you see the beauty of the wild west in person. The River Edge Trail winds throughout the Missouri River through Great Falls and stretches 60 miles in total connecting five hydroelectric dams, downtown Great Falls, and many parks and recreational sites. The project boasts 18 public art pieces along the trail and through the city as it showcases the natural beauty of the Great Falls area to tourists and citizens alike. The Rivers Edge Trail Foundation has supported this project with private donations and public grants since 1989.
No day trip in Great Falls can skip the trail system. From the back door of our hotel, I skipped over a single set of railroad tracks to the River Edge Trail. This picture was taken right behind our hotel and makes a great walk or jog but for the more adventurous, I recommend going down to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Giant Springs State Park areas of the trail system. Or, go visit one of the five major dams on the river here.
Later on in the day, I took an Uber down past this calm area of the river between the interpretive center and the state park. I was cruising down this trail and to my surprise stumbled upon a really neat fishing pier. While I was walking, the Missouri River was flowing to my left. It was full of birds and other wildlife and the poplars were bright yellows.
Suddenly a pond appeared on the right with several metal piers reaching into it. I spoke to one of the many fishermen and he explained they were catching walleye and rainbow trout today. I love to fish and I am adding this to my next day trip in Great Falls.
Just passed the fishing pond was a nesting area for cliff sparrows. You can see the nests attached to the sides of the cliff below. You will find a lot of very tourist friendly signage and activities through the whole trail system. The town is very well organized and it was a joy to go exploring. It seemed like I had an opportunity to see something new or learn about Great Falls with every turn.
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
One of the most popular stops for a day trip in Great Falls must be the Lewis and Clark Interpretive center. Relive part of the Lewis and Clark expedition by visiting the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Take center stage of your own self-guided tour of the center, or sit back and relax while you watch the half-hour long documentary in the lower level theater. Either way, you will enjoy a rich part of American history and get a sense of the adventure that Lewis and Clark must have felt traveling through this area. It was on June 13, 1805 that Lewis and Clark stood on the far shoreline and discovered the “Great Falls” of the Missouri River. But, make sure you watch the whole movie. You will learn that it wasn’t just adventure they felt when they realized the hopes for a Northwest water passage would be impossible.
When your fill of the interpretive center indoors, go outside to enjoy the scenic trails embedded among the bluffs of the Missouri River. It will give you a sense of how difficult the expedition’s portage around these five falls, which stretch over 12 miles, would have been.
I took some time wandering the now-paved trails and took in all the fresh air and beautiful scenery I could. After a short time, you will see all that the center has outdoors, but you can still stroll a bit downriver from the interpretive center and visit the Giant Springs State Park.
Before you do, make sure to get all the way down to the river from the interpretive center. During the summers, the center has an area set up as a place to camp where you can practice all the things you learned about Lewis and Clarks campsites inside. It is located in the middle of a wooded area by the river and the colors of the trees were spectacular.
The River Edge Trail also ran through the campsite, and from there you could see the backside of the interpretive center.
Giant Springs State Park
As my day trip in Great Falls adventure continued, I visited the Giant Springs State Park. I didn’t understand what was happening at this park when I arrived. I had been walking around and after leaving the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to the East, the path had a sign identifying the rest of the trail as a state park.
Instead of just walking straight ahead, I cut up a footpath through the woods toward where I thought there should be a pay booth. My effort was rewarded with the discovery of a beautiful stream hidden in a thicket.
Above this bridge, the prairie dominated the stream and in even just a few short yards, the feel for this place changed greatly. Look at the stream from the bridge looking up.
I continued on this path for a short time and came to a picnic area of the state park. It was full of beautiful open spaces and colorful trees.
I arrived at the far end of this area to discover the pay box and admission area. I mentioned I didn’t understand what I was doing when I was there, right? Well, I knew this park was pretty, but I didn’t get what I was seeing at the time and I have a whole new respect for it after talking to my uber driver and writing this post.
You see, when I arrived, I walked right back to the river which I had already been hiking along for the last couple of hours totally oblivious of the geology of the park. It appeared that someone built a fountain and made a small waterfall. The park was very beautiful and I enjoyed my time there. These cool ducks and rainbow trout just sitting in the river below me was just part of the fun.
What I had missed was the confluence of one of the longest, and one of the shortest rivers in the nation. The Missouri River is one of the largest rivers in the country at over 2,500 miles long, and what I was looking at was not a fountain, but a natural spring that was the headwaters of the Roe River, chiming in at a gigantic 201 feet long.
Here’s the headwater of the Roe River. According to my Uber driver the water flowing out of this spring took 50 years to travel from the nearby mountains before bubbling up here.
Turning around, you can see the rest of the mighty Roe River as it finds its way to the Missouri. All silliness aside, I actually walked the entire river while I was here. To the right in the picture below you can see the edge of a fish hatchery. If you have more time than I did, it might be worth checking out more about this hatchery and the outdoorsmand club next to the park.
The setting was absolutely breathtaking and I wish I would have known what I was looking at while I was here. But at least you can look at this next picture and understand a little more than I did the first time I saw it.
Back to the Rivers Edge Trail
After leaving the state park, I was back on my hunt to find one of the massive waterfalls that made this location famous so long ago. There is some private property downriver of the park and you have to hike back inland a bit to continue but exploring here never gets old. It seems that around every piece of land here has something new to see or the landscape takes on a whole new feel.
I made it far enough to see where the river was going but not knowing exactly where I was the time on our limited day trips was catching up with me and I felt the responsibility of work calling. I decided to turn back and make progress toward my hotel. But just on the other side of this prairie was the Rainbow Falls. I simply ran out of time this layover. Part of the fun of layovers is figuring out what to see and do in our limited time and like all layovers, this one was done but not before I got one last good look at the river from a path along the top of the ridge heading back to my ride.
My day trip in Great Falls has more to explore. At least I had my zoom lense and could get this view of one of the elusive waterfalls.
The Great Falls Buffalo Hunt
As you poke around the city on your day trip in Great Falls, it is impossible to miss the art installed throughout the city. One of the most visible projects throughout the city is the Great Buffalo Hunt. Forty buffalo were created in 2005 and painted by local artists. The projects were auctioned off as a way to supporting the CM Russell Museum, a Western art gallery in downtown. Can you find all 40 on your visit?
This buffalo lives in the lobby of the Lewis and Clark interpretive center. Others are hiding outdoors, in lobbies or at displays. Can you find all 40 on your visit?
Other Day Trips You May Enjoy
Fun Towns for Day Trips and Layovers:
- Greenville, South Carolina
- Amarillo, Texas
- Allentown, Pennsylvania
- Portland, Maine
- Charleston, West Virginia
- Vancouver, British Columbia