Montana’s capital is perfectly positioned as a halfway point between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, but visitors often decide to extend their stopovers once they get a feel for the city’s burgeoning art scene and its accessible hiking, biking and skiing trails.
Helena is a city built on gold. Its history of wealth can still be seen in the ornate homes of the Mansion District, the state Capitol and the gothic Cathedral of St. Helena, but you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy what this city has to offer.
Here are five free things to do in Helena.
• Hike or bike the Helena Ridge Trail: A free shuttle wends its way up Grizzly Gulch south of town and drops hikers and bicyclists off at the trailhead of this National Recreation Trail. After an initial ascent up a set of switchbacks, it’s a pleasant 6-mile stroll or ride through the Helena National Forest.
• Do the Bray: Hundreds of otherworldly sculptures are hidden amid the ruins and overgrown fields of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts just outside of the city. A self-guided walking tour of its 26 acres reveals surreal offerings from its former residents, from stunning archways to a towering brick pyramid to abstract sculptures a visitor will just have to figure out for herself.
• Cross-country ski (or hike) the Continental Divide: The MacDonald Pass cross-country ski area offers more than 10 miles of trails in the backcountry of the Continental Divide just 15 miles west of town. In other seasons, hikers can wander the trails around the pass and link up with the Continental Divide Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.
• Listen to free outdoor concerts: Residents stake out their spots early for the annual Symphony Under the Stars on the Carroll College lawn. By the time the 75-piece Helena Symphony strikes up its first overture, some 12,000 people are sipping wine and sampling from the food trucks. The free concert is being held this year on July 19, when the sun doesn’t set until after 9 p.m. The music is capped with a fireworks show. Other free summertime concerts downtown include Alive at 5 every Wednesday evening June 4 through Aug. 27.
• Walk the farmer’s market: Buskers on violin and guitar provide the soundtrack for the place to see and be seen in Helena on Saturday mornings. Lining the street on either side are vendors that include Hmong and Hutterite farmers selling their locally grown produce and meat, along with local artisans selling everything from bath soap to birdhouses. Special treats include the giant bags of kettle corn and Flathead cherries that come later in the summer – but you’ll have to open your wallet to sample those.