Roadtripping around Montana, the capital city of Helena came onto my radar. I’m always on the lookout for a place where an interesting hike ends up at (or close to) an interesting looking brewery and Helena definitely fills the bill. There is a nice system of trails in the mountains south of town and the Mount Helena Ridge trail drops right into the old town center where two of the four local breweries are located. Two other local breweries are in nearby neighborhoods.
Helena is more a town than a city in my definition of such things, but being the state capital, having an interesting history that has been fairly well preserved, and having a small college have produced a place that feels bigger than its population of 25,000 or so. Helena’s roots are as a mining camp in the 1860’s. it was one of the wealthiest places in the U.S. back then owing to the extraction of major gold deposits. The wealth translated into Victorian-style buildings and houses and a commercial area built on top of former mining claims in Last Chance Gulch, I was told that there is believed to still be significant gold deposits beneath the buildings in this downtown area.
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So I set out on a classic hike and followed it up with stops at the local breweries and a spin about the old town.
Mount Helena Ridge Hike
Helena has an extensive trail system in the mountainous area south of town. Much of this is aimed at mountain biker use (Helena has gotten itself designated an International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) “Ride Center”) although I saw many other hikers. A very useful convenience is a free shuttle that normally operates a couple times per day, five days per week to take bikers and hikers out to trailheads including the one I was aiming for. Bikes are put on a trailer that is pulled by the shuttle. My shuttle was full and I was the only hiker on the ride.
The Mount Helena Ridge Trail trailhead was about a six-mile trip from where I got on the shuttle in the old downtown area near both Blackfoot River and Ten Mile Creek breweries. As I exited the shuttle and started along the trail, I heard the clanking of bikes being unloaded behind me. Eventually, I stood aside on the fairly flat start as bikers came by. After the short flat, the trail started to climb rapidly on some long switchbacks. I picked my way past quite a few of those bikers on the way up before being passed again after the trail topped out on the ridgeline above. That made things much more tranquil as the traffic ceased and the hiking became tranquil.
The trail rolls up and down along the ridge in and out of forests and meadows. Hikers are afforded big, scenic panoramas before climbing onto a forested flank of Mount Helens that skirts the peak. From there, it descends rapidly through scrubby trees into the town. This hike is 7+ miles and ranges from 4,350 feet (1325 m) to 5,830 feet (1780 m) in altitude. There was a great variety of beautiful wildflowers all along the way and my camera couldn’t resist. I came out at a trailhead a few blocks from where I started and most conveniently, the Blackfoot River Brewery where a cold beer had my name on it.
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There are four interesting, small breweries in Helena. Two of them are in the old downtown. Blackfoot River Brewing is a modern, small outfit that was my destination at the end of the hike. One of the co-founders told the story of the brewery which was hatched by a trio of friends who were in to home brewing. Ten Mile Creek Brewing is in an interesting old building right in the middle of the Last Chance Gulch in what is now a pedestrian-only stretch. This young brewery was founded by three college friends in 2015.
Lewis & Clark Brewing Company seems by far the biggest of the Helena breweries and is located in a series of repurposed buildings along a railroad siding. Former occupants of the buildings included a smokehouse and a paint factory and it is fun to spot the indications of former uses. These guys appear to can quite a bit of beer for retail sale. One of the lead brewers gave a nice orientation to the operation. A dark, cool taproom with adjacent outdoor stage area complement the brewery nicely.
Copper Furrow Brewing sits a bit isolated from much other consumer activity in a sun-baked, warehousey area. The insides are pleasant and comfortable though and I enjoyed the beer and had a nice lunch.
The old downtown of Helena (along Last Chance Gulch) and adjacent neighborhoods are as attractive as newer, sprawling parts of Helena are ugly and uninteresting. I found that I gravitated to the old downtown unless I was visiting the two breweries not located there.
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