Great Falls is more than just a quick stopover on a summer road trip across Big Sky Country.
As a destination, Montana’s third-largest city punches well above its weight, thanks to the big-city feel of its downtown, a couple of notable museums and a landscape that remains beautiful despite being partially covered up by the progress of industry.
Great Falls, as its name implies, is situated at the great falls of the Missouri River. Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame called the falls — some 900 feet wide and 80 feet tall — “the grandest sight” he ever saw.
Fittingly, this is also where the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is located. The two-story museum, run by U.S. Forest Service in partnership with a nonprofit foundation, gives visitors a crash course in the history of the Corps of Discovery’s 8,000-mile expedition in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase.
Beyond the history of this important chapter in the story of America, there is the art found in the city’s two art museums.
The C.M. Russell Museum has 16 galleries devoted to its namesake, Charles M. Russell. The artist, who called Great Falls home, distinctively depicted all things Old West around the turn of the last century.
Less than a mile away is the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art. The contemporary collection by artists from Montana and across the region is housed in a stately Richardsonian Romanesque former high school.
No visit would be complete without a stop at an old church.
The Church of the Incarnation (built in 1907) wins the prize for best church architecture, notwithstanding the Episcopal congregation’s hideous parish hall. The tower with its north porch is a perfectly executed example of Gothic Revival architecture. In fact, if you didn’t know better you would mistake the tower for a medieval church somewhere in the English countryside.
Where to stay and eat
Stay at the Springhill Suites overlooking the Missouri River. The relatively new hotel — it opened in 2018 — has rooms with balconies. An alternative option is downtown at the Hotel Avron, next to the popular Celtic Cowboy Pub and Restaurant.
How to get there
Arriving by car makes the most sense, especially since two of the best national parks are within driving distance.
Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.