Helena Revisited

The last couple months have been fairly quiet for us, well for me at least. Zach has been busy with school, a two-week stint in Macau to play with the symphony, and various other musical commitments around town. We went to Moab at the beginning of February for a quick weekend trip, but otherwise we’ve kept a low profile hiking on the weekends out at Antelope Island when the weather has allowed. Though we’ve had many spring-like days during the work week, inevitably snow storms have blown through on the weekends. All of this has been rejuvenating, but I’m starting to get a little stir crazy. Thankfully, we had a long weekend in Helena planned at the end of Zach’s spring break.

Though we spent a little time in Helena last summer, we were camping and didn’t have a place to leave Truman. This time we had ample time and an Airbnb (Truman still got to tag along quite a bit). Helena was a working trip for Zach, but his schedule wasn’t too demanding and there was plenty to keep me occupied when he was otherwise engaged. Though small, Helena has a nice diversity of activities both indoors and outdoors.

We left SLC before dawn on Thursday and arrived in Helena a little after noon. We grabbed a bite to eat and then walked Tru up Last Chance Gulch for some exercise. Zach had an appointment in the afternoon, so Tru and I checked into our Airbnb and took a nap. That evening we had a couple beers at the only brewery we visited last summer – Ten Mile Creek – before going to Broadwater Hot Springs. The spot has a long history dating back to the Broadwater Hotel & Natatorium in 1889 which served as a stopping place between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. There have been several iterations of the Broadwater, but the current version opened in 2015. With three outdoor pools, saunas, locker rooms, and fitness classes, Broadwater Hot Springs is a great destination just on the edge of town. The best part though is that the Broadwater also has an onsite taphouse just opposite their largest outdoor pool and they even serve drinks and food poolside – awesome. I didn’t take any photos since our first visit was at night and the second time I was alone. I didn’t want to be the creepy single person snapping pics. But check out their website and visit if you’re ever in Helena.

On Friday morning we had an amazing breakfast at Nosh Cafe before browsing the galleries at the Holter Museum of Art. It’s a small museum but packs a lot of substance into their space. One of their current exhibitions was a recently donated collection of 31 Al Hirschfeld lithographs which were fun to peruse and an intriguingly beautiful exhibition from photographer Richard Buswell. Zach had another mid-morning appointment, so I decided to read at Hub Coffee (I’m currently immersed in Anna Karenina) and shop along Last Chance Gulch. When Zach was finished we met up at our Airbnb to collect Truman and get ready for an afternoon hike up Mt. Helena.

Breakfast at Nosh

One of the galleries at the Holter Museum of Art

Just outside of downtown Helena is the South Hills Trails System which offers 80+ miles of trails for hiking or mountain biking. The Mt. Helena City Park is perched just above downtown and provides easy access to several trails. We had a couple hours to kill so we started toward the Mt. Helena summit. Truman isn’t usually a fan of the snow, so we initially let him ride along in his pack, but near the top he decided he wanted to hike too. We made it pretty close to the summit, but didn’t quite have enough time to go the rest of the way. Regardless, the views were fantastic, and we couldn’t have had better weather.

Didn’t take long for the views to stun

Within sight of the summit

We had enough time after our hike to grab a slice of pizza and a beer at Blackfoot Brewing before Zach had to go to rehearsal. I milled around town for a bit before I ended up at the Cathedral of St. Helena. We stopped at the cathedral on our very first visit to Helena four years ago, but a mass was in progress. This time I had the entire cathedral to myself and the late afternoon light shone warmly through the stained glass windows. The cathedral’s stained glass windows begin with the fall of Adam and Eve and go through the Catholic Church’s early 20th century history. While the stained glass is incredible, I was more drawn to the painted details of the cathedral’s interior.

I went back to Broadwater Hot Springs while Zach was at rehearsal and later met him for a late night snack and glass of wine at The Hawthorn, a wine bar next to Ten Mile Creek Brewery. At first glance it seemed like a small space, but it’s cavernous inside and has an intimate atmosphere. We ordered the charcuterie board, chips and dip, and Thai-spiced peanuts to go along with our wine. It was the perfect way to cap off a great day in Helena.

Cathedral of St. Helena

Zach at The Hawthorn

The next morning Zach had another rehearsal. We dropped by Cotton Top Pastries for their incredible scones and then I dropped Zach at the Civic Center. I wanted to do the walking tour of Helena’s Mansion District, so I brought Truman along for some company. In the late 1880s, Helena had the most millionaires per capita in the world. Many of these millionaires built lofty homes on the west side of town where many remain today. Visit Helena has a great walking tour app you can download in order to follow walking routes and read about various buildings in town. Tru and I made a good dent on foot and then drove over to Helena’s Central District for another short walk. Eventually Truman was worn out, cold, and ready for a nap.

Cotton Top Pastries

Alex C. Johnson House, 1894

Edward C. Babcock Mansion, 1897

Eddy O’Connell Residence, 1916
Cool fact: this home was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Gray Purcell

Samuel T. Hauser Mansion, 1885

My sidekick

I met Zach, and we decided to take one of the free tours at the Original Governor’s Mansion. The mansion was built as a private home and was later purchased by the state in 1913. Previous governors had lived in their own Helena homes. Nine governors and their families lived in the mansion before a new residence was built closer to the Capitol. For a brief period the mansion was used as an office space for state workers before finally being restored and opened as a museum. For that reason, few things in the home are fully original, but the home and its decor were still fascinating. It was a little awkward since we were the only two tourists and our guide wasn’t the best. Maybe we are harder to please as former tour guides ourselves!

After the tour we needed a couple beers so we went to Lewis & Clark Brewing. They have a large space, and we were able to snag a table in their upstairs sun room which was perfect for catching rays inside on a windy chilly day. Afterward we grabbed an ice cream at Big Dipper and then relaxed a little before Zach’s concert at the Helena Civic Center.

Original Governor’s Mansion

Yes, our table is shaped like Montana

Ice cream!

The Helena Civic Center is a structure I found fascinating last summer. I took a couple photos then but held onto them. The Civic Center is a community venue now but was built as an Algeria Shrine Temple in 1920-21. The city purchased the building soon after the 1935 earthquake, and it became the home for the city’s offices for several decades. There’s still an operational fire station next door. The interior of the center contains the same Moorish design features as the exterior but is a little less fantastic. The seats definitely weren’t the most comfortable thing to sit in for a 90-minute-no-intermission performance of Verdi’s Requiem.

Following the concert we went to a late night happy hour at Bella Roma with a couple other trumpet players. The bar menu was half price and all glasses of house wine were $5 – not bad. We spent a satisfying couple hours there to cap off our great weekend in Helena. I’m sure we’ll be back soon!

Helena’s Civic Center


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