Experience the Great Outdoors in Great Falls

January 29, 2021

Great Falls recreation can be described as just that — great.

by Cary Estes on

If only there was a word to describe what the GREAT outdoors is like in GREAT Falls.

“It’s really fantastic,” says Jason Rosales, manager of the Knicker Biker bicycle shop.

OK, that will do.

No matter what word you use, one thing is certain. There are plenty of activities to choose from when it comes to outdoor recreation in the Great Falls region.

Majestic mountains loom in nearly every direction, offering ample opportunities for hiking and biking as well as downhill and cross-country skiing during the winter. Parks are plentiful, with 57 of them in the immediate Great Falls area, along with the nearby beauty of Glacier National Park, Giant Springs State Park(home to one of the largest freshwater springs in the country) and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the fifth-largest wilderness complex in the lower 48 states.

And a roaring river runs through it all, as the Missouri River slices through the heart of the city, providing easy access to watersports and some of the best trout fishing in the world, in addition to producing a series of waterfalls that gives Great Falls its name.

“In terms of our proximity to outdoor recreation opportunities, Great Falls is in a class unto itself,” says Anders Blewett, president of the River’s Edge Trail Foundation, an organization that oversees nearly 60 miles of paved and single-track trail along the Missouri River. “Every time you get outdoors, it reminds you why you live in Montana.”

All Hail the Trail

Getting outdoors in Great Falls is easy thanks to the River’s Edge Trail, which began in the early 1990s and has blossomed into a premier urban trail network. More than 40 miles of paved riverfront trail, along with nearly 20 additional miles of dirt trails for mountain biking, make it a must for riders.

Blewett says highlights along the trail include Warden Bridge, which provides picturesque views of the Missouri River, Black Eagle Falls and Ryan Dam overlook, which sits several hundred feet above the river and offers a panoramic vista.

“The beauty of the River’s Edge Trail is that it literally starts in our downtown,” Blewett says. “We have multiple access points to it, connecting virtually all the neighborhoods of Great Falls to the trail. It is integrated into the weekly lives of many of our residents. We’re seeing an explosion of growth in terms of the utilization of it by the residents of Great Falls, because it’s beautiful, it’s accessible and it’s just an amazing experience.”

In addition to the River’s Edge Trail, numerous other cycling opportunities abound in the area. For experienced riders, Rosales recommends a challenging 8-mile route from Great Falls to Sand Coulee. Farther from the city, popular paths can be found at Thain Creek Campground and throughout the Highwood Mountains.

‘A Genuine Wilderness Experience’

Families and the less adventurous can always stay close to Great Falls and enjoy activities such as Electric City Water Park, which recently underwent a $650,000 upgrade, Valley View Garden Golf, a local favorite for more than 50 years, and Gibson Park, a lush green space named for Great Falls’ founder Paris Gibson, with a band shell and flower gardens.

But to truly experience the rugged beauty of Montana, it is best to venture out of the city to some of the more remote locations that are still barely an hour away. Dropstone Outfitting specializes in guided hikes through the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex that range from four to 10 days.

“We offer a more genuine wilderness experience on lesser-used trails and campsites, but with a few more amenities than if you went backpacking on your own,” Dropstone co-owner Yve Bardwell says.

This includes stops along the Sun River as well as the Chinese Wall, a limestone range that is approximately 1,000 feet tall and stretches unbroken for 12 miles. Along the way, hikers might spot grizzly bears, mountain lions, elk or wolves.

“One of the selling points about Great Falls is you have all these great recreational opportunities that are within an hour’s drive,” Bardwell says. “You can experience something different every weekend, and you’re not going to be fighting crowds to do it.”