See 4 stunning waterfalls and 5 hydroelectric dams on the mighty Missouri River on a weekend in Great Falls Montana.
Cycle the 50-mile long River’s Edge Trail connecting these waterfalls encountered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. Learn about the historic journey at the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail Interpretive Center. Nearby Giant Springs, one of the largest natural springs in the US, provided wildlife. Lewis and Clark and the early Plains Tribes a water source and winter camping spot.
Not far from Great Falls, learn more about the communal hunting techniques of the Plains Tribes at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park.
For lovers of outdoor recreation, Great Falls is the destination for you!
Table of Contents
Great Falls Weekend Itinerary
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Visit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. Cycle the paved River’s Edge Trail.
- Extra Day (Day 3)
With more time travel to nearby Helena, Montana’s state capital or Glacier National Park.
Great Falls Montana Map
5 Best Things To Do in Great Falls
Discover the waterfalls of the Missouri River and how the Lewis and Clark Expedition got around them in the early 19th century. Find out about the dams harnessing the power of that mighty river.
Learn about the Plains People’s use of the river and the importance of the bison to them and to the story of the American west.
- Waterfalls and Dams of Great Falls
- River’s Edge Trail
- Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
- Giant Springs State Park
- First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
Waterfalls and Dams of Great Falls
The waterfalls and dams are along a 12-mile stretch of the Missouri River beginning in Great Falls. The river bed drops around 450 vertical feet over the 12 miles. Black Eagle Falls is the waterfall closest to the city.
Black Eagle Falls and Dam
The falls are about 25 feet high and 600 feet wide. For a closer look, visit Black Eagle Memorial Island Park at the bottom of the falls which can be reached from the north side of the Missouri River.
In 1890 Montana’s first hydroelectric dam was built here. The current structure, built on top of the first dam, opened in 1927. It is over 30 feet high and 780 feet long.
The building of Black Eagle Dam and Rainbow Dam, just downstream, gave the city its nickname ‘Electric City’.
Rainbow Dam, Colter Falls, Rainbow Falls and Crooked Falls
Colter Falls is a half-mile upstream from Rainbow Dam and covered by the dam’s reservoir waters so is rarely, if ever, seen. Rainbow Dam is about 30 feet high and 1,000 feet long and began producing electricity in 1910. The upgrades in 2013 boosted electricity production and added safeguards to protect fish traveling down the Missouri River.
Just downstream is Rainbow Falls which are about 45 feet high and 1,300 feet wide. Crooked Falls are a half mile further downstream where the Missouri flows over an irregular rock shelf around 19 feet high.
The next dam downstream, at close to 60 feet high and 750 feet long, is Cochrane. The newest dam at Great Falls, its construction was completed in 1958.
Great Falls aka Big Falls is 1.6 miles further downstream.
Great Falls and Ryan Dam
Great Falls and Ryan Dam are a bit daunting with a total water fall of about 148 feet. Great Falls itself is more than 80 feet high. Ryan Dam, completed in 1915, is over 1,300 feet long. Ryan Island Park provides the best viewpoint. A suspension bridge over the dam’s spillway gives access to the park. It’s a great place for a picnic.
As the river moves east, the river valley narrows and deepens. Morony Dam is about 3.5 miles downstream.
Morony Dam and former town site
Morony Dam is the tallest of the five Great Falls dams, about 100 feet high and 880 feet long. Construction was completed in 1929 and electricity generation began in 1930.
Wander through the remains of the “town”. It began as a shanty town in 1926 filled with makeshift structures housing the families of the men working to construct the dam. When the construction workers moved on, they left their shanty town shacks behind.
More substantial company houses were built for dam operators making the town more permanent. Better monitoring systems, increasing automation at the dam, along with the growth of the city of Great Falls, led to the town being fully abandoned. See the ruins of concrete foundations, sidewalks and fire hydrants.
There is fishing below the dam. A 3.4 mile loop trail starts at the townsite and leads to a natural spring.
River’s Edge Trail
The trail is over 50 miles long on both sides of the Missouri River. It has long, paved sections which are wheelchair accessible and perfect for walking, jogging, rollerblading and cycling. Other areas are unpaved and great for mountain biking or hiking. Be sure to pack walking shoes, bikes or blades (or rent them)!
There are city parks, trailheads and rest areas along the trail, with parking, restrooms and picnic tables. This trail is one of Montana’s best urban trail systems and allows easy access to the city’s beautiful waterfalls. All waterfalls and dams are on the trail, but the section of trail east of the state park is more suitable for mountain biking.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
Feel like a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition travelling the expedition’s entire route. The center’s exceptional interactive displays explain the successes and hardships along the way. The 2-storey diorama of a replica boat being pulled up a hill on the portage around the 5 waterfalls, highlights the difficulties of the Great Falls portage.
The center is built into the Missouri River’s southern bank. A nature trail running down the river bank showcases native plants and wildlife of the area and connects to the River’s Edge Trail.
Giant Springs State Park
This is one Montana’s most popular state parks and is centered around Giant Springs. This is one of the largest natural springs in the US sending over 150 million gallons of water a day into the Missouri River. The water is a constant 54F degrees so never freezes. It provides a guaranteed winter water source for wildlife and is a great place to see wildlife of many kinds. In the past, local Plains Tribes used the area as a winter camp as did the fur traders and trappers who came later.
The springs are the source of the Roe River, one of the shortest rivers in the world at only 200 feet long. Given the huge volume of fresh water here, the springs were a natural place to locate a fish hatchery.
The Giant Springs Fish Hatchery began operations in 1922 and continues its important work supporting the health of the fisheries of Montana. In its visitor center, learn about the various stages of fish growth and the whole hatchery process. The hatchery raises millions of fish each year for release into bodies of water throughout Montana. The hatchery’s show ponds often have food stations so that anyone can feed the fish.
The first major industrial site in Great Falls was located on the opposite side of Giant Springs Road. The Montana Smelter Ruins are all that remains from two smoke stacks of the silver and lead smelter which operated here between 1888 and 1902, The operation had over 75 buildings and its most prominent feature was the stacks which each stood over 100 feet tall. The smelter processed ore mined in the mountains southeast of Great Falls. Walk to the ruins from the state park’s picnic area which has picnic tables and restrooms.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
The highlight of this state park, about 15 miles west of Great Falls, is the massive sandstone cliff with heights between 30 and 50 feet along its one mile length. It is one of the largest bison jump sites in North America. The state park itself is almost 1500 acres of prairie grassland.
The view from the cliff edge is stunning. Look east to the Highwood Mountains and south over the grasslands of the Missouri River Valley, which teemed with bison until 200 years ago. The Rocky Mountain Front Range is behind and to the west, note the stark monolith of Square Butte. Some Plains Tribes consider this place sacred. Standing on the cliff, enjoying the quiet peace of the area, we understood completely.
Archaeologists have found evidence of jump sites all along the cliff. In some places, piles of stone organized in v-shaped “drivelines” lead to the edge of the cliff. In other places, there is evidence of up to 18 feet of compacted bison bones at the cliff base.
Modern visitor center displays and hands-on activities explain the relationship between the bison and the people of the Northern Plains Tribes. Learn about them and successful efforts to save the bison from extinction.
A 3-mile loop trail wanders through the grassland between the cliff and the visitor center. To reach the cliff, take the trail to the base of the cliff and climb up or drive the access road to the top of the plateau above the cliff.
More Great Falls Attractions
These points of interest are a great way to round out a visit to Great Falls.
Broadwater Bay Park is a beautiful wide section of the Missouri River, close to hotels, restaurants and the River’s Edge Trail. The boat launch provides easy river access for paddle boarding, canoeing or kayaking. Its parking area is quite large offering a convenient place to leave cars while exploring the trail.
Discover the art where the River’s Edge Trail crosses the Missouri River at 1st Avenue. Rainboffalo by artist Chris Miller combines his love of water and his respect for the freedom enjoyed by wild animals. Pieces of painted buffalo art are throughout the city. Many artists created them celebrating the importance of bison in the history of the area.
Also at 1st Avenue, colorful murals have been painted by local artists on the concrete supports of the pedestrian bridge over the river and the walls of the railroad underpass just to the east. The Children’s Museum of Montana is just east of the railroad at 1st Avenue.
At the CM Russell Museum, see one of the most complete collections of the work of cowboy artist Charles M Russell. The Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art displays contemporary art by local artists. The building, built in 1896, was the city’s first high school. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. The History Museum exhibits information about north central Montana history and folk heritage.
Lewis and Clark Expedition
A small party of explorers, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, left from just north of St. Louis, Missouri on the Mississippi River in May 1804. President Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the new western territory purchased from France in 1803. He hoped they would find a water route to the Pacific Ocean through the continental United States. The expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean in November 1805 where they stayed for the winter. They journeyed over 4,000 miles, traversing water, mountains, and enduring incredible hardships along the way. The expedition returned to St. Louis in 1806 and was an unparalleled success.
At Great Falls, the size and number of waterfalls meant that the expedition needed to walk around 5 waterfalls and 7 miles of river. This was an unexpected and major barrier given that typical portages are short walks around a single waterfall. The final portage route was 18 miles long with many small gullies and 2 steep hills!
The men hauled heavy canoes and bulky equipment over the hills and through prairie covered with prickly pear cactus. Their hands and feet quickly became blistered and lacerated. The portage took 11 days and several round trips to complete. The total distance walked was likely around 130 miles. The experience taught them hard lessons about cooperation, deadlines and the struggle of man against nature. The expedition stayed 19 days in the Great Falls area on its journey west, the most time spent in one place (excluding for winter camps).
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is part of the National Trails System. It is about 4,900 miles long, extending from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the mouth of the Columbia River, near Astoria, Oregon and covers all the areas visited by Lewis and/or Clark. It includes outbound and inbound routes, and the route from Pittsburgh as Lewis gathered people, equipment and supplies for their epic journey. The trail protects the historic corridor and provides sites where the public can connect with the story through education and recreation. There are many visitor centers and museums, each highlighting the expedition’s activities in that area.
Importance of Bison and Buffalo Jumps
Northern Plains People have gathered for thousands of years to celebrate, hunt and feast on bison, their center of life. The bison provided food, shelter, tools, materials and a spiritual connection to nature. Bison were hunted with spears and bows. This was a dangerous and often unsuccessful way to hunt. Driving the bison over a cliff to kill them was a much more effective method of hunting and it provided bison for large numbers of people all at once.
The tribe set up drive lines of stone cairns leading to the cliff edge. People would start the bison running into the drive line opening where more people lined the drive route, screaming and waving hides and blankets to keep the bison moving to the cliff edge. At the bottom of the cliff, hunters would kill those bison not already dead. The monumental task of butchering and skinning the animals followed. Almost all parts of the bison were used.
Great Falls Accommodations
Looking for an accommodation in Great Falls?
Check out these great options in Great Falls.
- Hampton Inn – Great Falls – Exceptional
- Crystal Inn Hotel & Suites – Great Falls – Highly rated
- Here are other great hotels in Great Falls.
Side Trips from Great Falls
With more time, visit Helena Montana’s state capital or head to Glacier National Park.
Helena Montana Side Trip
Spend a day in Helena, only 1.5 hours south of Great Falls on Interstate 15. See the Capitol building, constructed of Montana sandstone and granite, with its striking copper-covered dome.
Gorgeous historic buildings line Last Chance Gulch, the main street downtown. In 1864 gold was discovered here. The Last Chance Gulch mine produced about $19 million worth of gold in just four years, the second biggest placer gold deposit in Montana. The town sprang up quickly and prospered even after the gold ran out.
See the fire tower built in 1874 to protect the town. The twin spires of the Cathedral of Saint Helena are 230 feet high and have 12-foot gold-leafed crosses on top.
Glacier National Park Side Trip
Visit Glacier National Park, 2.5 hours northwest of Great Falls to see untouched forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, spectacular lakes and waterfalls. This is a hiker’s paradise with hikes for all ability levels. Travel the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, a park highlight itself, to Logan Pass and Lake McDonald.
For more great Montana destinations, check out our feature article, 5 Best Montana Road Trips – The Ultimate Guide.
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