Where can you find 4 waterfalls, 5 hydroelectric dams and a multi-use path connecting them? It’s all in Great Falls Montana.
Lewis and Clark encountered a series of 5 waterfalls here in 1804 on their journey up the mighty Missouri River. Although thrilled by the site of these ‘Great Falls’, the expedition had to make a huge portage around them to continue west. You can hear about this entire journey at the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail Interpretive Center. Afterwards, visit the waterfalls yourself and marvel at the dams built to harness their power.
If you love outdoor recreation, Great Falls is the destination for you! Cycle or hike on the 50-mile long River’s Edge Trail.
With all this, Great Falls is the perfect place to enjoy a weekend!
Great Falls Montana Weekend Itinerary
- Day 1 Visit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. Head west to explore the paved River’s Edge Trail and see Black Eagle Falls and Dam.
- Day 2 Visit Giant Springs State Park. Explore the waterfalls and dams downstream from the state park. You can reach all waterfalls and dams on the River’s Edge Trail, but the section of trail east of the state park is more suitable for mountain biking.
- Optional Day 3 First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park.
We’ve also added some worthwhile side trips at the end if you have more time. Have fun exploring the best things to do in Great Falls!
Top 5 Things To Do in Great Falls
At these top attractions you will learn about the Lewis and Clark Expedition which rode the Missouri River through Great Falls in 1805, on their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean. You’ll discover the waterfalls, the dams and the importance of the bison to the story of the American west.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
The Interpretive Center’s exceptional interactive displays make you feel like a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The center is organized such that as you walk through it you are travelling the expedition’s entire route, learning about 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 for the expedition.
The Interpretive Center is built into the bank of the Missouri River. A nature trail running down the river bank showcases native plants and wildlife of the area. This trail connects to the River’s Edge Trail, which runs along the Missouri River.
River’s Edge Trail
The trail is over 50 miles long on both sides of the Missouri. 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 your 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.
Waterfalls and Dams
The waterfalls and dams of Great Falls occur along 12 miles of the Missouri River. Over this distance the river bed drops around 450 vertical feet. Black Eagle Falls is the first waterfall as you head downstream.
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 you can reach from the north side of the Missouri River.
In 1890 the first hydroelectric dam in Montana 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
Rainbow Dam is about 30 feet high and 1,000 feet long. It began producing electricity in 1910. The upgrades in 2013 boosted electricity production and added safeguards to protect fish traveling down the Missouri River. Colter Falls is a half-mile upstream from the dam. Today, it is covered by the waters of the dam’s reservoir and is rarely, if ever, seen.
Just downstream from the dam 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.
Cochrane Dam is the next dam downstream.
It is close to 60 feet high and 750 feet long and is the newest dam at Great Falls. Construction was completed in 1958.
Ryan Dam was completed in 1915 and is 1.6 miles further downstream.
Great Falls, Ryan Dam and Ryan Island
Great Falls, also known as Big Falls, is impressive with a height of more than 80 feet. With Ryan Dam, built just above it, the total water fall is about 148 feet. Ryan Dam is over 1,300 feet long. Ryan Island Park is the best place to see Great Falls and Ryan Dam. 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. The Morony Dam was built in the late 1920’s about 3.5 miles downstream.
Morony Dam and former town site
Wander through the remains of the “town” which began as a shanty town in 1926 filled with makeshift structures housing the families of the men working to construct the dam. It is the tallest of the dams, about 100 feet high and 880 feet long. Construction was completed in 1929 and electricity generation began in 1930.
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 and increasing automation at the dam, along with the growth of the city of Great Falls, led to this town being abandoned as well. You’ll see the ruins of concrete foundations, sidewalks and fire hydrants.
There is fishing below the Morony Dam and a 3.4 mile loop trail leads to a natural spring.
Giant Springs State Park
The park is one Montana’s most popular state parks. You’ll find its namesake, Giant Springs, the Fish Hatchery and what is left of the first industrial site in Great Falls. The park has a small visitor center, picnic tables and restrooms.
Giant Springs and Roe River
Giant Springs 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 it never freezes and provides a guaranteed winter water source for wildlife and, in the past, humans. The Local Plains Tribes used the area as a winter camp as did the fur traders and trappers who came later. The area continues to be a great place to see wildlife.
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 the fish hatchery.
Giant Springs Fish Hatchery
The fish hatchery began operations in 1922 and continues its important work today supporting the health of the fisheries of Montana. In its visitor center you’ll 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 you can feed the fish.
The first major industrial site in Great Falls was located on the opposite side of Giant Springs Road.
Montana Smelter Ruins
The ruins of 2 furnace stacks are all that remain 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. You can walk to the ruins from the state park’s picnic area.
About 15 miles west of Great Falls is the final attraction you don’t want to miss on your visit to Great Falls.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
The highlight of this state park 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. There is a 3-mile loop trail through the grassland between the cliff and the modern visitor center. At the visitor center, displays and hands-on activities explain the relationship between the bison and the people of the Northern Plains Tribes. You’ll learn about these people and successful efforts to save the bison from extinction.
You can reach the cliff by car or by taking the loop trail from the visitor center.
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.
The view from the cliff edge is stunning. You can 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 you. To the west, you’ll note the stark monolith of Square Butte. Some Plains Tribes consider this place sacred. When you stand on the cliff, enjoying the quiet peace of the area, you may feel the same way.
More Great Falls Attractions
These points of interest in the city are perfect to round out your visit to Great Falls.
Broadwater Bay Park
This beautiful wide section of the Missouri River is close to hotels, restaurants and the River’s Edge Trail. The boat launch here provides easy river access for paddle boarding, canoeing or kayaking. Its parking area is quite large offering a convenient place to leave your car while you explore the trail.
The trail crosses the Missouri River at 1st Avenue. Here you’ll find some interesting art.
Painted Buffalo Art
Rainboffalo by artist Chris Miller combines his love of water and his respect for the freedom enjoyed by wild animals. You’ll find pieces like this throughout the city. Artists have created them to celebrate the importance of bison in the history of the area.
Colorful murals have been painted by local artists on the concrete supports of the pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River and the walls of the railroad underpass at 1st Avenue. The Children’s Museum of Montana is just east of the railroad at 1st Avenue.
Here are a couple of other museums in Great Falls.
CM Russell Museum
See one of the most complete collections of the work of cowboy artist Charles M Russell.
Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art
The museum 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
Learn about the history and folk heritage of north central Montana.
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.
All the expedition’s routes are now protected as a national historic trail.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
The trail is part of the National Trails System and is about 4,900 miles long, extending from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the mouth of the Columbia River, near Astoria, Oregon. It includes all the areas visited by Lewis and/or Clark. This 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.
The 18 mile portage at Great Falls
Typical portages are short walks around a single waterfall. 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. 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).
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 drivelines of stone cairns leading to the cliff edge. People would start the bison running into the driveline 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 Montana Map
Great Falls Accommodations
Looking for an accommodation in Great Falls?
Great Falls Hotels
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
If you have another day, visit Helena, the Montana state capital. If you love unspoiled nature and have more time, take a trip to Glacier National Park. You won’t regret your decision.
Helena Montana Side Trip
Enjoy a road trip south on Interstate 15 from Great Falls to Helena. It is only 1.5 hours away. 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. You’ll see the twin spires of the Cathedral of Saint Helena from a distance. They are 230 feet high and have 12-foot gold-leafed crosses on top. This is a great way to spend a day.
Glacier National Park Side Trip
Glacier National Park is 2.5 hours northwest of Great Falls. You’ll 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.
Click here to find out more about Glacier National Park.
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