The Gates of the Mountains

Visitors who come to the Gates of the Mountains area to boat on Missouri River, hike through the mountains, and marvel at the steep limestone cliffs are part of a tradition that probably stretches back more than 1,300 years. Much has been written about Gates of the Mountains over the years, but it’s hard to top the impression left by Meriweather Lewis, as his party passed through the area on 19 July, 1805:

This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the water’s edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. Every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. The tow[er]ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us.

It was Lewis who gave the region the name used today:

from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.

But, a thousand years before Lewis and company wound their way through the steep cliffs of the canyon, the Missouri River was already a well-travelled water route, and Native American peoples were already making their own meaning out of the sheer rock faces and interacting with the landscape. We know this because at least four cliff faces on this stretch of the Missouri feature thousand-plus-year-old red-orange pictographs of people and animals. None of the sites would make convenient shelters, which means that people choose those sites specially, probably as part of a religious or spiritual ritual. What’s more, the sites include two distinct artistic styles, different types of paint, and scratching and splattering, suggesting that these may have been interactive ‘art walls,’ for different people and different cultures over the years. There’s an unmistakable pleasure in seeing such a vivid reminder of just how long the human history of this land actually is.

Pictographs on a cliff face in Gates of the Mountains
From the river, these pictographs could almost be mistaken for rust-colored rocks, but get closer, and you can see human and animal forms as well as geometric designs.  

Today, much of the land around the Gates of the Mountains is managed by the forest service–the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area covers the land just east of the river. At less than 30,000 acres, it is the smallest of Montana’s Wilderness Areas, and its 53 miles of trails offer excellent one- and two-day hike – ideal for a weekend away. With its profusion of wildlife, arid wildflowers, and network of trails the forest service land around Gates of the Mountains offers visitors a true wilderness experience. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the Wilderness Area, so whether you are hiking, backpacking, or riding horses, you’ll be guaranteed peace and solitude.

Boat tour of the Gates of the Mountains

One of the most popular ways to experience the Gates of the Mountains is on a two-hour boat tour. Captained by expert guides, the tours allow you experience the canyon the same way Meriweather Lewis did–in awe as the river makes right angles and doubles back on itself through the towering limestone cliffs. The narrow canyon itself is bookended by Upper Holter Lake and Holter Lake, both popular destinations for motorboats, canoes, swimming, fishing and the whole range of water recreation.

Whether you are looking for a a wilderness retreat or a day out on the lake, the Gates of the Mountains area can probably accommodate whatever activities you have in mind.