At the heart of this day trip is Canyon Ferry Lake, an impounded section of the Missouri River along the Lewis and Clark Trail. From Helena you will take Highway 12/287 as you near Townsend you will see the Big Belt Mountains to the east and the Elkhorn Mountains to the west. The suggested trip will take you from Townsend around the backside of Canyon Ferry before returning to the Capital City. There’s ample recreational opportunities and wonderful habitat that makes for incredible wildlife viewing along the route. No Southwest Montana road trip is complete without a bit of history, add Gates of the Mountains and Canton Church to your itinerary. This itinerary also features incredible art, with recommended stops at Goosebay Handblown Glass and the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine. Where will the road take you in Southwest Montana?
After leaving Helena, you will find yourself in Townsend. Here is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat or a cup of coffee before taking off to explore the local area. Whether you are hoping for wildlife viewing and recreation or to dig deeper into the history of Southwest Montana, there is something for everyone. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore some of Townsend’s local businesses, stopping by the Broadwater Historical Museum and Library and watching the mesmerizing work of the folks at Goosebay Handblown glass. All of this before taking off to explore one of the most scenic drives in the region along Highway 284.
With over 5,000 acres of habitat, the Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area is a great place to view a variety of migrating waterfowl, nesting birds and mammals such as red fox, raccoons, white-tailed deer, beaver and even the occasional moose or otter. Opportunities for hunting white-tailed deer and some birds are available.
The Broadwater Museum is located on the same block as the courthouse, jail, and hospital in Townsend. The museum features local exhibits including those regarding mining, homesteading, fossils, the military and Lewis and Clark. They have a vast library of local information and records. Admittance is free.
Take time to watch a craftsman at work when you stop in to watch the Gundersons and the beauty they create with handblown glass. Goose Bay Glass has a plethora of items, each individually crafted from sand and quartz at 2,000 degrees. Find that unique gift from their shelves in Townsend, Montana.
Follow Highway 12 as it goes east until you reach Highway 284. This road will take you along the eastern shore of the lake where there are campgrounds and opportunities for water recreation. Be sure to watch for St. Joseph's Canton Church and cemetery. It's listed on the National Historic Register and was the third church built in Montana. There is also a visitor center just before you reach the dam. You can cut across the dam and head back to Helena. But if you'd like to explore some more of Montana, take the road north from Canyon Ferry to York, where you can view one of the largest gatherings of bald eagles November through December. There are sapphire mines around York and also on the eastern side of Hauser Lake. As you drive across the bridge on Highway 280 coming from York, watch the dramatic landscape change. For more of the Missouri, take I-15 north from Helena for a 15 mile trek to the Gates of the Mountains. Tour boats give you a close-up view of the canyon named by Meriwether Lewis. There are interpretive displays at the information center.
One of Montana’s oldest churches, Canton Church was built by the community of Canton, which today lies at the bottom of Canyon Ferry Reservoir. The Church was moved when the reservoir was built and today it serves as a community center and features live performances and events throughout the summer season.
On the banks of Hauser Lake, sits the Spokane gravel bar. It was in this gravel bar that heavy stones were found as miners searched for gold. Today you can visit the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine and find sapphires of your own. During the summer the mine and rock shop are open daily from 9 -5pm.
“In many places,” wrote Meriwether Lewis, “the rocks seem ready to tumble on us… I shall call this place “gates of the mountains.” During the summer months, there are tours offered throughout the week through the Gates. The 105-minute cruise starts in the marina, just three miles east of I-15, between Helena and Wolf Creek.