Great Falls

Overview

Introduction

The waterfalls that gave this city its name were an important signpost for Lewis and Clark as they passed along the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark encountered five waterfalls; four of those cataracts are in the near vicinity of Great Falls. One of them remains in its natural state, while two retain their existing rock cataract, but have a dam behind them. Another is beneath the waters of a reservoir and is rarely seen. The Great Falls, for which the town is named, is a 20-minute drive northeast of town (get there by taking Ryan Dam Road). A small island park commemorates the spot where Meriwether Lewis first observed the cascades. Great falls is 220 mi/355 km northwest of Billings.

A more prominent tribute to the explorers is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, in Giant Springs State Park. In addition to exhibits about the explorers, it has displays about the Native Americans who lived along the route of the expedition (and in many cases helped it succeed).

Great Falls is home to 10 museums. One longstanding attraction is the Charles M. Russell Museum. This complex of galleries and exhibits offers one of the nation's finest collections of western art and history. The nucleus of the museum is the work of Russell himself: illustrated letters, oils, watercolors, sketches and bronzes that depict the people of the West.

North of Great Falls is the historic river town of Fort Benton, established as the most inland port during the day of steamboat travel on the Missouri River. Museums that explore the history of the Great Plains and life along the river are worth a visit in this town, which serves as the western gateway to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

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