The Gates of the Mountains
Our final full day in Great Falls was spent mostly on a visit to the Missouri River in the Gates of the Mountains Wildnerness Area. The Gates are an optical illusion that was noticed by the Lewis and Clark expedition up the river in 1805. Lewis gave the magnificent cliffs their name because it seemed to him that as their boats made their way upstream, the cliffs appeared to open like gates, allowing the expedition to continue when previously it looked like the river was blocked by the mountains.
We bought tickets on the Gates of the Mountains guided-boat tour ($16) that spent two hours going down the river and back up to their marina. I highly recommend taking the tour, which was, of course, accompanied by a very knowledgeable guide. We followed Interstate 15 south-west of Great Falls to about 20 miles north of Helena, the capital city, and turned off at Exit 209.
It’s a marvelous, scenic area, although the construction of Holter Dam in 1918 altered the flow of the river, causing it to rise by 14 feet above the level that Lewis and Clark experienced. One of the features of the surrounding wilderness area is the location of the tragic Mann Gulch fire of 1949 in which 13 firefighters (mostly young smoke jumpers) lost their lives. Norman Maclean wrote a prize-winning book, Young Men and Fire, about the event. I’ve read it, and it’s a must-read for almost anyone interested in the event. The tour boat passes right by the site and treads water for a few minutes, so you can get a good view of the gulch.
Though not as picturesque as Glacier Park, the area is quite beautiful, and it’s a wonderful way to spend a summer morning or afternoon. There’s a decent gift shop at the marina which sometimes has Maclean’s book in stock, though on this day it was sold out.
About mid-afternoon we made our way back to Great Falls, and later we ate at my favorite pizza restaurant, Howard’s Pizza, in business since 1959. I had a high school friend who worked at the downtown location in the 1960s, and he would sometimes invite me into the back, where the pizza dough and spices were located. What a wonderful odor! Every time I smell pizza cooking, I’m immediately reminded of that time and place.
We were joined at Howard’s by my brother Bob, who, unfortunately, couldn’t go to the Gates with us because of work duties, his daughter Marissa and her fairly new husband, Justin and their daughter, Kayla. We ordered about five different kinds of pizza, but I made sure to order my favorite, Howard’s Special, consisting of sausage, onion and green pepper, thin-crust, please. Just awesome. When I lived in Montana and came back to visit Great Falls, my mother knew exactly what I first wanted to eat–a Howard’s Special. Seriously, I could (and sometimes did) eat one all by myself. Awesome! Try a Howard’s pizza if you’re ever in Great Falls.
That’s it for Great Falls. The next morning, Randy, Whitney and I flew back to Portland. Randy and Whitney drove back to Seaside, but I had an afternoon flight to Fabulous Las Vegas. That will be the subject of my next post.
Missouri River Canyon information sign along the interstate. A wonderful thing about Montana is the large number of information signs along the highways. You could spend an entire summer just traveling around, looking for and at all the historical info found on these markers.
Stepping to the side of the sign mentioned previously, you get a wonderful vista of the craggy countryside that the river runs through, a prelude to the Gates of the Mountains.
Here is the beginning of the boat trip along the Missouri River through the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area. There’s some great scenery ahead.
More interesting scenery. There are a lot of small caves and a few arches in the cliffs along the route.
There are nearly perpendicular cliffs all along the river in this area.
There is plenty of wildlife along the way. You can see eagles, osprey and other birds, and you can spot larger animals, like these mountain goats. This is a nature lover’s paradise. Because it’s a wilderness area, there are no motorized vehicles allowed, but there are camping spots along the river where you can stay if you get a permit.
These are the cliffs that Lewis and Clark saw as the gates. At first view, they thought the river was blocked from going further into the mountains, but as they pushed upstream the cliffs appeared to separate, like gates, to let the river through. It’s an interesting illusion, but, unfortunately, I didn’t get a good shot of it or make a video. All I had with me was my crappy pocket camera. I need a new portable camera, like a good phone cam. Pixel 3 or 4, anyone?
Here’s the view up Mann Gulch. The smoke jumpers died along the steep hillside leading up to the ridge. There a memorial marker here, and if you’ve read the book and realized what happened, you’ll probably end up with a heavy heart and shed a tear or two for the young men who lost their lives.
Here we all are, patiently (sort of) waiting for the pizzas at Howard’s Pizza Restaurant. From the lower left, going clockwise around the table are Doug (brother), Whitney (niece), Randy, yours truly, Justin, Kayla, Marissa, and Bob (brother). A waitress took the photo, but it’s a bit blurry. I think she used one of my brothers’ phones.
Here we are outside the restaurant in a photo that’s a bit less blurry than the other one. I think my brother Bob took this one–he’s not in the photo. Duh. From the left, Justin, daughter Kayla, Marissa (niece), Randy making the Oregon Ducks sign, his daughter Whitney in front of him, yours truly and brother Doug. Yeah, Doug and I are carrying left-over pizza. Great late night snack.