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.