Boat tours, history and delicious food, Helena Montana has it all!

by thenewstates

We were blown away by everything that the capital city of Montana has to offer! This week, Katelyn planned all the activities to kick off Howard’s birthday week and here are our 6 things to do in Helena, Montana. Continuing our free camping streak, we were boondocking at a free campground about 45 minutes outside the city and drove in for a full day of exploration.

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“Katelyn’s Day of Fun” began in Last Chance Gulch, Helena’s downtown area, where we grabbed a delicious breakfast at Nosh Cafe. The food was amazing and the service was great.

From there we hopped back in the car and drove about 20 minutes to Gates of the Mountains for stop number two. This two hour boat tour through history is an incredible way to learn about the area while taking in the amazing sites of the towering limestone cliffs. At only $16 per person, Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour is a steal! Our Captain was incredibly knowledgeable and shared stories from the Lewis and Clark expedition as well the tragic story of the Mann Gulch Fire. This fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters and ultimately changed the way the National Forest Services responds to and fights wildfires.

After our historic sightseeing tour, we headed back downtown for a bit more history stopping at the Montana State Capitol building. This beautifully designed state capitol features incredible art work houses both the House and Senate Chambers, which can be viewed from the balcony above. They no longer offer guided tours, but you can grab a map for a little self-exploration.

Stop number four lead us to the General Mercantile, a funky coffee shop combined with an eclectic gift store. It’s been around since the 70’s and is a great place to refuel with some delicious coffee.

Stop number 5 was another historic stop, Reeder’s Alley. This area is the oldest piece of intact history from the gold mining days of Helena. The alley with its impressive brick structures offers a glimpse into early mining life here. It’s the oldest street in Montana and the brick structures even withstood the massive earthquake of 1935.

We finished off our whirlwind tour of downtown Helena with a surprise stop for delicious vietnamese at Saigon Alley. Located at the top of Reeder’s Alley, we almost missed it had we not heard the clanging of dishes coming down the alley. They recently opened (still no sign outside on the alley side!) and formerly operated as a food truck. The bahn mi, red curry and green curry popcorn were all delicious! We highly recommend venturing off the beaten path to grab a bite here.

Resources

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Where we stayed this episode:
Goose Bay Dispersed Camping near Helena, MT
GPS: 46.545595, -111.571641

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Apps & Websites We Use to Find FREE Camping

In order to find free camping, we use a variety of resources: 

  1. Campendium: This is our go to search engine for camping because we can actually filter our locations based on cell service and connectivity, which is huge since we work from the road. It’s helpful to see reviews from other campers and you can set the filters for free camping as well. 
  2. iOverlander: This is a great resource for not only finding camping, but the amenities you’ll eventually need after dry camping for a while. You can look for dump stations, water, even RV repair and showers on this user-generated map. 
  3. Freecampsites.net: Another great user-generated map of camping with reviews and pictures. 
  4. Ultimate Public Campgrounds: This is the most comprehensive list of public paid and free campsites with over 43,000 listings. You can display or hide based on operator, amenities offered, price, etc. Another great perk of this app is that you can download maps by region of the country, and once you have it loaded on your phone,  you don’t need internet access to review the listings.

What We Look for in a FREE Campsite

There are certain must haves and nice to haves when we’re scouting out campsites.

  1. Cell service: In case I haven’t mentioned it enough, connectivity is crucial since we work from the road. When we scout out campsites in our tow vehicle, we bring our Verizon Jetpack and antenna with us and run speed tests to see if the service will be good enough for work. If it’s not… we move on. There is a free app called “Speed Test” that you can download to run the same tests we do! 
  2. Privacy: Katelyn is a self-proclaimed introvert… the further away from people the better for her (Howard is the social butterfly) and given the current state of Covid-19, we try to find secluded spots. This often takes a bit more time and effort, but the payoff is always worth it for us. We don’t have to worry about other barking dogs (our pups really don’t like that) or bothering anyone else if we need to run our generator. 
  3. Views: This is always a bonus and something we usually seek out, afterall… with a home on wheels, having epic scenery out your window is what it’s all about! Again, this takes a little more time and effort. But if we know we’re staying somewhere for at least 3+ nights, then it’s worth it for us to spend the time finding an ideal location. 
  4.  A level spot: While our rig doesn’t need to be perfectly level for certain appliances, like the refrigerator, to operate, sleeping on a slope doesn’t always feel good. We try and eyeball a spot for levelness. You can usually tell if it just won’t work or if you can make it better by utilizing leveling blocks, which we often do.  

FREE Camping Rules & Reminders

Since we’ve been doing so much free camping, we’ve unfortunately seen the aftermath of people who don’t respect the land and follow common courtesy. The biggest rule of free camping should be a no-brainer, but sadly that isn’t the case. 

  1. ALWAYS pack out your trash, dumping is NEVER ok. We’ve seen mattresses (!?), old camping chairs, bottles, plywood boards, cans, diapers. You name it… don’t be those people. It will ruin it for everyone. And if you can, leave the campsite better than you found it. We practice the philosophy of Leave No Trace, to learn more click here.
  2. Most BLM camping or Forest Roads have a 14 day limit, which is incredible! This is usually posted at the entrance area. 
  3. And lastly, remember to be respectful of neighbors if you have them. No one likes listening to others loud music, yelling, generators or barking dogs. 😉 
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