Nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, perfectly between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, the Gates of the Mountains is an incredible stop on any Montana road trip.
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The Gates of the Mountains in Montana offers so much to do! From a fun and exciting boat tour to hiking and fishing, there is something for everyone here. Although, the gates of the mountains boat tour is the most popular thing to do here as a tourist.
Each year, the Gates of the Mountain sees over 30,000 visitors from all over, wanting to traverse what Lewis and Clark saw over 200 years ago.
I have been visiting the Gates of the Mountains for many years and it remains one of my favorite things to do in Helena, Montana.
Where is Gates of the Mountains?
The Gates of the Mountains are situated just north of Helena, Montana in the Helena National Forest. It’s easily accessible via the road.
How to get to Gates of the Mountains from Helena
From Helena, it’s a quick 30 minute drive to the Gates of the Mountains marina. Jump on i-15 North for about 16 miles, then take exit 209 towards gates of the mountains.
How to get to Gates of the Mountains from Bozeman
From Bozeman to Gates of the Mountains, it’s about a 2 hour drive. You’ll want to take i-90 West until Three Forks, then exit to US-287. This will lead you to Helena, and from there follow the directions from Helena.
How Much is Gates of the Mountains?
The Gates of the Mountains boat tour prices can be seen in the photo below (updated as of 2023). This price includes a 2.5 hour boat ride, a quick stop at a picnic area, and an informative guide talking you through the history of the canyon.
How to Buy Tickets for Gates of the Mountains?
There are two ways to buy tickets for Gates of the Mountain, online and in person. If you have a date planned in advance, it’s best to book online because, on nice summer days, it can sell out! But, usually, you are able to purchase tickets in person on the day of. If you purchase tickets online, you will still need to stop by the ticket office to check in for your tour.
History of the Gates of the Mountains
Before we dive into what to expect out of your tour, it’s fun to know just a little bit about the history of the area and why it is popular today! Although, you will learn about most of this during your Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour.
The Gates of the Mountains is a striking canyon area through the Missouri River. It’s known for its stunning rock formations and striking beauty.
The Gates of the Mountains is filled with impressive limestone rock formations that form unique crevices and caves – which makes it really fun for your imagination! These limestone rocks jet out of the water leaving very impressive cliffs all around you!
In 1805, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark passed through these narrow canyons on their Missouri River expedition enlisted by Thomas Jefferson. They wrote detailed accounts of this area, which makes it all the more impressive. In Clark’s journal, he described the area as, “the gates of the mountains” and it has stuck ever since.
Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour – What to Expect
The Gates of the Mountains is a half-day day trip, and there are many things to know in advance to have the best experience possible. If you are a visitor and hoping to experience the historic boat tour along the Missouri River, here is what to expect.
Upon arrival to the Gates of the Mountains boat tour, you will find a clearly marked parking lot. There is plenty of parking at the Gates of the Mountains and it is free.
Once you have parked your car, head inside the Tour Center to the check-in desk. Everyone going on a boat tour will need to stop here. You can either buy your tickets in person here or show them your tickets online and they will redeem them here for a physical ticket.
Inside the tour center, you will find a gift shop, snack bar, ice cream, and drinks. The gift shop is lovely and a great place to buy a souvenir!
The gift shop is home to all sorts of fun souvenirs from sweatshirts and t-shirts to stickers and toys, there is a wide variety of things to buy.
Inside the tour center, you will find concessions. The concessions are your standard concession stand, but very convenient for before or after your boat trip. This includes food like hamburgers, veggie burgers, hotdogs, grilled cheese, and more.
If you have a sweet tooth, there is also ice cream! I highly recommend trying the Huckleberry Ice Cream. Huckleberry is a berry found high in the mountains, and it’s only available in some parts of the country. I absolutely love Huckleberry, and here it’s pretty good!
Two Boat Types
During your tour, there are two boats that will be going out. You get to decide what boat you would like to take. They both are the same price and you will decide what boat you like upon boarding.
The Sacagewea boat is one of the original boats for the tour and has been operating everyday since the tours began! This wooden boat tends to be the most popular boat on a nice sunny day, because it offers better views. The downside to this boat is that the seats are not as comfortable, there is less leg room, and no toilets on board.
But, riding on the Sacagewea boat means you get the opportunity to stop at the Helena National Forest picnic area for a 10-15 minute stop to use the bathroom and explore.
See pictures of the boat below.
The second boat in operation is the Canyon Voyager. This boat is sightly bigger than the Sacagewea and offers a more comfortable experience. Some seats are outside while others are inside. This can be a nice option on a rain day. The cons to this boat would be the interior views. It can be more difficult to see through the windows and many travelers prefer the wind blowing through their hair!
The Canyon Voyager is the newer and nicer of the two boats. The seats are much more comfortable and have more legroom. Additionally, there is a restroom onboard. But, because there is a restroom, this boat does not stop at the campsite. So, your trip will be about 15 minutes shorter than the Sacagewea boat.
How Early to Arrive for Your Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour
If you are picky about the boat you will ride on, then I recommend arriving early. Your seat on the boat is on a first-come, first serve basis. Meaning, that the earlier you line up, the better seat you get. The older, Sacagawea boat is the more popular option, so if you really want this boat it’s best to arrive early.
I’d recommend arriving 30-45 minutes before your scheduled boat tour. This allows you enough time to check in, in and explore the grounds before you begin.
What to Expect On Your Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour
Once you begin your Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour, you can expect a relaxing ride along up the Missouri River. The tour will last about 2 hours.
Your boat driver will have a loud microphone and give lots of interesting history about the Lewis and Clark expedition along these waters, as well as point out interesting rock formations and wildlife.
As previously mentioned, I have done this tour many times, and every time I learn something new! Each boat driver has their own connection to the land and has interesting things to share. But, on each tour you will have a similar experience and be told the same set of stories.
If you are on the Sacagewea boat tour, you should expect a 10-15 minute stop about halfway through the tour for a restroom break.
What to Pack for Gates of the Mountains
Gates of the Mountains Montana is a half-day adventure that is filled with plenty to do and see. It’s important to pack accordingly to have the best trip possible.
To start, note that there are many yellowjackets here! They usually don’t bother you, but it does make eating and drinking outside difficult.
- Lunch – Pack your own lunch of snacks for your adventure! Although there is a food court, it could be nice to bring your own and have a little picnic here! There are tons of picnic tables outside, both in the sun and under shade to protect from the sun or rain.
- Bug Spray – Let’s face it, if you are outside you should always have bug spray to keep away those pesky mosquitos.
- Sunscreen – Montana is in the north, which means it’s closer to the sun. The sun is STRONG in Montana and you can get burnt easily without even realizing it! Especially in those summer months, pack sunscreen! This two-hour gates of the mountain boat tour is outside in the heat for 2 hours.
- Water – Lastly, it’s always a good idea to pack some water. You are allowed to take water out on the boat with you, and I highly recommend this. You can also buy some water at the concession stand before your boat tour.
Things To Do at the Gates of the Mountains
When visiting the Gates of the Mountains in Montana, there is more to do than just the boat tour.
If you are lucky enough to have your own boat, there is public boat dock access in the marina for you to use. While boating, you have the freedom to see the Missouri River and go farther than the tours.
The fee is between $5-$10 per day depending on if you have a trailer.
Hiking is another popular activity at the Gates of the Mountains in Montana! Many of the trails here are long and require a half-day or full-day hike. I recommend checking out All Trails (!! LINK !!) for up-to-date information about the hiking trails.
The most popular trail is the Bear Prairie Trail via Refrigerator Canyon Trail. This is a 16-mile out-and-back hike with over 3,000 feet elevation gain. But, if you aren’t so much into hiking you can always begin the trail and turn back before the end. You will get to the exciting canyon towards the beginning of the trail.
Things To Do in Helena
Once you’re all done here, you may head back to Helena, Montana and have time to squeeze in a few things to do in Helena before you head out! Here are some places worth stopping by in Helena if you have the time.
State Captial Building – Did you know Helena is the capital of Montana? It’s actually the 5th smallest state capital town! If you visit in the mornings during business hours, the capital is free to roam around! But, its also a beautiful view from the outside as well.
Last Chance Gulch – Need a place to have dinner or experience the (small) Helena nightlife? Last Chance Gulch is the spot for you. This is in the heart of downtown Helena and hosts many bars and restaurants. Although, you’re still in a small town so don’t expect too much.
Reeder’s Alley – Just down the street from Last Chance Gulch you’ll find Reeder’s Alley. Reeder’s Alley is the oldest street in Helena and is actually where gold was first found here! This historic street has many fun shops in it and is quite touristy. But, you can also visit after hours and take some pictures of the unique buildings that transport you back in time.
These are just three of many things to do in Helena, Montana. Read More about Things to Do in Helena, Montana here!
There you have it, the ultimate guide to the Gates of the Mountains. The Gates of the Mountains are a beautiful way to spend a half-day on the outskirts of Helena, Montana. Situated perfectly between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, this is a perfect stop on your road trip. Traversing the Missouri River in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark is unlike any experience around, and you may even learn something new!
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