The evening of July 19, 1805, was a hot one in the wilderness that would later become Montana. On the Missouri River, not far north of the present state capital, the hardy members of the Lewis and Clark expedition toiled to move upstream. Rock embankments made towing from shore impossible, and the deep channel forced the men to row rather than pole their boats forward.
Suddenly, there loomed before them towering rock formations unlike any they had ever seen. From both sides of the river, limestone cliffs rose to a spectacular height of 1200 feet. 'In many places,' wrote Meriwether Lewis, 'the rocks seem ready to tumble on us.' At each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage, only to open like gentle giant gates as the expedition drew near. In his journal, Lewis wrote: 'I shall call this place: Gates of the Mountains'.
The name stuck, and for nearly two centuries travelers have ventured down this stretch of the Missouri to marvel at its natural wonders. Today, most visitors enjoy the beauty of Gates of the Mountains from aboard one of our three tour boats the Pirogue, the Sacajawea, and the Hilger Rose (named after Nicholas Hilger who began the tours in 1886).
The 105-minute cruise starts at our marina, just three miles off Interstate 15 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains between Helena and Great Falls. Aboard a comfortable open-air river boat (covered in case of rain), you'll glide through magnificent country that has not changed since the days of Lewis and Clark.
Great towering walls of limestone still stand guard over the river. Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats still scamper in the rocks high above the water. And ospreys, eagles, and falcons still soar on the updrafts. The canyon is also home to otters, deer, squirrels, and dozens of other wild creatures. Now and then, visitors even spot a black bear on the wooded hillsides.
At Meriwether Picnic Area, the boat stops for a bit of leg stretching. This is one of the few places in the canyon where a boat can be beached, and it's believed that Lewis and Clark camped at this spot in 1805. If you like, you may temporarily abandon the tour here and complete the trip on a later boat. From the picnic area you can hike to Mann Gulch where a raging forest fire in 1949 killed 13 smoke jumpers or into the rugged Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. You can also fish, have a picnic, or just lie in the sun.
Farther downstream, the tour boat pilot will hug the shoreline to give you a look at Indian pictographs etched into the rock wall, proof that Lewis and Clark were not the first people to visit this hallowed spot.
The canyons main attraction, though is its inexhaustible scenery wooded slopes rugged rock formations, and the placid beauty of the timeless Missouri. This is Montana and the West at their best. You are cordially invited to take a trip through Heaven's Gate.