Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Helena Montana Trip Recap

Me in front of the Fort Hall Casino in Fort Hall Idaho


With me running the Governor's Cup Marathon, it meant traveling to a new area that I've never been to.  I've always wanted to visit Montana but never had a reason to  -- until I signed up for the marathon.  With my goal of trying to run a marathon in all 50 states, Montana was a no brainer. 

Located about 7 hours from Salt Lake City, I signed up for the race about 3 weeks prior to the race and made plans to visit for an extended weekend.

Below, I have cataloged some of the lesser things we did while in Helena.


My plan was to be on the road by no later than 10AM on Friday.  The trip was supposed to be about 7 hours and I needed to be at the packet pickup in downtown Helena by 6pm.  To save miles on my car, we opted to rent a car from the local Enterprise dealership.  I scored a Toyota Yaris, which got phenomenal gas mileage but totally lacked a cruise control, which just about killed my foot.  

We managed to hit the road a hair after 9:30 and we had pretty smooth sailing.  I have only been as far north as the Idaho border on I-15 so everything after that was pretty much new territory to me.  

Below I had Shari capture some of the better pictures that were in Utah or Southern Idaho.  

Construction south of Pocatello

Lava Rock in Southern Idaho


Our first break in the action was when we passed through Pocatello Idaho and arrived in Fort Hall.  Fort Hall, Idaho was a spot for settlers heading west and now it is mostly known for being the home of the Fort Hall Casino since it is now entirely on an Indian Reservation.

We had talked about making a special trip up there to check out the casino.  I am happy to report we didn't and opted to go to Wendover instead.  The casino was basically a ton of slot machines in a warehouse.  The casino didn't really have any charm to it.  While there was no shortage of things to play, it didn't leave much for inspiration.

There is no booze in the casino so they had help-yourself-soda which we did.  I stuck in a $20 into some random Bally Technologies machine and wound up netting a $3 profit.  I really wasn't in the mood to gamble on account I had lost a bunch last week and I certainly didn't want a repeat performance.  

A little further up the road we stopped into a Flying J in Idaho Falls and I probably had the worst pair of slices of pizza I've had in my life.  The line at Subway was too long and we were beginning to sort of worry about making the 6pm deadline in Helena.  The pizza was mostly bread, but at least it was quick.  

As we made our way north, the landscape changed to a more desert feel but the mountains got progressively closer.  Also the traffic died down about 75% once we got past Idaho Falls, as that is pretty much the last major town between it and Butte, Montana.

We also noticed a TON of cops in Idaho.  While the speed limit is 80mph I was without a cruise control and I had a tendency to be going 85+.  

Here are some more photos of Central Idaho just before Montana (and parts of Southern Montana):

Montana was pretty desolate and I was disconsolate to see that the speed limit was "only" 75mph.  I understand they are going to catch up with the rest of the west and raise it to 80 in the fall, but it was 75mph and like Idaho, their highway patrol was out looking for speeders.

We quickly jumped onto I-90 and got our first glimpse of a major Montana town: Butte.  The first thing one notices about Montana is that there are a TON of casinos.  We weren't that impressed with them, as they mostly had a dozen or so machines and they seem to have all the same ones.  Their video poker definitely paid better than anything I had seen in Nevada but to be honest, gambling in a gas station spare room just didn't appeal too much to me.  They also seemed to have all the same machines and sadly there was no Fu Dao Le.

Also, in Butte there is a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a cliff well above the city.  Very interesting and I guess it was privately funded:

Look for the white statue at the top of the mountain
The trip into Helena (about the last hour) was the most exciting.  The plains gave way to mountains and heavy pine hills.  The road also was more twisty and turny so driving was actually sort of fun again.  There was some spectacular scenery along here:

We rolled into town around 5pm and I scored my bib.  Since the packet pick up was at the Holiday Inn in downtown Helena, we decided to eat at the Quarry Bar and Grill.  I commented to myself that I knew I wasn't in Utah anymore because everyone had a beer at their table.  Food was good and quick, but the atmosphere was loud on account there were a lot of high profile games going on.  

Veggie Burger and Fries

After taking a very brief tour of the downtown area we headed back to the Red Lion Colonial Hotel where I had scored an amazing price of $69 / night.  I am also a Red Lion member, so I got some bonus points for staying there.  The room was nice, especially for the price and other than the walls being a little thin (we could hear our neighbors) it was an enjoyable stay.


In the morning I ran the Helena Marathon.  You can read about it here.

Afterwards I came back to the hotel and cleaned up.  We looked through a restaurant listing and settled on Fiesta Mexican Helena.  It was deserted when we first got there but it had gotten decent reviews online.  I got a mammoth burrito which equally matched my appetite.  Food was good and the service was very prompt and attentive.  It wasn't my favorite Mexican food, but it sure hit the spot.  I had a vegetarian burrito:

After eating we headed downtown and wandered around.  You can read about it here.  

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at the state capitol building.  Did you know it was the first state capital building to have running electricity in it?  Who would've guessed good old Montana had that distinction.  The building was really stunning but ominously quiet being it was a Saturday:

We saw that the Montana Historical Society was nearby and sensing the opportunity to see a museum we decided to check it out.  We were in luck to notice that the place was absolutely free on the second Saturday's of each month.  Score for us!

Even if we had to pay the $5 (each) cover charge, this museum was entirely worth it.  You could spend a while in here if you wanted to read each exhibit.  I checked out the ones that were most interesting to me and learned a lot about Montana's early history:

Notice the vintage slot machine

Museum building

After visiting the museum we hit the local Dairy Queen where we met some runners from Idaho who had run the race in the morning.  They had similar experiences to what I had felt so I knew I wasn't alone in my feelings.  Nicest people as well. We each inhaled a double sundae and it certainly hit the spot.

We headed back to the hotel and kicked back for an hour or so and I managed to somehow take a nap despite being totally caffeinated out.  Around 7pm we headed out to On Broadway, a classy restaurant in downtown Helena that had gotten good reviews.

Normally I don't go for fancy food, as it usually is high on hot air and low on quantity and I often have to go to McDonalds or something to fill the void.  I am happy to report that I left full.  I had a clam linguine (which I failed to take a picture of).  The atmosphere was nice and we had an upper deck view of the restaurant:

Shari's pasta

On Broadway Exterior

I actually slept like a rock on Saturday night.


In the morning, we hit the Red Lion breakfast brunch.  It was a bit pricey but the food was good.  Made to order omelettes, smoked salmon, cake, cheese blintzes, fruit, etc.  I ate like a starving man.  

We wound up doing the Gates of the Mountains tour, which you can read about here.

After the tour, I wanted to stop at Lake Helena, which we could see out in the distance from our hotel room.  There wasn't much there but it seemed popular with those wanting to kayak:

We talked to some people and they recommended going to the Tizer Gardens, which you can read about here.

On the way back from the Gardens we had to choose where to eat.  To the south of Helena, just before you enter the city proper, you come to Montana City and there were a pair of saloons just off the freeway.  Feeling adventurous, I parked and did some research.  I settled on the Montana City Grill and Saloon.

I knew going in it was going to be mildly pricey and I was expecting to get a small portion of food and  a huge bill, but I was pleasantly surprised to get a nice piece of trout with some super hot fries. This was probably the best meal on the trip for me:

After eating, I let the food settle before hitting the Red Lion Pool / Jacuzzi.  The Jacuzzi was lukewarm as the heater wasn't working, but the jets felt fantastic against my sore muscles:


I got a semi decent night's sleep and in the morning I was seriously thinking about going for a shake-out run.  The post marathon soreness wasn't bothering me as much, but I opted to play it safe and take the day off from running.  

We had gotten a newspaper the previous day which had a 20% off coupon for Perkins (a Denny's like diner) and we opted to eat there.  Fantastic breakfast:

By 10AM we were on the road.  We stopped at a few places to get gas or use the restrooms.  I also stopped at the Clark Canyon Reservoir, which is in southern Montana.  Just an absolutely beautiful place for fishing and boating:

It was largely smooth sailing all the way home.  Since it was approaching dinner time by the time we got into our neck of the woods, we opted to eat at the Layton Golden Corral.  Of course, did you think I wouldn't?  What big race wouldn't be complete without it:

I only eat off Green Plates at the GC

We wound up making it home by 6:30.  We were road weary and I still had to return the car rental.  All told, I put on close to 1000 miles on that Yaris and for the most part it was a good car. 

We saw a TON of things that we definitely want to do in Montana and I can see myself doing the Missoula Marathon or making another trip up that way in the future.  I sort of felt like I had only scratched the surface of what Montana had to offer.

Enjoy the photos!

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