Thursday, September 19, 2013

A boat trip through the Gates of the Mountains

September 13, 2013
Helena, Montana
Lincoln Road RV Park

Aerial view photo taken from internet of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area
aerial view of gates of the mountains

One of our good friends from Corvallis fishes the Missouri River every fall near Cascade, Montana.  He encouraged us to head east from Glacier via Browning and Choteau on Hwy 89, then Hwy 287 to I-15  which follows the Missouri River into Helena. Neither of us had ever been this way so we thought it would be good to see some new vistas. To take full advantage of the Missouri River experience, he suggested we take a boat trip near Helena through what is known as the Gates of the Mountains. I had bookmarked the boat trip website earlier this summer and we both agreed it looked interesting and quite reasonable at $14 piece. We made plans to stay as close as possible to the boat tour since Helena was just going to be an overnight stop for us on the way to Livingston, Montana. 

It was a little tricky to find a campground close to the marina, but after several phone calls, we discovered a decent place, Lincoln Road RV Park about nine miles south. There are other state or BLM parks in the area but they don’t handle big rigs and seemed pretty far off the main highway, something we did not want to do.  Interestingly, a couple of the flyfishing outfitters in Craig and Cascade had 2-3 RV spots for overnighters which would have been another option but they were a little too far away.

The last boat tour of the day was at 2 p.m. (fall schedule). This early afternoon departure time caused us to rush more than usual to travel 200 miles, get checked in at the campground, and head back north to the marina in our Jeep. One factor that added to our challenge was getting slowed down on Hwy 89 by miles of road construction with long delays between Browning and Choteau. We arrived at the marina with only four minutes to spare, but we made it in time to park, get tickets, and board our tour boat, The Canyon Voyager.

gates of the mts sign

The weather was perfect for a boat ride, about 75 degrees with clear blue skies and little wind. Once we got on the boat, neither of us  had any idea about what to expect other than knowing it would last two hours.  The captain of the boat narrated the trip the whole way explaining the history, adding anecdotes, and quite a few jokes thrown in for entertainment value. 

The main history of the Gates of the Mountains area for American settlers goes back to Meriwether Lewis’s “discovery” of this area.  He and Clark were split up during this part of their expedition, so Lewis is the one who made the area well-known with this description of it from his journal:

Friday July 19, 1805--  “this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet. . . . the river appears to have forced its way through this immence body of solid rock for the distance of 5 ¾ miles and where it makes its exit below has thrown on either side vast collumns of rocks mountains high. the river appears to have woarn a passage just the width of its channel or 150 yds. it is deep from side to side nor is ther in the 1st 3 miles of this distance a spot except one of a few yards in extent on which a man could rest the soal of his foot. . . .this rock is a black grannite below and appears to be of a much lighter colour above and from the fragments I take it to be flint of a yelloish brown and light creemcolourd yellow.—from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains. –from the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Gates of the Mountain region was designated a national wilderness area as part of the 1964 Wilderness Act which means no roads, no buildings, no logging, no mining, and no mechanized vehicles including bicycles. There is a day use campground along the river which requires a special permit, as does fishing and hunting in the area. Consequently, one of the special aspects of touring this area is it looks much the same as it did over two-hundred years ago when Lewis and his crew came up the Missouri.

boat view of cliffs

The cliffs of the canyon are limestone deposits from glacier activity millions of years ago.  In several places, there are unique caves and shapes in the towering rock walls. There are interesting formations everywhere, even some where the limestone folded over on itself creating horizontal layers of what must have once looked like taffy.

lateral cliff formations

There were several other unusual formations that the captain pointed out as the monster of the canyon (two cave eyes and a cave hole for the mouth) or other imagined animal shapes.

cave eyes

monster face

If memory serves me correctly, I think the guide said this opening was 40 feet wide. With 1200 ft. cliffs, it is a little hard to judge the scale of things.

large opening in wall

When Lewis and his crew were navigating their boats through this area, the towering cliffs seemed to block their passage, but as they went around a bend in the waterway, it seemed like the rock walls magically opened up to allow their entrance into the imposing waterway.  Our captain maneuvered the boat so we could experience the optical illusion of the rock walls opening like a gate. Hard to capture in a photo, but it was one of the more memorable experiences of our excursion.

closing gates3closing gates2closign gates3

One of the other memorable but tragically sad aspects of the tour was seeing Mann Gulch, the canyon where thirteen smokejumpers lost their lives on August 5, 1949. This historic disaster changed the way fires were fought in the Northwest. I knew the story sounded familiar to me then I remembered reading Norman MacLean’s book Young Men and Fire (author of A River Runs Through It) which chronicles the Mann Gulch Fire.  Also, the 1953 film, Red Skies of Montana with Richard Widmark is loosely based on the harrowing events of the Mann Gulch fire.

mann gulch fire sign

mann gulch

Other highlights of the tour included some wildlife sightings—mainly bighorn sheep, eagles, osprey, and one deer. After spending five days in Glacier National Park, we were not as wowed as we normally would be but it was still exciting to see the wonders of nature in such a unique place. 

bighorn sheep best


osprey nest3

Lastly, aside from thinking of the Lewis and Clark expedition that occurred here, I like to go back even further and imagine the Native American tribes who once inhabited these canyons.  To my surprise, the captain pointed some very distinct pictograph on the cliffs. This first one is not a clear symbol--maybe a tree or a person, but the second one clearly portrays a bison with arrows running through it. They estimate these pictographs to be about two-thousand years old. It is amazing how strong the color has stood the test of time.


pictograph with bison

We were both glad we went a little out of our way to see this place. Some of the best experiences we have had over the past two years have been discovering lesser known places and having the time to explore them.  Thank you Don Cook for the great suggestion which took us to the Gate of the Rockies!

Next up a brief stop in Livingston and Bozeman, then on to West Yellowstone. Thanks for coming along.

closing gates


  1. The GREAT thing about reading the "Big EZ Travels" blog is all the work of planning our travel itinerary for out west is already done for us! :)

  2. Doesn't so many of this countries beautiful discoveries go back to Lewis and Clark? What a couple of awesome man.

    Looks like a perfect day for a tour. The water is so smooth. Great photos.

    We love seeing pictographs and using our imagination to try and figure out what they might mean. The Bison is very clear.

  3. WOW! What a beautiful adventure....this will go on the list for sure!

    Wonderful photos ...I never get tired of the always amazing to see. Can you believe that Joe and I still haven't seen an eagle? I also never thought I would love the "rocks" as much as I do! The cliff faces are cool!

    Can't wait to see West Yellowstone....we haven't been there.

  4. Thanks for sharing this hidden gem! I enjoy visiting and traveling areas that Lewis and Clark went before. I can see why Lewis thought they were trapped. It does appear to end. Good job capturing that illusion!

    I love the monster face in the cliff! Many great finds with the pictographs and wildlife. I never tire of finding Big Horn Sheep.

    I pinned this location so when we return I can remember to check your blog.

    Happy travels!!

  5. Wow I don't know how you did 200 miles and set up and drove to the tour spot all by 2:00. Can't imagine doing that. I can barely do 150 by 2:00 and we're not late sleepers. But it certainly was worth it. Gorgeous pictures. Is this a place one could kayak? I just love that it looks as it did over 200 or more years ago. So few places can say that. Thanks for showing me this. And thanks to Don too.

  6. Those are some really fine photos! I think I would like to go on that boat ride. Love to see things like that and got a chuckle out of the monster of the canyon.

  7. Hi "The Big EZ",
    your blog is amazing.I think your boat adventure is very memorable to both of you seabirds. Keep on blogging your unforgettable trips. You may be want to see activesailing


Don't be shy. We would love to hear your comments!