About this Itinerary
One of the most remarkable aspects of Montana’s Rivers Edge Trail is that it provides a glimpse back in time of a significant piece of America’s history. After President Thomas Jefferson bought a sizable chunk of what later would become the middle swath of the United States, he needed someone to explore his Louisiana Purchase. What better way to find out what the parcel included than to send a party of explorers under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark? Rivers Edge is the perfect route for discovering part of what Lewis and Clark encountered on their trip up the Missouri River. And not much of the landscape has changed in more than 200 years. Miles upon miles of “Big Sky” in the High Plains desert with nothing but sagebrush and pronghorn to keep you company.
Exploring the entire network of trails is for experienced and adventuresome cyclists only, and you’ll need a few days to do it. Even if you’re not doing the entire network, we recommend taking three days: one for the trails in town (including museum visits), one for riding the north shore trails, and a third for riding the south shore trails.
Fly into Great Falls, Montana; the airport is on the southwest side of the city and just minutes from downtown. If quirky is your thing, check into the O’Haire Motor Inn, on 7th Street. This family-owned hotel has an indoor swimming pool that connects with the Sip-N-Dip Lounge. Mermaids have been known to float by the bar, entertaining patrons while they enjoy a cold one. The hotel is seven blocks from the trail. Alternatively, La Quinta Inn & Suites is right on the trail—and the river—if you fancy stepping outside your door and hopping on your bike, avoiding city streets.
You can rent bikes from Knicker Biker on 2nd Avenue North, and they’re also a great wealth of information about the Rivers Edge Trail. The owner, Edward Henry (call him “Henry”), is intimately familiar with the trails and spends much of his time building and maintaining them. Tell Henry what type of riding you like, and he’ll tell you the segments to explore—and the ones to avoid, depending on your fancy and abilities. The shop also has bike maps of the entire trail network. Though Knicker Biker doesn’t offer shuttles, they will consider shuttles for group travelers, if given enough lead time and when a driver is available. Be sure to call a few weeks in advance to discuss it with Henry.
Rivers Edge consists of roughly 15 miles’ worth of urban segments, plus additional segments that link to the trail. The trail also flows through several parks and features picnic shelters, sculptures, interpretive panels, and beautiful scenery to enhance your adventure.
Start your day with breakfast at your accommodations or check out other Great Falls venues that vie for the title of best breakfast spot; two of them include Missouri River Diner (just off the trail) and 2 K’s Kafe (less than 1 mile northeast of La Quinta Inn & Suites, on 3rd Street S).
Concentrate your ride in the main urban area and dive into local history with three self-guided tours. You can download brochures for the first two listed below from the trail website; each includes detailed descriptions of the historical sites and a map. Brochures are also available from the Great Falls Visitor Center.
1) Railroad Historic District Tour. Learn about the city’s interesting beginnings and rise to become a great Western railroad town. Sites are concentrated along River Drive and include some architectural gems.
2) River’s Edge Trail History Tour. From buffalo jumps and early American Indian campsites, to the first hydropower dams along the Missouri, discover early Great Falls. All but two of the eight sites are on the north side of the river.
3) Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. The perfect jumping off point for all things Corps of Discovery.
Once you’ve been steeped in a little background, your adventure along the rural parts of the Rivers Edge Trail will come alive even more. Start by cycling downriver to where the paved trail ends at Crooked Falls overlook. Take in the view across the river just below Rainbow Falls and the dam—one of several of both falls and dams. The Missouri River drops about 500 feet along the course of 21 miles and over five sets of waterfalls. Thus, the future city was named after what Lewis and Clark’s name for this area and for what forced them to portage long distances. Later of course, these falls provided the perfect conditions for hydroelectric power. The first dam, around the late 1880s, was built near Black Eagle Falls, followed by dams at the falls of Rainbow (1910), Ryan (1915), Morony (1928), and Cochrane (1958).
From Crooked Falls overlook, ride your way back toward town, stopping to explore Giant Springs State Park—alleged to be the home of the one of the world’s shortest rivers and still one of the largest freshwater springs in America. Ride the 2-mile loop here for views of Black Eagle Falls and Steamboat Island. Also in this area is the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, where you’ll want to spend a couple hours tracing the steps of the Corps of Discovery and viewing the artifacts on display.
Back in town, cross over the river at the 9th Street Bridge and follow the map on the brochure “River’s Edge Trail History Tour” to explore sites 1 through 6 (you will pass sites 7 and 8 before you cross the bridge, so have a look at the brochure in preparation before you leave Giant Springs). You can cross back to the other side of the river via a bridge built specially for the trail just downstream of the 1st Avenue bridge. From here, pull out the brochure for the “Railroad Historic District Tour” (20 sites).
Break for lunch at Mighty Mo Brewing Company on Central Avenue just southeast of the downtown trail system. They serve their own ales as well as pizza, sandwiches, salads, and appetizers. Also on the southeast side of the river on 1st Avenue near Railroad Square, the Celtic Cowboy Pub & Restaurant serves unique dishes, such as bison burgers and Irish nachos (house-made potato chips topped with corned beef, Dubliner cheese, onions, tomatoes, smoked jalapeños, and roasted garlic).
For dinner tonight, check out Suki Café on 10th Avenue South, for their sushi and Japanese-Thai cuisine.
Continue exploring Rivers Edge Trail on the south shore by riding back toward Crooked Falls overlook and beyond. Incidentally, even though the Missouri is a river, around here, they refer to the banks as shores because the dams create reservoirs—albeit, river-like ones. Alternatively, you can drive to the Lewis & Clark Trailhead Overlook (#17 on the urban section of the trail map; #1 on the rural map) and cycle downriver from here as far as Box Elder Creek (about 8.5 miles). The riding is on dirt trails and there isn’t much shade, so be sure to take plenty of water as well as a picnic lunch. You won’t find any places to eat along the trail in the rural sections. In fact, you won’t find shops of any kind; this is truly wild.
The trail is nicely marked, and about 1.5 miles from the trailhead parking area are a set of expert trails called “Mayhem.” The offshoot trail system is marked for ability by beginner, intermediate, and expert, and you can just stick to the main trail if you like. The ride to Ryan Dam is suitable for most people; the trail beyond that to Box Elder Creek has some mixed ability riding.
Though generally downhill as you head downriver, the trail goes up and down, into and out of creek bottoms—called “coulees” in this part of the country. On the return journey, you’ll be working to ride back up hill. We can’t stress enough the importance of bringing enough water (and snacks), especially on hot days.
Ask the friendly staff at Knicker Biker for more details and to determine how far you want to ride—and are able to. Alternatively, you can ride as far as Cochrane Dam (4 miles), and if open, you can cross the dam to the other side. From there, you can take the north shore trail back to Great Falls or save it for tomorrow. The crossing is open only during certain weekends in summer; information is posted at trailhead kiosks and on the Rivers Edge Trail website.
This afternoon, visit the Charles M. Russell Museum, which showcases the life of one of America’s most iconic painters of the Wild West, the scenery of which you can view first hand along the rural portion of the trail. The museum will especially delight fans of Western art and appeal to those who hadn’t given much thought to paintings of cowboys, Indians, and scenes of Montana’s Great Plains.
Have dinner tonight at Clark & Lewie’s in the O’Haire Motor Inn, which serves traditional American fare, including soups, steak and seafood, salads, and sandwiches. Afterward, enjoy a drink next door at the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge—you never who might swim by.
The rural section of north shore of the Rivers Edge Trail travels from the Rainbow Dam trailhead downriver and includes a complex system of trails all the way to Morony Dam. Beyond Cochrane Dam, the trail is single-track dirt, a little tougher to ride, and should be tackled only by strong intermediate to advanced riders. Again, ask at Knicker Biker for more information about trail conditions and to get a sense of what you can ride.
The entire length from Rainbow Dam trailhead to Morony Dam is about 9.5 miles, riding in and out of coulees and, overall, downhill to Morony. Remember, you have to ride back up on the return journey. If you want to try just a section of it to get a feel for the rugged beauty of Lewis & Clark (and Charlie Russell) country, you can drive to one of the dams and begin from there. From Rainbow to Cochrane, the trail is 3.2 miles one way. From Cochrane to Ryan Dam, the trail is 2.1 miles one way. And from Ryan to Morony Dam, the trail is 4.1 miles one way.
Bring plenty of water as well as food with you on the ride. Ryan Dam has a lovely island in the middle of the river, accessible by a footbridge and with a nice picnic spot beneath towering cottonwood trees. There’s also a facility for cooking food. One option is to drive to Ryan Dam and ride from there down river to Morony, returning to Ryan to have a picnic lunch, then riding up river to Cochrane Dam and back.
Tonight, sink your teeth into a truffle burger at Bert & Ernie’s Tavern and Grill, or try their chicken satay or poutine—fries with sirloin in gravy and cheese curd.
While in town, be sure to visit other area attractions. Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art is worth the visit just to see the beautiful building, one of the city’s oldest landmarks and built in 1896. It was a high school and junior high until 1975. The art museum features exhibitions of modern and contemporary works of the American Northwest. Great Falls’ History Museum (open Tuesday through Friday) is near the river in historical Machinery Row, named for the grouping of manufacturers in this part of town. The museum is housed in the old International Harvester building and has a permanent exhibit on Cascade County and north-central Montana. In addition, you’ll find temporary exhibitions on topics ranging from Montana history to local art.
Nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base offers free tours on week days; call for weekend hours. The base is home to the 341st Missile Wing and Global Strike Command, and the base managed the many missile silos in the region. The visitor center is located at the 2nd Avenue North gate. On hot days, Electric City Water Park is the perfect place to cool your jets and includes a wave pool, lazy river, slides, swimming pool, and children’s pool area. The park is located within walking distance of La Quinta Inn & Suites right along the river.
Seventeen miles west of town is an archaeological site that was possibly the largest bison cliff jump in North America: First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Native peoples used this site for at least 1,000 years before Lewis and Clark passed through. The bison jump site has a mile-long sandstone cliff and remnants of drive lines on top of the cliff. Below the jump are about 18 feet worth of compacted buffalo remains. The park has an interpretive trail, picnic tables, and a protected black-tailed prairie dog town.
Other outdoor activities include boating and fishing, aplenty, and Montana River Outfitters is your one-stop shop for rentals or guided trips. Kayak, raft, or paddle your way on stand-up boards. The Missouri River and other nearby waterways offer some fantastic recreation.