Dams, Waterfalls and Prairies – Great Falls, MT

The city of Great Falls is named after a series of 5 waterfalls flowing downstream on the Missouri River, running through the heart of town.  Within this 15-mile stretch of the river exists an overall elevation change of over 500′.  This dramatic drop in the river gave the Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis and Clark, a hard time on their historical westward expedition in July, 1805.

Great Falls of the Missouri

Going overland around the falls was such a challenge that it took them a month to move everything upstream above the last waterfall – a scant 18-mile journey.  This area is considered the Great Falls portage, the midpoint of their westward journey that symbolizes the most grueling stretch of the expedition to this point.

Portage of the Great Falls Diorama
A diorama of the portage of the Great Falls

We delved into the Portage at Great Falls at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Interpretive Center, viewing the exhibits that chronicle the entire route of the Corps of Discovery.  We watched a 30-minute video that brought to life the experiences of that historic expedition.  It reminded us that we’ve intersected and visited many sections of the Lewis and Clark Trail as we’ve zig-zagged along during our travels .

Missouri River
Missouri River cutting through the city of Great Falls

The 5 waterfalls (Colter, Black Eagle, Ryan, Rainbow and Crooked Falls) made the city of Great Falls “the Electric City”, as each one (except Colter, which is submerged now) sported a hydroelectric dam.  Lewis and Clark could never imagine that the obstacles stalling their journey could turn into projects that would meet the region’s energy needs.

Corp of Discovery
A new member of the Corps of Discovery points to Black Eagle Dam (he’s the one with no rust on him – yet)

Lewis and Clark Trail

On June 13, 1805, Lewis set out in search of the falls of the Missouri River, which the Mandan Indians had alerted him to.  Within one day he not only discovered the Great Falls, but went on to find four more.  On our visit we saw the same waterfalls, similar in appearance except for the dams constructed behind them.


Great Falls of Missouri
Great Falls as first seen by Lewis in June, 1805
Great Falls of Missouri
Today the Great Falls of Missouri is the Ryan Dam Great Falls
Ryan Falls Dam
Close-up of the falls below Ryan Dam

The second fall Lewis saw was what he called Crooked Falls:

Crooked Falls Dam
Crooked Falls

During the expedition he saw another, saying: “here the river pitches over a shelving rock, with an edge as regular and straight as if formed by art, without a niche or break in it; the water descends in one even and uninterrupted sheet…”

Rainbow Falls Dam
Rainbow Falls Dam
Rainbow Falls Dam
Close up view of Rainbow Falls

Two miles above Rainbow Falls, Lewis came upon the fifth cataract, 26′ high and nearly 600 yards wide.  He called it simply “upper pitch”, and it was later renamed Black Eagle Falls.

Black Eagle Falls Dam

Black Eagles Falls Dam
Black Eagles Falls Dam

Rivers Edge TrailFollowing the Rivers Edge Trail along the both sides of the Missouri River provided us not only with scenic views of the river, dams and waterfalls, but also a variety of wildlife, grasslands and other attractions.  It traverses the Lewis and Clark National Historic Interpretive Center, the Giant Springs State Park and a protected river frontage lined with commercial and business development.  This is one of those times when we really missed our bikes 😦

Northshore Trail
Verifying our location on the North Shore Trail along the river

Walking along, we came across the historic Giant Springs landmark, also discovered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.  It’s one of the largest freshwater springs in the country. I jumped when a rattlesnake rattled next to the path as I walked by, but by the time Steve got there to save me it was gone.  No picture of that snake!

Giant Springs of Montana
Giant Springs, as its name implies, is huge and flows at a rate of 156 million gallons of water per day, at a constant temperature of 54º.  This is really beautiful and shouldn’t be missed!
Great Springs
Giant Springs is crystal clear, and submerged emerald green vegetation shimmers in the sun

Giant Springs feeds into Roe River, which is only 201′ long and was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s shortest river.

Roe River
One of the world’s shortest rivers feeds into the longest river in the U.S. the Missouri River

And here’s just a few of the many wildlife along the river.

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl winked at me then went back to sleep
White Pelicans
White Pelicans
Bullocks Oriole
Bullocks Oriole


Rivers Edge Trail


Rivers Edge Trail, Great Falls Montana
Art under the bridge

Just minutes from Great Falls is the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, an archaeological site.  Long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark, native people used this site for at least a thousand years.  The term “first people” refers to the indigenous peoples in the area and is preferred over terms like Native American and Indian.

First Buffalo Jump State Park

There are more than 300 buffalo kill sites in Montana, and First People’s Buffalo Jump is one of only three protected buffalo jumps in the state.  It consists of a mile-long sandstone cliff; there are remnants of drive lines on top of the cliff that hold up to 18′ of compacted buffalo remains below.

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park
Looking up at the mile-long sandstone cliff where the buffalo were driven to their death – very sad

Here we followed the 3-mile loop from the visitor center to the jump.  With a trail guide in hand, we learned about the first people, the prairie and the buffalo jump story.

Buffalo jumps were a way to kill large numbers of the animals at one time without many of the risks associated with a close-proximity ambush.  Once the animals were driven over the cliff and incapacitated, they would be slaughtered.  Their meat, hides, and bones would be used by the hunters to feed and clothe their families, and to make various tools and weapons.

Buffalo Jump
Steve stands where the poor buffalo were driven over the cliffs

The visitor center had exhibits of archaeological evidence showing this place as a well-used hunting and food processing area for hundreds of years.  The kind of bones and artifacts at the foot of the cliff confirm that the bison were killed and at least partially butchered where they fell.


While there are no more bison roaming around here, we can only imagine what the stampede might have been like.  We did see a few critters during our walk, though:

First Peoples Buffalo Jump
And that concludes our one-week stay at Great Falls, Montana!




  1. Thanks for this great post about Great Falls. There is so much history there. It was our last stop before entering Canada on our way to Alaska three years ago and only had an afternoon to explore. Your post filled in all the things we missed!

  2. We haven’t visited Great Falls yet. Looks like a place we will really enjoy. I enjoy anything along the Lewis and Clark trail. The Interpretive Center looks wonderful. Your photos of the falls are beautiful. I can only imagine how spectacular they were before the dams. Your one old photo shows some of that magnificence. Glad you were able to jump by the rattler! The spring looks so inviting!

    • My ears are not trained yet to know when a rattler is around. I did not see it but I heard a big hissed and asked Steve what it was. I jumped when he said that was a rattler, holy crapola!
      This was a surprising stop as we did not know before hand the significance of Great Falls in the Corp of Discovery expedition. We were very happy and the center did a great job on their exhibits of the L&C journey.

      And I think you would enjoy searching for the falls along the Missouri River. I was like looking for an arch or a petroglyph, in a bigger scale 🙂

  3. We’re always fascinated by the Lewis and Clark trail and the various interpretive centers, too. And I’m really happy that we don’t have to travel as they did! I hope you were able to entice the newest member of the Corps of Discovery to leave with you. 🙂 Your wildlife photos are so cute (not so sure about that spider, though).

    • We were happy to learn that Lewis and Clark passed through here and is actually one of the highlight of their journey. It was interesting to visit and see sections of their trail beginning in St Louis, Missouri and the states in between.

      That new member has to leave with me for he is Betsy’s driver 🙂

  4. I always love to see a historic photo along side a “real time” shot. The falls that you encountered along the route were all so different. I loved how your pictures captured the scope and scale of the landscape…..thanks.

  5. I can’t image what Lewis and Clark thought of all the different scenery they came upon.
    We have never been close to Great Falls. I didn’t realize how beautiful it is. Giant Springs is super clear. What a beauty.
    I love the old photos. Gives me a great idea of what the area looked like through L and C’s eyes.

    • According to them the waterfalls have not changed much except for the addition of those hydroelectric buildings. The city took care of this stretch of the river and well maintained, a great place to just for a stroll and or take in history.
      And yes that Giant Springs is a sight to see, clear and cool.

  6. We are definitely adding Great Falls to the list! Absolutely amazing and beautiful…love all the history.

    Wildlife shots are amazing as well…I would love to see a great-horned owl in the wild and how cool to photograph a weasel MonaLiza! You lucky girl!

  7. We have been through Great Falls twice but never stopped long enough except to stop overnight and do shopping. Looks like we missed some great sights. I will make sure we stop for longer next time if we are up this way again.

  8. What fun pictures Mona Liza. Love the new member of the Corps without rust and the last one of you. A weasel – WOW! Lucky sighting. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one live and in the wild. He looks like he’s doing the yoga pose upward facing dog. Fabulous picture of a Great Horned owl too. You really do get great shots of wild life.

  9. Prior to the Alaska trip our wagon masters led a Lewis & Clark trip following their westerly progression. Needless to say he’s told us a bit about the L&W expedition. Sounds like a great week in Great Falls

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