Dams, Waterfalls and Prairies – Great Falls, MT

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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!


Next up:  Breathtaking Glacier National Park


Back on the road to Iowa

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Dailsy Fleabane

After Steve’s trip down memory lane we actually managed to walk two trails before leaving Yankton, SD.  The Auld-Brokaw and the Lewis and Clark trails both meandered along the Missouri River.  The town of Yankton is located on one of the last free-flowing, natural stretches of the Missouri, the longest river in the U.S.

Missouri River, Yankton, SD

A segment of the free-flowing Missouri River

Old Meridian Highway Bridge

Yankton’s old double-decker Meridian Highway Bridge, now replaced and converted into a great pedestrian walkway

Missouri River

Along the Lewis and Clark Trail

On our way out of town we crossed a bridge into Nebraska and stopped at Mulberry Bend, a high overlook where we got a good view of part of the 59-mile segment of the free-flowing Missouri River.

Mulberry Bend Outlook

Betsy takes a rest at the Mulberry Bend Overlook

This stop not only had exceptional views, but was also steeped in historical legacy.  The first known inhabitants here were American Indians who settled some 6,000 years ago.  Lewis and Clark visited the area in 1804.  However, the river we saw was very different from the one they traveled, partly due to the great flood of 1881.  That year, massive blocks of ice in the rain-thawed river created a new channel which re-routed it five miles to the south, destroying the town of Vermillion.  The entire town was subsequently re-built on higher ground several miles away.

Mulberry Bend

Although the Missouri River is the longest in the country, only one third of it is still a real river; dams and channelization have interrupted its natural process.  Two segments of the waterway’s 2,341 miles between Montana and the mouth of the Missouri that remain unchanged are located on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota.  They have been designated by the U.S. National Park Service as the Missouri National Recreational River.

Mulberry Bend, Missouri River

An untouched segment of the Missouri River

I enjoyed this quick stop, for my feathered friends flew around and presented themselves as we arrived.  After spending a few minutes enjoying the picturesque view we continued on our journey into Iowa.

Since we try not to drive more than 200 miles in a stretch, we made three stops in Iowa before finally arriving at the Grand National Rally in Forest City.  And you know you’re in Iowa when you see cornfields all the way to the horizon.

Cornfields in Iowa

Betsy takes a morning cruise through the Iowa cornfields

The first stop was at Sac City, where one thing we saw was the world’s largest popcorn ball, on display since 2009.  Perhaps a fitting monument to all of the corn they grow here?  Or maybe the locals just have too much time on their hands…


Worlds largest popcorn

A building erected just to display a 5,000 lb. popcorn ball?  I couldn’t get a good picture due to the glare and reflection

At West Bend, we stopped to check out what is believed to be the world’s largest man-made grotto, composed of nine separate “mini-grottos”, and with each portraying a scene in the life of Christ.  The mini-grottos within the Grotto of Redemption illustrate the Story of Creation, the Fall of Man, the Resurrection and the Redemption.

Grotto of the Redemption

Grotto of the Redemption, quite an amazing place

When you get up close you can’t help but think this is a collection of souvenirs on steroids!  We saw a similar grotto in Wisconsin last year, but it was nothing compared to this massive and ornate structure!

Grotto of the Redemption

Station of the Cross

Father Paul Dobberstein (1872-1954) hand-built this structure, and it took him and one helper 42 years to complete.  The sheer bulk of the achievement is startling when considering that two men did most of the manual labor, and Father Dobberstein did practically all of the artistic work himself.  The details are exquisite, and one has to walk through it to appreciate the effort and tenacity it took to complete it.

Grotto of the Redemption

Rose Quartz in the walls

It’s mind-blowing to see the precious stones, gems, petrified wood, jasper, quartz and so much more in this collection!  The total value of the rocks and minerals used in the Grotto is said to amount to over $4.3 million in today’s dollar.


Grotto of the Redemption

Judas sneaking out of the Garden of Gethsemane

Just outside the grotto was a pond with two resident Trumpeter Swans.  I think it was only the substantial fence that prevented them from taking a chunk out of me!  We played for a little bit before I jumped back in the RV to continue our trip.

Trumpeter Swan

No food?  No picture!

Our third Iowa stop was at Mason City.  We learned that it has a rich architectural heritage, including a history deep in Prairie School architecture designed mainly by Frank Lloyd Wright and many of his associates.  The highlight of our stay was joining a tour of the only remaining building that Frank Lloyd Wright created in the city.  We’d never been to any of his buildings and had only heard his name.  But our curiosity was piqued when we learned that the downtown Park Inn Hotel is the last standing hotel of the six he had designed.  It was completed 101 years ago and had recently been restored to its original appearance for a cool $20 million.

The Park Inn Hotel

Three functions in one building – on the left is the City National Bank, in the middle is the Law Offices and on the far right is the Park Inn Hotel

We learned from the docent that Mr. Wright is recognized as the greatest architect of the twentieth century, known for his credo “form follows function.”  That credo is demonstrated in this building.  The hotel is not a museum, but rather a working business.  The bank space has been converted into a ballroom, after several alterations by other owners.

The Park Inn Hotel, Frank Lloyd Wright

Original art glass windows

The only Wright-designed Prairie School house in Iowa was one built in 1908 for  Dr. G.C. Stockman.  It was originally located roughly two blocks east and two blocks north of its present location, then moved to avoid demolition.  Imagine the effort to move this whole house!  I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside, but I learned about Wright’s primary elements of design from the docent, such as the concept of “organic” architecture.

Stockman House

South side of the house showing an expanded entrance, cantilevered roof, and second floor balcony

Mason City

Here’s another house we saw during a walk that’s ready to be moved

Those tours were perfect on a rainy day, but when the sun appeared we snuck out to get our legs warmed up on a hike/walk at the open fields of Lime Creek Nature Center.  The trails wind through open fields and wooded areas along the Winnebago River.  We had a decent 5.2 mile walk among blooming wildflowers and sections of wooded areas that provided shade to hide us from the scorching sun.

Lime Creek Nature Park

These wildflowers are taller than me!

Lime Creek Nature Park

Prairie Coneflowers

Lime Creek Nature Park

A sea of Daisy Fleabane

Dailsy Fleabane

Up in a tree was this curious Barred Owl, observing us for a minute before flying away when we got too close.

Barred Owl

Who wouldn’t love that face?

That wraps up our stops in Iowa prior to the 2015 Winnebago Grand National Rally in Forest City, Iowa, that we signed up for months ago.  Steve will take over the writing duties for that next part of our adventure.


Next up:  Time to party at the Grand National Rally in Forest City!