Major Improvements Coming to Fort Owen State Park

Major access, interpretation, and historic preservation improvements coming to Fort Owen State Park thanks to granting from Helmsley Charitable Trust 

The Montana State Parks Foundation in partnership with The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the Friends of Fort Owen are excited to announce funding to preserve and enhance the historical and educational resources at Fort Owen State Park for the enjoyment of all park visitors.

The $507,500 grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust will be used to preserve and restore the original trading post structures including repairs to the adobe walls, the roofs, and foundation. Additionally, improving and expanding the interpretive, cultural, and historical displays held within the buildings and other locations within the park will take place in the next two years.

Accessing Fort Owen State Park, which is currently limited, will also be addressed by improving road access, building additional visitor parking, and providing new access for school and tour busses. These improvements will enhance the visitor experience and will allow the park to become accessible to people of all abilities.  

Fort Owen is a significant attraction in the Bitterroot Valley, and the improved visitor infrastructure and amenities will allow Montana State Parks and the local community to showcase the park as a destination for cultural tourists from around the world.

“Fort Owen holds significant historical value as an early American settlement,” said Walter Panzirer, a Trustee for the Helmsley Charitable Trust. “The Helmsley Charitable Trust is excited to fund the important work of restoring and preserving this historic site as well as improving educational opportunities.” 

The Fort Owen trading post, now the core of Fort Owen State Park, is extremely significant in the early history of Montana and the inland Northwest, as it became an important touchstone first for fur traders, Native American Tribes, Jesuits and US government officials, then prospectors traveling to goldfields in the 1860s, then homesteaders and early ranchers in the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, Fort Owen was the only significant European-style settlement that was present through all of these extraordinary periods of the mid to late 1800s in Montana’s history. 

“As Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks continue to look to enhance the Montana outdoor experience, these cultural treasures will remain critical,” said FWP director Martha Williams. “Fort Owen is part of our heritage and our story as Montanans. This funding and the generous support of the Helmsley Charitable Trust marks a significant step for the Bitterroot community and the key celebration of an important place in our history.”

Once this unique project is completed, Fort Owen State Park will be better equipped to handle its growing number of visitors and provide first-class educational and interpretive resources for the surrounding area. The park itself will double in size, historic structures, and incredibly rare historical archaeology will be preserved and interpreted. Visitors will benefit from improved access and wayfinding, enhanced interpretive information, improved amenities, and additional events at the park. The nearby communities of Stevensville, Hamilton, and Missoula will see increased traffic to local businesses, additional tax revenues, and other ancillary benefits as more visitors come to experience and enjoy Fort Owen State Park. 

“It’s always been our mission to improve the visitor experience at our state parks.  We’re delighted to help bring together the funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the passion of the local volunteers from the Friends of Fort Owen, and the technical expertise of the folks at Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to transform Fort Owen State Park.  When we first looked at options for the park years ago, the situation looked bleak.  Now, with this robust group of partners and funding, the future of Fort Owen State Park is very bright,” said Coby Gierke, Executive Director of the Montana State Parks Foundation.  

Planning for improvements at Fort Owen State Park will begin by conducting an inventory of cultural resources that will inform the design of a new parking area and other park improvements. When this work and planning are complete, the draft development proposal will be available for public review.

About The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust
The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspire to improve lives by supporting exceptional efforts in the U.S. and around the world in health and select place-based initiatives. Since beginning active grantmaking in 2008, Helmsley has committed more than $2.8 billion for a wide range of charitable purposes. Helmsley’s Rural Healthcare Program funds innovative projects that use information technologies to connect rural patients to emergency medical care, bring the latest medical therapies to patients in remote areas, and provide state-of-the-art training for rural hospitals and EMS personnel. To date, this program has awarded more than $460 million to organizations and initiatives in the upper Midwest states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa, and Montana. For more information on Helmsley and its programs, visit

66th Montana Legislature Passes Seven Bills That Will Help State Parks

This past winter and early spring Montana’s legislative branch convened for nearly four months in Helena to review and pass laws for the state. Legislative sessions only occur once every other year and Montana and their decisions have lasting impacts across the state for years to come.

In 2019, the legislature heard, debated, and ultimately passed seven bills that will affect State Parks in positive ways. We want to share a bit of information about these bills and how they will likely help State Parks in the years to come.

Summary of Bills Benefiting Montana State Parks

House Bill 229: Sponsored by Brad Hamlet: Clarifies that dinosaur bones and fossils are part of the surface estate or surface rights not subsurface or mineral rights. This bill makes it clear that paleontological artifacts located in state parks like Makoshika are the property of the State of Montana, not various subsurface rights owners within the parks.

House Bill 423: Sponsored by Edward Buttrey: Provides discounted state park camping opportunities for veterans across Montana. Making camping in State Parks more affordable to veterans is a great outcome and one that we hope will encourage more veterans and their families to get out and explore all the camping options available at our state parks.

House Bill 652: Sponsored by Mike Hopkins: Revises the long-range building infrastructure bonding program and includes approximately 1.3 million dollars for a water line from the Makoshika State Park Visitor Center to the campground and facilities in Cains Coulee. 

House Bill 695: Sponsored by Jim Keane: Appropriates funds to MT Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for the purchase of a permanent recreation easement at Big Arm State Park on Flathead Lake. The purchase of this recreational easement settles a decades-long challenge facing State Parks as they grappled with how to pay rising annual lease payments to the MT Department of Natural Resources Conservation to operate Big Arm State Park. By law, DNRC is required to charge 5% of assessed property value for an annual lease of State Trust Lands to generate revenue for Montana’s school system. State Parks could no longer afford the annual lease payments as property values on Flathead Lake have dramatically increased in the past decades. By securing the funds to purchase a permanent recreational easement at the park, MT FWP can ensure access to Big Arm State Park and Flathead Lake in perpetuity.

Senate Bill 24: Sponsored by Terry Gauthier: Provides a modest increase in the optional Light Motor Vehicle registration fee that benefits State Parks, Fishing Access Sites, Historic Preservation, and trails-based recreation across Montana. The optional fee currently provides nearly 40% of the annual operating revenue that State Parks rely on. A modest increase of $3 per vehicle will still allow Montanan’s to access one of the largest state parks systems in the country (55 Parks) and 332 Fishing Access Sites without having to worry about paying fees at the park while also providing beneficial funds for trails and historic preservation.

Senate Bill 70: Sponsored by Pat Flowers: Removes Missouri Headwaters State Park from the “primitive parks” designation. Removing Missouri Headwaters from the “primitive parks” list is a critical first step in allowing Park Managers to be more proactive in managing the growing demand for recreational opportunities, addressing environmental impacts, complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and ensuring historic preservation at the park.

Senate Bill 338: Sponsored by Terry Gauthier: Provides funding for construction of the Montana Heritage Center, the new home for your Montana ­Historical Society. After the Montana Heritage Center is completed in 2025, 6.5% of the 1% bed-tax increase passed as a part of this bill would go to State Parks to provide critical funding for park maintenance, staffing, and visitor services.

The Montana State Parks Foundation worked closely with our partners at Montana State Parks and other non-profit organizations to support the passage of these bills. We would like to thank all of our partners, supporters, and bill sponsors for their hard work and leadership to help our Parks. However, we couldn’t have done it without you, the people who use and love our state parks and choose to help by donating to the Foundation. Thank you for your support. Here’s looking forward to a great year and a bright future for Montana’s State Parks.

Whitefish Lake State Park

This week’s featured state park, Whitefish Lake, is brought to you by Whitefish Chamber of Commerce!

A quick drive, walk, or bike ride from downtown Whitefish you’ll find Whitefish Lake State Park or just State Park as the locals call it. Part of the Whitefish hiking and biking trail system, this park has something for everyone!

Whitefish Lake is host to 25 campsites made up of a mix of tent only, bike travel, and RV camping.  You’re sure to find what you need if you plan to stay a night or two! Many of the campsites here have a secluded feeling as they’re divided by tall trees. If you plan to bring in your RV or trailer, be aware that RV/trailer length is limited to 40 feet.

Did you know?

Kids love watching trains move just along the park’s edge near the campground!

Curious what other visitors have had to say about the park?

“Great mountain town getaway”

“Beautiful still water that changes with the seasons.”

“Best Lake in Montana”


“I have been to Whitefish in my dreams”

A new hike and bike campsite is perfect for cyclists traveling along the Great Divide route!

The lake is rarely windy making it the perfect destination for water-skiing and other water activities!

Stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and pedal boats are available to rent June 15-Labor Day from Sea Me Paddle Kayaking Tours, Inc. Be sure to call ahead as hours of operation vary! You can reach them at 406-249-1153.

While the shallow water at the beach isn’t known for swimming, your four-legged friend will love the designated swimming area for dogs!

Giant Springs State Park

This week’s featured state park, Giant Springs, is brought to you by The Reilly Insurance Agency of Great Falls, MT!

Just outside of Great Falls lies Giant Springs State Park. Originally discovered by the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition in 1805, Giant Springs is one of the largest freshwater springs in the country.

Did you know?
The spring flows at a rate of 156 million gallons of water per day and is always 54 degrees Fahrenheit!

Multiple bridges cross the crystal clear water the makes up Giant Springs, allowing visitors to peer in and see the growing vegetation and even an occasional fish!

While you won’t find any camping at Giant Springs State Park, you won’t find the park lacking in activities!

Did you know?

The Roe River (also found in Giant Springs State Park) was once listed in the Guinness Book for World Records as the world’s shortest river!

The water found in Giant Springs comes from the Madison Aquifer under the Little Belt Mountains. Because the water stays around 54 degrees year-round, Giant Springs State Park is great to visit regardless of the season! In the winter, the steam rises off of the unfrozen water and birds flock around the warm water, while in the summer, the park is, on average, 20 degrees cooler than the nearby city of Great Falls.

Curious what other visitors have had to say about the park?

“Best park. Bring nickels for food for the very large trout at the Hatchery. Beautiful area with the shortest river in the world, and the largest freshwater spring!”

“Great place to spend the day. There is plenty of hiking and nice views. There are also good restrooms and a small interpretive center.”

“This park is so beautiful! The rivers are lovely, they have a nice path to walk/jog on and the fish pond is fun!”

“The springs are amazing (clearest water you have ever seen), and the fish hatchery is fun to look at. Overall, a great place to chill with friends. ”

“Beautiful and peaceful place to relax and walk. Loved watching the birds in the water rushing down from the falls.”

Elkhorn State Park

This week’s featured state park is Elkhorn, a remote ghost town featuring abandoned buildings that once served miners and prospectors during a silver mining boom in the 1890s.

 Traveling along gravel back-country roads outside of Boulder, you’ll find Elkhorn, a mostly privately owned town and one of the smallest state parks in Montana.

Did you know?
Three-quarters of a mile up the main road that runs through town (just outside of the state park property) lies the town cemetery where visitors can see the tombstone of Swiss miner Peter Wys who originally discovered the silver veins in Elkhorn Mine!

Rich with mineral deposits, the Boulder Batholith originally drew settlers to the area and led to the establishment of the town of Elkhorn, now considered a ghost town.

The 1880s and 1890s were the most populous times for Elkhorn, drawing around 2,500 residents at its peak, but after the Silver Crash of 1893, the town saw a drop of 75 percent of its population in just two months.

In total, the Elkhorn Mine yielded about $14 million in silver.

Only two original buildings still stand (Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall), but are surprisingly well preserved and an excellent example of frontier architecture.

While only Fraternity and Gillian Hall are still left, there are markers noting remains of where other structures once stood.

Did you know?
According to a current resident, many of those who reside in Elkhorn today are descendants of those who originally lived in the town!

Elkhorn today is a mix of old and new. In the midst of the two older buildings stand a few new ones as Elkhorn boasts three full-time residents as well as a handful of seasonal ones.

Curious what other visitors have had to say about the park?

“Great way to see abandoned buildings. A little bit of a trek off the main road, and don’t go up to the cemetery if there is snow and you don’t have a four-wheel-drive (yes, we learned this the hard way). It’s not entirely abandoned, so be mindful of those who do live there. Lots of abandoned buildings, but also lots that have been reclaimed. Some really cool buildings, we did not get to see the inside of them, though.”

“My wife and I love to explore ghost towns in the Old West, especially the ones that are located in such remote areas that few people ever visit them. Like Elkhorn in the Elkhorn Mountains of southwestern Montana. It can only be reached through its neighboring town, Boulder, by taking I-15 at the Boulder exit, continuing seven miles south on Montana State Road 69, then 11 miles north on county graveled road to Elkhorn. While very few buildings of the original town, which was established in 1872, remain standing, a number of cabins have been reoccupied and refurbished. At last count, however, there were only 10 inhabitants. That’s a far cry from the glory days when lodes of silver, described by geologists as “supergene enrichments,” were initially discovered in the Elkhorn Mountains by Peter Wys, a Swiss immigrant. Six years later, Anton Holter, a pioneer capitalist from Helena, Montana, began developing a mine. Over $14 million in silver was dug out of the mine. In 1890, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, creating a high demand for Elkhorn’s silver. The boom was on. During its peak period, Elkhorn had a population of 2,500, a school, hotel, church, stores, saloons, and brothels. Unlike most mining towns, it was inhabited mostly by married European immigrants. In 1893, the Fraternity Hall was constructed for social gatherings. It still remains one of the most well-preserved buildings in the town. Later, Elkhorn’s prosperity wanted as the demand for silver decreased. When railroad service to Elkhorn was halted, most of the inhabitants left. Today, Elkhorn is a Montana State Park.”

First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park

This week’s featured state park is First Peoples Buffalo Jump.

Located just outside of Ulm, First Peoples Buffalo Jump is one of the largest buffalo jumps in the United States and is known in the archeology community as the most significant buffalo jump in the world!

The Ulm Pishkun as the park is sometimes referred to was used by Native American’s for hundreds of years, you can still find the gathering basin where bison would gather before being forced off of the one-mile-long sandstone cliff. At the base of the cliff, 18 feet of compacted buffalo remains have been found, but it can be difficult to make out distinct items like skulls or other bones after so many years

Be sure to spend at least two hours at First Peoples Buffalo Jump to make time for the many activities!

Did you know?

Remnants of the drive lines used to force buffalo off the cliff can still be seen today!

Did you know?
The cliff isn’t incredibly high as too much height would have crushed the buffalo flesh leaving it unusable.

A 6,000 square foot Visitor Center helps to pay homage to both the buffalo and the Native American’s who honor it. Inside you’ll find buffalo culture exhibits, a circle for storytelling, a classroom, a gallery, and a bookstore! Outside the Visitor Center are an outdoor amphitheater, a few traditional games playing fields, and trails leading to the cliffs above.

Curious what other visitors have had to say about the park?

“I enjoy visiting with the staff. They are so friendly and informative about the history of FPBJ. It’s a great place to learn so much about the Indian Tribes and plains people who were here hundreds of years ago. I encourage everyone to visit First People’s Buffalo Jump!!”

“Excellent interpretive exhibits. A wonderful state Park that Montana is lucky to have. Be sure to take the hike up to the top of the cliff. You can drive to the top if you’re unable to walk.”

“Very interesting place to visit. The visitors center has good displays and a stuffed bison you can touch. You can drive or hike up above the buffalo jump. It’s about 1.5 miles to hike up. There is a toilet at the top and a prairie dog town just off the gravel road at the top.”

“Wonderful experience and they have a small but informative museum. Would love to go back someday.”

“Very informative site to learn about Native American life and culture in Montana.”

Sluice Boxes State Park

This week’s featured state park, Sluice Boxes, is brought to you by Central Montana tourism!

Outside of Belt, you’ll find Sluice Boxes State Park, a unique park that includes Belt Creek Canyon, a creek, and remnants of Montana history.

Did you know?
The Barker Mines and the Montana Central Railroad are part of the history of Sluice Boxes State Park.

Carved by Belt Creek as it comes down from the Little Belt Mountains, the large limestone cliffs and steep ledges are the signatures of Belt Creek Canyon.

Did you know?
By September of 1890, the Central Montana Railroad dropped off fishermen at various locations along Belt Creek in what is now Sluice Boxes State Park.  When Belt Creek was named a blue-ribbon trout stream in the 1920s, the railroad ran special “fishing trains” on Sundays.

This area was once home to prospectors searching for precious metals, miners, muleskinners, smelter men, and railroaders building bridges. Today, visitors can find the remnants of mines, cabins, and a railroad along the banks of Belt Creek in the park.

Sluice Boxes State Park was created in 1974 and included significant historic structures and remnants of the abandoned towns of Riceville and Albright that once existed for the purpose of mining limestone in the canyon.

Belt Creek which formed the canyon that is the centerpiece of the park, has long been popular for outdoor recreation. Citizens of nearby Great Falls began visiting the area for fishing, camping, hunting, and other activities as early as 1889 when the railroad connecting silver mines in the Barker and Hughesville mining districts to smelters in Great Falls was completed.

The park is now popular with local visitors, history enthusiasts, fishermen, hikers, and others. The rugged landscape creates dramatic scenery as it contrasts distinctly with the rolling hills and rounded mountains of this part of central Montana.

A walk down the old railroad grade trail will bring you to fishing access, floating, swimming, and wildlife viewing. Be aware: steep cliffs, rugged terrain, and cold, swift water can pose a risk to visitors, so be sure to take caution!

If you’re looking to camp, you’ll need a Backcountry Campsite Permit. You can contact Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks headquarters in Great Falls to do so.

In 2017, the Montana State Parks Foundation partnered with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to begin fundraising and planning for significant improvements to the trails at Sluice Boxes State Park. The Foundation is working with Parks to secure permanent access at the Overlook Trailhead before creating a durable, safe pathway for visitors to enter the steep canyon and cross a year-round spring before connecting with existing park trails. The Foundation will also be assisting Montana FWP in repairing and reopening sections of damaged railroad trestles that have been converted into trails over the years. These trestles are currently closed for the safety of park visitors which prevents the ability of hikers to walk the seven miles of trail from one end of the park to the other.

In the coming year, we hope to secure the funds and agreements needed to complete these improvements and enhance the experience for many park visitors. We invite you to join us by making a one-time or recurring monthly donation to the Foundation for this project. You can learn more about this project and the other work we are doing for Montana State Parks on our website.

Spring Meadow Lake State Park

This week’s featured state park is Spring Meadow Lake State Park is brought to you by Visit Helena.

Located west of Helena is Spring Meadow Lake State Park, a day-use park, popular for swimming, sunbathing, fishing, and birdwatching.

Spring Meadow Lake State Park is fed by a natural spring that feeds cool, clean water into the lake that is used for fishing, swimming, non-motorized boating, and even scuba diving.  The lake and the state parkland surrounding it were once an active gravel mine that was donated to the state in 1981.

There are great wildlife viewing opportunities at Spring Meadow Lake State Park. You’ll find birds, rabbits, turtles, and more!

Looking for a nice walk? A 0.8-mile, self-guided nature trail circles the lake.

If you’re in need of a spot to fish, Spring Meadow Lake is your place. The lake is home to trout, bass, and sunfish and there is even an ADA accessible fishing dock added to the park in 2011!

Even in winter Spring Meadow Lake is perfect for recreation. The trail is open all winter and if it’s cold enough you can even fish or skate on the lake!

Unfortunately, your four-legged friend will have to stay home during the warmer months. Between April 15 and October 15 there are no dogs allowed in Spring Meadow Lake State Park.

Did you know?

The Spring Meadow Lake area is well known for its bird-watching opportunities!

Curious what other visitors have had to say about the park?

“Great place to take the family out for the day and even get some fishing in. Located right in the heart of Helena, it is not out of the way at all and certainly worth a trip even just to hang out for lunch. The view is really nice especially for being right in town that you would never even know.”

“Nice local park, with good scenery, walk/running trail, and fishing pond available.”

“I love this park. I fished here a lot during the summer. It’s a beautiful place.”

“One of my favorites for a quick getaway minute from town. Nice dock and trail improvements for walking and fishing. Super place to take the kids. No pets though from fall thru spring. Wonderful fall colors, and close to Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife center, which is great for families.”

“Great day on the lake. The staff was very hospitable, too!”

Rosebud Battlefield State Park

This week’s featured state park, Rosebud Battlefield, is brought to you by Visit Billings!

The location of the Battle of Rosebud, this state park is an incredible historical location that shouldn’t be missed!

Did you know?
Rosebud Battlefield is one of the most undeveloped, pristine battlefields in the nation.

While looking for the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne villages of Chief Sitting Bull, Brigadier General George Cook, along with 1000 troops and Crow and Shoshone scouts, were unprepared for an organized attack.

On June 17, 1876, an equal or greater number of warriors led by Sioux Chief Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Chiefs Two Moon, Young Two Moons, and Spotted Wolf, attacked the band of soldiers.

One of the largest battles of the Indian Wars, the Battle of Rosebud, or “Where the Girl Saved Her Brother” as referred to by the Northern Cheyenne, lasted for eight hours.

Because Crook’s troops had been withdrawn from the war zone in order to resupply, they were not there to support Colonel Custer at Little Bighorn. The defeat at Little Bighorn by the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors was a shock to the nation and lead to a counterattack and the Lakota’s loss of the Black Hills.

Rosebud Battle State Park is a very significant historic park where visitors can retrace the steps of soldiers and warriors at the site of the largest battle in the history of Montana.

Did you know?

Although the park does not encompass the entirety of the battlefield, the 3,025-acre park has remained nearly the same as it was during the time of the battle in the 1870s.

Did you know?

The battlefield is still used throughout the year by U.S. Armed Forces to study military strategy, including how troops take on an enemy who is familiar with the landscape.

The park includes Kobold Buffalo Jump, a cliff once used by Native Americans and marked with petroglyphs. A short hike within the gap to the cliffs will allow you to see these.

The use of metal detectors, digging and the collecting or removal of artifacts is restricted and bikes are allowed on existing roadways only.

Be very cautious while in the park as rattlesnakes reside in the area!

Although camping isn’t available at Rosebud Battlefield, there is camping available at Tongue River Reservoir State Park only 13 miles south.

Thompson Falls State Park

This week’s featured state park, Thompson Falls, is brought to you by Western Montana’s Glacier Country!

Located along the Clark Fork River between Thompson Falls Dam and Noxon Dam, Thompson Falls State Park is surrounded by a mature and mixed conifer forest making for a tranquil and quiet destination.

Families will love the improved fishing pond which includes an accessible fishing pier, picnic shelter, bathroom, and improved parking.

Ready to hike away your day? Thompson Falls Trail runs along the Clark Fork River and connects to the Montana Highway 200 into the town of Thompson Falls where you’ll find the Thompson Falls Community Trails network.

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Did you know?

Pike and bass are the most common species fished out of Thompson Falls State Park, but you may find a surprise species if you’re lucky!

While fishing and hiking are popular in Thompson Falls, this state park is used mostly for camping and picnicking. Host to 18 sites and a group picnic area, this riverside campground is great for tent or RV camping, but make sure your trailer is no more than 30 feet!

Let’s get outside!

Curious what other visitors have had to say about the park?

“Awesome area. Great camp hosts.”

“Awesome state park. The kindest and helpful staff I have ever met, a really nice lake to swim and fish in. Nice washrooms, dishwashing station, running water. You can hear the cars on the highway loud and clear but if you can deal with that this is a great camping spot.”

“Great for a day or a week. Hosts are great.”

“We camp host here. The people are fantastic. The campground is clean, quiet, and right on a beautiful lake with great fishing. All sites have electricity. There is water, showers, and a dump station available on site. Boat slips are available and there is a paved boat launch ramp. There is a playground for the kids and a grassy beach area for swimming. Great place to camp.”

“Beautiful place!”

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