Gates of history 

Boat-touring Montana's storied limestone cliffs

Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery traversed an incalculable number of spectacular landscapes on their famed cross-country journey. But few of the West's panoramas impressed the explorers as much as the limestone cliffs soaring above a stretch of the Missouri River in an area known today as the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness.

In his July 19, 1805 journal entry, Lewis noted that the Corps had just "entered much the most remarkable clifts... these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet." Initially the cliffs appeared to completely block their progress, but the "gates" gradually seemed to open when approached, revealing the narrow passage ahead. "[F]rom the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains," Lewis wrote.

click to enlarge LYNNE FOLAND

Capt. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark may have been the first travelers to record the Gates' splendor, but the area has a long history of human activity, as proven by the well-preserved pictographs still gracing the canvas of white limestone.

The artistry of these early Montana painters is best viewed from the river, where commercial boat tours have guided curious tourists through the nearly six-mile stretch of water below the escarpments since 1886, when local rancher Judge Nicholas Hilger purchased a 55-foot stern-wheeler, christened it the Rose of Helena and began transporting the inquisitive masses through the Gates' storied walls.

The Gates of the Mountains Marina boat service has provided an unbeatable way to access the canyon ever since. From a launch on Holter Lake, the marina's two boats, the Hilger Rose and the Sacagawea II, carry up to 70 passengers on informative two-hour tours through the gorge.

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