Helena National Forest's 976,000 acres comprise three distinct sections straddling the Continental Divide around the Montana capitol of Helena. The forest's northwestern portion includes parts of the Scapegoat Wilderness and reaches south almost to Deer Lodge. The eastern part of the forest encompasses the Big Belt Mountains and includes the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness (site of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, recreated in Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire). The southern portion, west of Townsend, includes the Elkhorn Mountains.

Ranger district offices in Helena (headquarters), Lincoln, and Townsend oversee the forest, which includes low-elevation sagebrush rangeland, island pockets of lodgepole pine, and sub-10,000-foot mountain peaks. Indian cliff paintings and historic mining ruins alike dot the landscape. Elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mule and whitetail deer and Rocky Mountain goat are common, as are black bears. Grizzlies are more likely in the remote Scapegoat Wilderness portion of the forest.

The forest features more than a dozen developed campgrounds and over 1,000 miles of trail accessing the forest's numerous trout streams and lakes. Six primitive Forest Service cabins and guard stations are available for public rental through recreation.gov. The winter months see an influx of snowmobilers, and cross-country skiers congregate at MacDonald Pass' 7 miles of groomed trails. Mountain biking is popular on 10 trails dispersed among the forest's three ranger districts. Ten scenic driving routes, concentrated mostly on the Lincoln District, provide auto access into the forest.

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