The Continental Divide skirts Helena to the west, and there is more than one way to cross it—each offering spectacular scenery.
This 6,323-foot pass 15 miles southwest of Helena on Hwy 12 has a vista point at the top that has stunning views of the valley below. If you can visit it in the evening you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the lights of Helena.
To reach this and Stemple Pass, take Montana Ave. north to Lincoln Road. Head west toward the mountains. The road begins a quick winding ascent once it reaches the mountain. Plenty of switchbacks offer incredible views of the Helena National Forest. From the top of the pass at 6,350 feet, you can see a beautiful panorama of the Blackfoot River Valley. By the way, when you cross the pass, you are not too far from Ted Kaczynski’s hideaway. Make no mistake, the folks around here are not proud of that fact.
Follow the directions to Flesher Pass, but watch for Stemple Pass Road about eight miles after you pass through Canyon Creek and before you reach Flesher. It will be on your left. This is a more isolated pass and the road here is gravel.
While the road to this pass is gravel, and four-wheel drive is recommended, it is certainly the most interesting pass if you’re a history buff. The pass was discovered by U.S. Army Capt. John Mullan in 1853. He drove the first wagon over it a year later. In 1860—four years before prospectors discovered gold in Last Chance Gulch—he supervised the construction of the road over the pass. Helena simply didn’t exist at that time which is why the road didn’t bother to swing through town.
Mullan Road stretched 624 miles from Walla Walla, Washington to Fort Benton, Montana. An interesting side note for those of you who are Masons, the campground at the top of the Divide was the site of the Montana Territory’s first Masonic meeting in July 1862.
To get to Mullan Pass, take Birdseye Road northwest out of Helena and turn southwest on Austin Road. It’s gravel from here. You’ll see a long railroad tunnel that was built in 1882. After transiting the pass, the road reconnects with Hwy 12 just below McDonald Pass.