Location: Great Falls, Montana
The morning we visited Giant Springs, we awoke to a red ball of a sunrise. Haze and ash from a grass fire the day before still swirled in the air and peppered our car.
One of the things I like most about this beautiful spot along the Missouri River is that for once, William Clark got to be the one to discover it. On June 18, 1805, while undertaking a detailed survey of the five major waterfalls formed a spectacular obstacle to the Expedition’s progress, Clark wrote:
we Set out early and arrived at the second great Cataract a[t] [the Handsome Falls, later renamed Rainbow Falls] about 200 yds above the last of 19 feet pitch— this is one of the grandest views in nature and by far exceeds any thing I ever Saw, the Missouri falling over a Shelveing rock for 47 feet 8 Inches with a Cascade &c of 14 feet 7 Inches above the Shoot for a ¼ mile I decended the Clift below this Cateract with ease measured the hight of the purpendicular fall of 47 feet 8 Inches at which place the river is 473 yards wide as also the hight of the Cascade &c. a continuel mist quite across this fall
after which we proceeded on up the river a little more than a mile to the largest fountain or Spring I ever Saw, and doubt if it is not the largest in America Known, this water boils up from under th rocks near the edge of the river and falls imediately into the river 8 feet and keeps its Colour for ½ a mile which is emencely Clear and of a bluish Cast, proceeded on up the river
Though caught up in the drama and anxiety of the Corps’ epic portage around the falls, Meriwether Lewis took the time to go and observe the amazing springs for himself on June 29. The day turned out to be full of death-defying adventures, but Lewis still found time to write this detailed account:
not having seen the large fountain of which Capt. Clark spoke I determined to visit it today as I could better spare this day from my attention to the boat than probably any other when the work would be further advanced; accordingly after seting the hands at their several employments I took Drewyer and seet out for the fountain and passed through a level beautiful plain for about Six miles when I reached the brake of the river hills
here we were overtaken by a violent gust of wind and rain from the S. W. attended with thunder and Litning. I expected a hail storm probably from this cloud and therefore took refuge in a little gully wher there were some broad stones with which I purposed protecting my head if we should have a repetition of the seene of the 27th but fortunately we had but little hail and that not large; I sat very composedly for about an hour without sheter and took a copious drenching of rain; after the shower was over I continued my rout to the fountain which I found much as Capt. C; had discribed & think it may well be retained on the list of prodegies of this neighbourhood towards which, nature seems to have dealt with a liberal hand, for I have scarcely experienced a day since my first arrival in this quarter without experiencing some novel occurrence among the party or witnessing the appearance of some uncommon object.
I think this fountain the largest I ever beheld, and the hadsome cascade which it affords over some steep and irregular rocks in it’s passage to the river adds not a little to it’s beauty. it is about 25 yds. from the river, situated in a pretty little level plain, and has a suddon decent of about 6 feet in one part of it’s course. the water of this fountain is extreemly tranparent and cold; nor is it impregnated with lime or any other extranious matter which I can discover, but is very pure and pleasent. it’s waters marke their passage as Capt. Clark observes for a considerable distance down the Missouri notwithstanding it’s rapidity and force. the water of the fountain boil up with such force near it’s center that it’s surface in that part seems even higher than the surrounding earth which is a firm handsom terf of fine green grass.
after amusing myself about 20 minutes in examining the fountain I found myself so chilled with my wet cloaths that I determined to return and accordingly set out; on our way to camp we found a buffaloe dead which we had shot as we came out and took a parsel of the meat to camp it was in very good order; the hump and tongue of a fat buffaloe I esteem great delicasies. on my arrival at camp I was astonished not to find the party yet arrived, but then concluded that probably the state of the praries had detained them, as in the wet state in which they are at present the mud sticks to the wheels is such manner that they are obliged to halt frequently and clense them.
Even today, Giant Springs is a place where the superlatives come effortlessly. Not only is the cascading water spectacularly scenic, it is also the largest freshwater springs in the world, disgorging over 150,000 gallons a day into the Missouri via an outlet called the Roe River, which at 200 feet is the world’s shortest river. Incredibly enough, the water takes some 2900 years to make its journey from the rainy mountaintop to its cascade into the Missouri.
The water, which comes from an aquifer that runs through the Little Belt Mountains some forty miles from Great Falls, is rich in calcium and magnesium. This makes it a great place for a state fish hatchery. We took a look at the facility where rainbow trout are raised from eggs and planted in Montana’s lakes, and viewed some neat display fish in the “show pond,” including albino and blue variations.
This green shady state park is a great place for a picnic and to enjoy bird-watching before heading out for further adventures.