Well.. I've lived in Montana for only one year. I would choose Helena for the following reasons:
Helena has a mild and dry climate (similar to Denver along the Rocky Mountain Front) lower elevation
Although the Missouri near Helena is completely flat, you can drive an hour to the Galley near Bozeman or an 2 hours to the Clark Fork outside Missoula . There are 1 good section on the Galley which is a class III run outside Manhattan (no.. not New York.. Montana). The Madison River is about 1.5 hours south of Helena and offers a great class IV run in the 10 mile long, beautiful Bear Trap Canyon. The water is always very warm in the summer due to the solar heating of the lake above the run. On any given day you could run into a Grizzley or a rattlesnake (that's part of the excitement). If you want bigger action try the Quake Lake run which another 30 minutes south. It's a class IV+ section that comes off a lake created by the Yellowstone earthquake. It's beautiful but the the rocks could take off your head because they're still sharp from being realeased by the quake.
Excellent city Park in Helana with Mt. Helena (it's warm and dry enough to climb that 2000 foot mountain in a couple hours in January generally.
There's a cheap but really lame ski area called Great Divide about 1/2 drive from Helena, but I preferred skiing Moonlight Basin with a good 3,500 vertical on the back side of Big Ski. It's only 1.5 hour drive and no traffic ever.
The Lochsa and South Fork Clearwater Rivers are only 3 hours away from Helena
There's really nothing except the Littlehole River around Dillon (no whitewater but great fishing).
It's a windy rancher's town with nothing to do except fish.
You might find a few more people in their 20's in Dillon since they have that small university, Helena is kind of a retirement community. There's a small college called Caroll in Helena but I didn't know any students there.
Prices are pretty reasonable right now in Helena, but I've heard that the greater valley may grow to a population of 130,000 people within the next 10 years.
Helena is also centrally located to Yellowstone and Glacier, about 3 hours to either park.
There you have it. Let me know if you have any other questions.
Cemartin is right about Helena being more centrally located than Dillon but the times to get to the bozeman area are realitively the same from Dillon just a different direction. Bozeman is probably the overall best spot to be for whitewater and second would probably be Missoula (which is also not too much farther from Dillon) and third the Flathead Valley (definitely much further)... Whitefish, Columbia Falls, and Kalispell. I would be happy living in any of those three areas for whitewater.
Cemartin nailed the beauty and solitude of Bear Trap Canyon. The last time I floated it I saw a moose, some bighorn sheep and more bald eagles than I could count, Kitchen Sink rapid is a fun one and we saw no one floating until the very end and that was on July 4th.
Fishing if you are into it would be good in either spot. I just happen to like the town of Dillon a bit better than Helena. Dillon would be closer for trips over into Idaho for the salmon river. Both towns have beauty and forest surrounding them. Neither place is ideal for a whitewater junkie and you will have to travel. My brother lives in Bozeman but is not a boater but knows people who are if you need help meeting up with people. I spent most of my time in Whitefish and Columbia Falls and can introduce to many boaters in that area.
I'd pick Dillon, but agree with what was stated above; there's better options within the state. Dillon is fairly centrally located with options to head to east to Bozeman area or west to Missoula, but you also have boating options in Southern Idaho. Another plus to Dillon is they have a Patagucci outlet.
The problem with Dillon or Helena is they don't have a ski resort right there. Dillon is actually pretty close to Big Sky and Moonlight when they get the Ennis to Big Sky road open. Dillon is definately a way sweeter place because you are in a bunch of good mountains and it is wide open beautiful country,similar to the Arkansas Valley . Epic backcountry skiing all around, and the town is pretty sleepy. It's like Salida without any tourists, rafters or anybody. Think Salida in winter, that's Dillon.
Otherwise, Missoula is the best spot in the state for playboating for sure. Bozeman is the best spot for creeking and skiing. The skiing is pretty marginal in Missoula. Bozeman has some of the best skiing in North America.
I grew up in Montana and graduated from UM (To bad I wasn't a paddler then). If you are coming from a 50,000 + population community or resort town you will be in for some culture shock (especially if you are moving family too). Most of the communities simply don't have the tax dollars or generate the revenue to provide the goods and services typical of Colorado. If this makes a difference Helena might be a better choice. Dillion isn't bad, but its a fairly small town with minimal employment options (if it matters both places can be very windy and Helena is in a quake zone).
If it was easy to get my business back off the ground I'd move back to Montana in a heart beat. People use their common sense, treat one another with respect and are generally freindly and very helpful. Since the population of the state is fairly small it doesn't take long to get to know people throught the state either. In Montana once a freind, always a freind so a couch or floor is usually readily available if needed. Plus the state is beautiful and the wilderness still feels like wilderness (oustside of the extensive logging road systems of some areas).
Also theres not much concern about what kind of car you drive or what your home looks like (as long is the car goes from a to b and the house is warm). This makes things easier on the pocket book.
With respect to proximity of rivers, its no big deal. In Montana you expect to drive (kind of like you expect some damn cold days in the winter). Three hours is well within the catagory of a short drive (we'd drive six hours for a single track meet of football game).
Added benifit is the waterways are public right of ways (as long as you are below the high water mark and do not cross private property to get there). My guess is there is also alot of opportunities in either area for first D's if your a creeker because there is a whole lot of ground to cover and not a lot of people.
I will say if you have your choice of any place in the state and can afford the Real Estate I'd lean toward Bozeman (sorry Grizz) for a balance of all things good.
There are no better people than river people. Thank you for your beta. My wife and I currently live in Western, PA. So anyplace other than the basement apartment of an outhouse would be an upgrade from here. She has a big time government job while my resume is purely raft guiding. Needless to say, my credentials arent coveted around here. I might as well apply for jobs with experience as a professional hang-glider. Sorry but no oil refinery knowledge from this cowboy. Sorry, I digress. Anyway, we would love to move to a place where the two of us can get a job, and she has opportunities in both Helena and Dillon. I guess a more specific question would be: where is a better place for a scum-bag raft guide to get a job? Thanks again for all the help.
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