Great Falls takes its name from the series of five waterfalls in close proximity along the upper Missouri River basin that the Lewis and Clark Expedition had to portage around over a ten-mile stretch; the effort required 31 days of arduous labor during the westward leg of their 1805–06 exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Northwest Coast of the Oregon Country.
The city of Great Falls lies atop the Great Falls Tectonic Zone, an intracontinental shear zone between two geologic provinces of basement rock of the Archean period which form part of the North American continent.
Great Falls is located near several waterfalls on the Missouri River.
It lies near the center of Montana on the northern Great Plains.
In 1894, naturalist Vernon Bailey passed through and described Great Falls as "a very good town, appears prosperous and booming & I should judge contains 15000 inhabitants." By the early 1900s, Great Falls was en route to becoming one of Montana's largest cities.
The rustic studio of famed Western artist Charles Marion Russell was a popular attraction, as were the famed "Great Falls of the Missouri", after which the city was named.