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Last Chance Tour Train

The Last Chance Tour Train rides down Sixth Avenue after leaving the Capitol area during a tour of downtown Helena.

Readers of USA Today and 10 Best have ranked Helena 10th on a list of state capitals worth visiting.

Results of the poll were released Wednesday morning, said Heidi O'Brien, executive director of the Helena Tourism Alliance.

The state's tourism office sent its congratulations in an email and helped spread the news.

Topping the list is Carson City, Nevada, with a population of slightly more than 55,000, followed by Juneau, Alaska, a town without a road leading to it, where the combined city and borough population is about 33,000.

Helena's population, online sources say, is a little more than 28,000.

Any of this type of exposure is good, O'Brien said, adding "USA Today Travel, we'll take it."

This is a time of year that families are thinking about getting away, and a poll of state capitals to visit is "worthy and timely," said Travis Seward, a vice president of online acquisition with USA Today.

State capitals make a great destination for a variety of reasons for people, he added.

While USA Today does polls on a weekly basis, this one began in December. It's the first time the newspaper has conducted a poll on travel-worthy state capitals.

Cities that are recognized by polls such as this can use it to draw tourism and entice new visitors, Seward said.

Two editorial experts who've made careers out of travel writing and the newspaper staff each proposed 20 state capitals for consideration.

While some were obvious choices for the list of 20, others involved members of the panel making their cases for other cities, Seward said.

One of the travel experts and a local editor had visited Helena, so they were able to argue for its inclusion in the list, he explained.

The panelist, Seward noted, thought very highly of Helena after their visit.

David and Kay Scott, joined Larry Bleiberg as the panelists helping select cities for the voting. The Scotts write the descriptions that accompany each of the 10 capitals in the list.

In an email response to questions, David Scott wrote to say he and Kay have been to Helena seven or eight times.

"In general, we enjoy towns that are easy to navigate. Carson City, Juneau and Helena are obviously easy to navigate. We also enjoy the surrounding countryside, something especially appealing about these three capitals. By the way, Montana has always been one of our favorite places to visit," he wrote.

The polling, he noted, can be significantly affected by the use of social media and that smaller communities take a greater interest in these types of things.

The Scott's text accompanying a photo of the Downtown Walking Mall on the USA Today website read, "Born from a mid-1800s gold strike, Helena shows pride in its Western history. Visitors can explore the town on the Last Chance Tour Train and then stop at the Montana Historical Society’s Mackay Gallery for a memorable stroll through its large collection of Charles Russell art. The surrounding area is perfect for leisurely road trips and outdoor adventure in the Rocky Mountain foothills."

According to the USA Today website, where voting for the contest was encouraged, "The 20 nominees for the category of Best Travel-Worthy State Capital have this in common: they're each worthy of a trip for their range of attractions, history, dining scene, affordability, scenery and convenience for exploring the surrounding region.

"Our panel of U.S. travel experts have selected their top 20 state capital cities, and now we need your help to crown a winner. You can vote once per day for Best Travel-Worthy State Capital until voting ends on Monday, Jan. 5 at noon (Eastern time)."

Among the 20 capitals that didn't make the top 10 list were Denver, Honolulu, Providence, Nashville, Boston and Phoenix.

The Helena Tourism Alliance used social media to get the word out about the poll to encourage voting. The organization's website also sought to rally support for Helena's inclusion in the listing.

"Any of this type of positive exposure is wonderful," O'Brien said.

And given the people who are planning summer vacations at Yellowstone and Glacier National parks, this adds to their vacation experience, she said.

Helena has been garnering national and international recognition in recent months as it was voted Rand McNally's Best of the Road in 2013 for geocaching.

The city earned a bronze ranking from the International Mountain Bicycling Association in August 2014.

The cycling award noted the availability of routes from town, a free shuttle service and more than 70 miles of trails available for mountain bicycling.

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Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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