Chart a course through history or wilderness in this Montana town with an emerging beer and food scene.
written by Jayme Fraser
Billings was dubbed the Magic City for its expansive growth in the golden age of railroads, steamboats and cattle barons. Today, the moniker better describes the surprising variety of adventures in Montana’s unofficial capital. The city is a springboard for historical explorations and wilderness excursions. It also caters to those looking for good food, great beer and a taste of Old West culture, perhaps with kids in tow. Dramatic sandstone cliffs, known as the Rimrocks, cradle most of the city. Trails tracing its edge o er scenic views of the Yellowstone River and three mountain ranges. On top of the Rims, walkers can find Yellowstone Kelly’s grave. At the bottom, they can hunt for the aging image of a crying face likely linked to stories about Sacrifice Cliff. The Smithsonian-affiliated Western Heritage Center offers “History Mysteries” that help people actively explore Billings’ past. The packets include photos, archaeological reports, oral stories from area tribes, maps and tourism brochures for nearby landmarks. This summer, the museum will feature an exhibit about the thirtieth anniversary of the Yellowstone National Park fires. Just outside town, families can find more than a hundred rock paintings at Pictograph Cave State Park, including some that hunters drew at least 2,000 years ago. Others are newer, illustrating men holding rifles. Pack a pair of binoculars for better viewing in each of the three caves.
History also adorns Pompeys Pillar, where William Clark carved his name into the stone in July 1806 before continuing his famous expedition west with Meriwether Lewis. Today’s explorers can plan day trips to Yellowstone National Park, three national forests, two national monuments, and numerous other wild areas. The region provides ample opportunities to hike, bike, climb, fish, and hunt—for game or for agates and fossils. To the southwest, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness features nearly a billion acres of stunning granite peaks, hundreds of alpine lakes, and more than 700 miles of trails suited for both mountaineering and leisurely walks. The Beartooth Highway, whose switchbacks stitch across the Montana-Wyoming border, offers impressive summit views when June storms don’t bury the road in snow. Pack a picnic to eat at one of the overlooks or among the late-summer wildflowers. Depending on a traveler’s direction, drivers can coast down into Yellowstone National Park, renowned for its geysers and wildlife, or jaunt over to the artsy town of Red Lodge. Relax in the garden at Red Lodge Ales, share a massive margarita and pizza with friends at Bogart’s, or warm up with a steak and whiskey cocktail at The Pollard Hotel after a day of skiing. Golden plains and rolling hills stretch east of Billings toward the Little Bighorn and Rosebud battlefields, historic sites that serve as haunting reminders of the Plains Indian War.
Photos Courtesy of Montana State Parks
Books about the era, as well as modern Crow and Cheyenne artwork, can be found along the way at Custer Battlefield Trading Post. Hungry travelers who stop there can enjoy the stew and Indian tacos, or leave with a bag of frybread mix for home. Each summer, both the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes host numerous powwows and rodeos. August’s Crow Fair, which draws more than 50,000 visitors each year, is nicknamed “ The Tipi Capital of the World.” In Indian relays—known as “America’s first extreme sport”—daring racers ride bareback and, without stopping, leap onto a new horse for each lap. When it’s time to slow down or refuel, Montana Avenue in downtown Billings is a good place to start. The increasingly hip strip parallels the railroad that gave the city life in the 1800s. Within a 2-mile walk are six breweries, a distillery, a cider house and plenty of restaurants and bars.
Uberbrew, a family-friendly gastro pub, has earned six medals from the Great American Beer Festival in the last two years—quickly catching up on the state record of more than a dozen held by nearby Montana Brewing Company. Whiskey sippers should visit Trailhead Spirits to try the rye malt. Native plants such as bitterroot and sweetgrass make the award-winning Healy’s Gin unlike any other liquor. For the kids and kids at heart, the only thing better than visiting the Caramel Cookie Waffles bakery for the Dutch-style treats is the specialty ice cream Big Dipper sometimes makes from the favorite local sweet. A block away, The Burger Dive dishes up creations like the Blackened Sabbath and I’m Your Huckleberry burgers, which have been honored by the World Food Championships and others. Or build your own for a reasonable price. Either way, you’ll be served a massive stack of garlic-drenched fries you’ll crave long after you leave Montana.
Eat | Stay | Play in Billings, Montana
The Burger Dive
Pug Mahon’s Irish Pub
The Northern Hotel
The Crossings Bed and Breakfast
Kelly Inn and Suites Billings
Boothill Inn and Suites
Western Heritage Center
Pictograph Cave State Park
Yellowstone National Park
Custer Battlefield Trading Post
Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill
Montana Brewing Company
Angry Hank’s Microbrewery