Before Billings was Montana’s trailhead it was Montana’s railhead, a major stop in the westward migration in the late 1800s. Over the years, it’s served as a trading post, railroad station, and pit stop for various settlers through the ages. Today, Montana’s biggest city has a little something for everyone. Beyond Montana’s trailhead here are a few other appropriate nicknames for Montana’s main metropolis.
Montana’s Foodie Central
Breakfast, lunch or dinner, you’ll eat well in Billings. For years, Stella’s has been the trusty neighborhood staple, a reliable greasy spoon and community-gathering spot that has been around since the late 70’s. If nothing else, swing by for one of the epic giant cinnamon rolls (even the Senator’s a fan). More recently though, hip spots like Sassy Biscuit have moved in, catering to a younger demographic and an obvious sign of downtown’s dramatic revitalization. After gaining a cult following selling granola at the farmer’s markets, Jilan Hall-Johnson’s biscuits now bring the brunch crowd in droves. The food is hearty and satisfying, yet the portions aren’t outrageous, so you leave feeling full, content, and ready to conquer the day, not like you’re about to birth a biscuit. The decor is whimsical and shabby chic with a wall full of clocks that’ll have you daydreaming about falling down the rabbit hole in style.
Other notable food spots include the Fieldhouse for fresh farm-to-table goodness including one of the best salads I’ve ever had in my life (huckleberry dressing and all). Wild Ginger, an Asian fusion gem appointed with chandeliers, murals, fish tanks, and tasty sushi, and Bin 119, for wine and tapas.
When you’re ready for a palate cleanser, the walkable brewery district is a great place to waste away the day with six breweries, two distilleries, and a cider house all within 1.5-miles. Uberbrew is quickly becoming a household name and one of the most awarded breweries at the annual Great American Brewery Festival. Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill, boasts fruity but not super sweet ciders and upscale, Mediterranean-inspired bar bites like lamb sliders and salads made with chickpeas and falafel. Their huckleberry sponge cake (sensing a trend?) topped with edible flowers and salted chamomile ice cream is a decadent sweet treat that screams, “This is Montana at it’s finest.”
Pro tip: Liquor laws in Montana are a bit wonky with breweries operating under different regulations than bars so double check the hours of your favorite establishment if you’re looking to imbibe. There are also special events throughout the summer like the Strawberry Festival and Alive After 5, a rotating Thursday night block party you don’t want to miss.
Montana’s History Hub
Throughout their expeditions, Lewis and Clark crisscrossed the region, leaving markers and memories on places they touched. At Pompey’s Pillar, you can actually walk in the footsteps of William Clark and see his scrawling signature in the rock. The interpretive center has real outfits and canoes from the period, making it easy to channel your inner explorer.
Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site is a new landmark honoring one of Montana’s most notable frontiersmen. Even if you’re not a history buff, it’s a gorgeous overlook and well worth the trip. For a broader look at the area’s past, the Yellowstone County Museum is a quick (and free!) stop right next to the airport and offers a bit of insight into everything from the cowboys and Indians to rodeo life. Intriguing special exhibits showcase Westerners like sharpshooter Tom Frye who makes art out of gunshot silhouettes.
Montana’s Basecamp for Adventure
Normally, the river is a major source of entertainment in Billings, but with water levels extra high this season, it’s best to get your kicks on dry land for the time being. The Rimrocks circumvent the town, providing a stunning halo of sandstone outcrops suitable for a number of active pursuits. Beyond hiking and biking, the area is popular with rock climbers and you can actually rappel right over the main drag through the Billings Park Department. It’s quite the perspective on the city and adrenaline rush (as long as you don’t mind some intrigued and curious onlookers).
There are nature spots right in the city like the Pictograph Caves, a .4-mile loop through a series of caves scrawled with Native American art. It’s recommended to bring binoculars and make it a scavenger hunt to see what doodles and drawings you can spot. Four Dances Recreational Area is another easy half-mile jaunt that’ll take you to an overlook for the river and city. It hooks up to a variety of other BLM trails so you could easily waste away the day getting wanderfully lost.
Visit Billings also has mountain bikes and street bikes available to borrow at the Visitor’s Center if you’re looking to explore the area on two wheels. There are over 40-miles of paved and gravel trails in the area, suitable for all levels of rider. Zimmerman Park and Dover Park are two of the most popular spots, but a ride along the river is also a great way to beat the heat.
But if it’s nature porn you’re after, Montana’s trailhead is completely accurate.
The last major city before the Beartooth Highway, the scenic route to Yellowstone is 68 miles of pure exhilaration. With almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain in just 12 miles, it’s the highest point in both Montana and Wyoming and boasts postcard-worthy alpine views, each turn more impressive than the last.
The drive itself is the main attraction, but there are also plenty of pull-offs to stretch your legs, snag some snowy photos, make friends with the overly friendly chipmunks, and ogle the peak porn. It’s one of those magical oases where you can play on the water and shred the slopes in the same day. We saw people toting everything from snowboards and snowmobiles to SUPs and canoes so pick your poison and plan accordingly.
Pro Tip: Before heading up the pass, spend an hour or two meandering Red Lodge, a whimsical mountain town. You can waste away the day playing board games and drinking a boba at Tea Tavern, shop for western wear at the boutiques, indulge in steaks bigger than your head, and snag a huckleberry shake at Scoops for the road.
A chic yet cozy mountain escape feel in a prime location, the Northern is the perfect base for exploring everything Billings has to offer.
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