I love the wild, wild west, and Montana is one of those states that makes you feel like the west is still alive and kicking. We’ve been to this Big Sky state a number of times, it’s got that little something that makes us want to return again and again.
On this past trip, I did western North Dakota and southeastern Montana, spending time finding fun things to do in Billings as we used it for a hub during the second part of the trip. Billings is also the perfect location to start or end a Montana Road Trip through amazing southeast Montana.
Where is Billings?
Billings, the largest city in Montana, is located in the south central part of the state. Because of its centrality, you can go in any direction to find fun things to do. Within just a few miles of the city you can enjoy mountains, lakes, and rivers.
Many people come to Billings to attend conferences, as I did. I was there to take part in TBEX, a conference for travel content creators. However, I would say that it’s a great place to head to as a destination in its own right. If you love the west, and you love getting outdoors, there’s plenty of possibilities.
Getting To and Around Billings
To get there, you can either fly into Logan International Airport or you can drive. The airport is only ten minutes from the center of town, and it’s one of those small airports that I just love using. Being small, it’s easy to get around, and it had a plethora of power outlets, which is always important to us travelers to keep our gear functioning. Driving couldn’t be easier.
Billings is right along Interstate 90, which goes all the way from Boston to Seattle, and due to its open spaces the speed limit is 80 mph (at least on the Montana portion). It’s also very easy to connect with the northern part of Interstate 25 as well. It technically ends in Buffalo, Wyoming, but it’s basically a straight shot and only 165 miles from Billings.
I drove into Billings, but I needed a car since the city is so spread out. I conveniently picked one up at the airport, and knew immediately I was in the wild, wild west. The rental car attendant offered me an upgrade for free, and my choice was a pick-up truck or an SUV. I have never been offered a pick-up before. Never.
Billings Tourist Map
What’s the Best Time to Visit Billings?
Montana is known for its hot, dry summers and it’s cold, dry winters. Throughout the year temperatures can range from freezing in the winter to over 100 degrees in the summer. Most of the year, however, the actual temperature is rather mild. What makes it feel so cold in the winter is the wind.
Billings is the fifth windiest city in Montana, which means that for over 140 days per year the wind gusts at a minimum of 30 miles per hour. That’s pretty windy! The best thing to do when packing for this kind of weather is make sure that you layer your clothing and maybe invest in a good jacket with a fleece insert, such as my favorite Columbia Bugaboo, and of course always have a hat to both keep off the sun as well as keep your head warm.
What are the Fun Things to Do in Billings?
After spending a little over a week here, I was able to do so much and still attend my conference. Here’s some of the things I’ve found to do in Billings and it’s immediate surroundings.
- Historic Downtown Billings and its street art
- Catch up on the local hero that was Yellowstone Kelly
- Parks, parks, and more parks with great views of the Rimrocks
- Celebrate the first inhabitants of Billings at Pictograph State Park
- Museums such as: Western Heritage Center, Yellowstone Art Museum, and the Moss Mansion
- Take the family to Zoo Montana or a picnic in the Pryor Mountains
- Eat well or catch a snack at one of the many great cafes, restaurants, or brew pubs
Stroll around Billings Downtown
Only a few blocks wide, the downtown area of Billings is easily walkable if your hotel is there. For part of my stay I wanted to be able to walk to dinner so I stayed at the humble Dude Rancher Lodge, which had a great breakfast deal each morning and was super convenient.
I could walk to just about all the downtown restaurants within five minutes, which is important when you are all alone in a place, don’t you think? I love the old fashioned feel of the downtown area, with brick buildings, old theatre facades, and lots of great street art. One night they’d closed off one of the blocks and had a small street festival with music and food trucks.
Enjoy the Rimrocks and the Parks
With over 47 parks and miles of trails for hiking, biking, and even skating it is really easy to get outside and breathe in some fresh air right in Billings. Probably the most famous parks, and the ones I visited, were the ones with spectacular views from and of the famous Rimrocks.
Millions of years ago Billings was under an inland sea, as time passed, the water receded and the rocks emerged. Now the Rimrocks are one of the icons of Billings. These rocks rise up to 1400 feet and are an impressive geological feature. Even though there are plenty of parks in and all around the city, I concentrated on the two where I could spend time in the Rimrocks–Zimmerman and Sword Parks.
You have to drive up to the top of the cliffs. Both are near the airport so it only takes about 10 minutes, but it’s a whole different world up there. Both parks, and really everywhere in Billings, people were out biking, hiking, and jogging.
The last park I visited was my favorite, because not only did it have a great view of the city, it had great paths for walking and climbing around on the rocks. In the parking lot we talked to a fat biker getting ready to go out. He said that if you are into mountain biking this is the place to do it. I wanted to follow him and take photos, but we didn’t have time. We wandered around for a good 45 minutes, and we definitely could have spent more time there, but we had planes to catch.
This is probably the best view I found of the city. This man was out on the rock and I am so afraid of heights that I didn’t get any closer. He did walk up to the edge and then back some. I’m thinking it dropped off right there. So scary…but beautiful. Swords Park is also the jumping off point for the path to Yellowstone Kelly’s Memorial as well.
Take in a Museum
The Western Heritage Center, above, is very easy to get to from downtown. Not only is it located in this historical building made out of the same sandstone that surrounds the city, the Rimrocks, but it puts on lots of events and talks. They came to one of our conference events and set up Montana historical stations to wander around.
An early 1900s home listed on the National Registry, Moss Mansion still retains its Victorian furnishings. You can tour the house either on your own or on a docent-led group tour. Unfortunately it was under renovation when I was there, so I just wandered the garden.
As you can see from the sign, this is a small zoo that even with a few exotic animals, but it is really a great place for seeing Montana wildlife like bison, wolves, and this buzzard. There’s plenty for a family to do at Zoo Montana like the petting zoo, let loose in the huge playground, as well at marveling at all the animals. The day I was there the otters were being super cheeky!
Yellowstone Kelly Memorial
I could not leave Billings without finding the Yellowstone Kelly Memorial. The mayor of Billings, Bill Cole, came to TBEX and spoke so passionately about raising the funds for this local hero’s park. I was following my gps, and got a little worried that I wasn’t supposed to keep going past this open gate in Sword Park.
Yes, the gate was open, but it looked like a bike and running path, which lots of people were using. I, of course, had no idea how far the memorial was, so I asked a man if it was okay and on I drove. It turns out it wasn’t that far, but there was a parking lot so it was definitely okay. I wandered around looking at the view a little, but mostly reading the placards about Yellowstone Kelly.
So who was Yellowstone Kelly? He was a trapper, hunter, and guide in the middle 1800s. Building a fine reputation, he became an Army scout during the North American Plains Indian campaigns.
Not finished with adventure, after leaving Montana he went on numerous Alaskan expeditions and then went on to be a part of the Philippine-American Insurrection. He finished his days in California as a rancher, but his last wish was to be buried in Montana. It’s a fascinating read, and I encourage you to go check it out.
Pictograph Cave State Park
As someone who is really into Native American history and indigenous peoples, one of the places that was high on my list to visit was Pictograph Cave State Park. One of the most amazing archaeological sights in all of Montana, this is an area that has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years.
The park is built around three caves, one of which held pictographs depicting people, animals, and even weapons. It’s a short hike from the visitor’s center to see the pictographs, and the views are stunning.
Only a few hours drive from Billings, the Pryor Mountains have a lot to offer for a day. There is an ice cave, some wild horses, and beautiful areas for picnicking and hiking. We went up there for the day to do some four-wheeling with Max Graham and his son in their jeeps, and even though it was rainy and downright cold, we had a blast.
What are the Best Restaurants in Billings?
Let me tell you, I ate well the whole time I was in Billings. I found good food at great prices. Here are some of my favorites.
You know I love a good breakfast, and my favorite American breakfast is sausage gravy and biscuits so I try to have them as often as I can when I’m in the States. At the Sassy Biscuit it was made with sage, and boy does it give it a tasty western flair. I loved the decor, and I was very comfortable eating all by myself. The coffee was great too!
Burger Dive is downright famous in Billings. I felt like I really didn’t have a choice, I had to go. It’s only open for lunch, though, so I had to go once the conference was over. Luckily, I was again alone. The place was packed! There was a line out of the door, but there was one seat open at the counter. Yay!
When I’m alone, I love sitting at the counter, because you get to see and hear everything going on in the kitchen area. The staff were having a great time, but they sure did move to keep things going.
I asked what to have and was told the “Huckleberry Burger” was basically their signature dish. The Huckleberry has all kinds of Montana goodness on it from the Huckleberry preserves to the locally made goat cheese. For a side, I got the garlic fries. Wow! It was messy, but amazing!
Best Ice Cream
I don’t have a picture of it, but downtown you can visit Big Dipper Ice Cream. It was hot and dry out the day I was wandering around, and I needed a snack. I was going to order one of their special Montana-type flavors, but I really just wanted to cool off, so got the lemon sherbet on a sugar cone. Perfect!
Another dish I always want when I’m in the States is pie. There’s a reason people talk about “American as apple pie.” It really could just be “pie,” because there’s really no other place in the world you can get it. So, once again I was on the lookout for the best pie in town, and I read that Red Rooster Cafe Restaurant was the place to go. It was a good thing I’d rented that SUV, because it wasn’t downtown.
Upon entering, the greeter (maybe owner) had a welcome chat with me and the first thing I asked is what pies do they have. They had about six to offer, some fruit and some cream. I picked the peach. Apparently they love to bake, because there was an entire case filled with cookies, bars, and cupcakes as well. I was very happy with my choice. The peach was great.
Best Brew Pub and Nightlife
I’m not much for nightlife, but there are some cool places in Billings. My absolute favorite was the Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill. It’s got an industrial feel, but they make their ciders on site, and their menu is eclectic. I was impressed!
I ordered the duck poutine and for dessert I couldn’t resist the sous vide cheesecake. Then I washed it all down with a seasonal Oktoberfest beer. I think it was my favorite meal the whole time I was there. I really enjoyed the laid back atmosphere as well.
TBEX always puts on some great evening parties and finds unique and interesting venues. We visited the Cameron Ranch, where we took photos with their gorgeous horses, and we had a night at the Billings Depot which was eclectic and fun! If you get to do events at either of these venues, do it.
Billings Hotels and Accommodations
There are many fantastic hotels to stay in Billings, but a lot of people come in with campers or want a more family-friendly and casual atmosphere. Have you ever stayed at a KOA campground? Billings is home to the very first one, and they have cabins so you don’t really have to camp!
Some Billings hotels:
On the Outskirts:
What Timezone does Billings use?
Driving through the west, the distances are far, but it still seems that you are changing time zones frequently. Billings, and all of Montana, are fully in the Mountain Timezone, two hours behind the east coast and one ahead of the west coast.
What is Billings Famous for?
I think we’ve covered this in full! Those Rimrocks, as well as all the natural and historical sites nearby, make Billings a tourist destination unlike any other. Its unique geology, brew pub atmosphere, and welcoming attitudes make it one of the best places to live and travel to in the United States!
Why is Billings nicknamed the “Magic City”?
A quirky nickname, Billings started being called the “Magic City” during the fast rise in population when the railroad first established a town here. Apparently the word got out quickly that this was the place to be. In fact, in 1882 it grew from three buildings to over 5,000 homes and businesses in only 30 days thanks to news articles about how wonderful it was. That is magic.
What is Near Billings That’s Fun?
Taking a day trip from Billings really gives you some options to expand your holiday without having to pack up and go too far. Here are some of the places I would suggest you visiting from Billings:
- Pompey’s Pillar National Monument
- Bighorn Canyon
- Little Bighorn Battlefield
- Hobson and the Montana Bale Trail
- Red Lodge – Beartooth Highway
- Drive the Chief Joseph Byway
- Yellowstone National Park
Day Trips from Billings
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument
One of the most famous people to come through Montana was William Clark from the famous Lewis and Clark Exploration, and the only place along the route that still bares evidence of the trip is at Pompey’s Pillar where he carved his name and the date in the rock.
With a glass teepee visitor center that is chock full of information, informative placards, and a well-used wooden staircase and walkway to make the ascent to the pillar as easy as possible, Pompey’s Pillar is a Montana must-see.
Little Big Horn Battlefield
Custer’s Last Stand, at the Battle of Little Bighorn, is something every child in America learns about. Considered one of the turning points in the Great Sioux War of 1876, many soldiers and native warriors lost their lives.
Today the battlefield monument consists of a museum and visitor’s center with great lectures and information recounting the history and tragedy of the battle, two graveyards as well as scattered graves marking where people fell, and memorials to the U.S. soldiers as well as the Native American tribesmen that took part. It’s a sobering site, but an important one for students of U.S. history of all ages.
Big Horn Canyon
Straddling two states, Montana and Wyoming, Bighorn Canyon is the perfect place to enjoy getting into nature. The Montana portion is more known for its water activities where you can enjoy all kinds of boating, kayaking, on your own or by national park guided service. The Wyoming portion of Bighorn Canyon is more known for its hiking trails and magnificent scenery.
Hobson and the Montana Bale Trail
Every September, after the hay has been harvested, this small Montana town puts on an art contest using hay to make sculptures. The Montana Bale Trail is something to do with the whole family. It’s quirky and fun.
Only 125 miles from Billings, the university city of Bozeman, has a smaller, more intimate feel. Located in the Gallatin Valley, and surrounded by mountains, it’s a great jumping off point for Yellowstone National Park and other outdoor adventures.
I only spent one night in Bozeman but I’ve decided I can’t wait to go back. We didn’t have time for much, but we did eat a great dinner in one of the most revered historical buildings in Bozeman, at Ted’s Montana Grill.
Then the next morning I had the best breakfast in the whole state at the Western Cafe where you guessed it, I tried their homemade chicken-fried steak and gravy. Other than eating, we walked around the area of the Bozeman Public Library which sits on two parks, one with a walk full of sculptures made by local artists. It’s a great little town.
Red Lodge and the Beartooth Highway
The day we were heading to Yellowstone National Park, we’d hoped on driving the Beartooth Highway. However, snow was in the forecast. Snow. In September! Enough snow that I wasn’t going to risk driving someplace I’ve never been before. I was so disappointed, I’d wanted to do the Beartooth ever since I’ve learned about it. There’s always next time.
At any rate, the cold, slushy rain was pelting us as we drove into quaint little Red Lodge. After getting gas, we headed straight for the Visitor’s Center where we chatted with the ladies for at least 15 minutes. They checked the weather for us, even though it was pretty obvious we’d picked the wrong day to head out, and gave us some good advice.
We stopped for coffee and a few pictures, lamenting the rain and the light. I can’t say we got a fair shake of this very western town, but I think you’d still like it. Just try and pick a drier, warmer day!
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
I’d come across mention of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway when researching the Beartooth, but to be honest didn’t really consider it. I was sold on the other. Well, as I’ve already told you, we had to make alternate plans because of the wretched weather. (See, travel isn’t always sunshine and rainbows!)
First we crossed over into Wyoming, then started up the highway to go to Yellowstone. From the moment we started climbing, the views were spectacular. I loved it. As often happens while traveling, I found a treasure because I had to change plans. Now I know that I want to go back and do this road again in the sunshine.
Yellowstone National Park
I love this park! I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park at least three times already, and yet, I’d go again tomorrow if I had the chance. I think that’s the beauty of national parks, like the Grand Canyon, they show off the best of the best.
Yellowstone is famous for so many things, and you really have to do some research before going. It’s huge, and it’s popular so having a good plan before you go is crucial. When we went, we knew we were limited on time so since both of us had been to Old Faithful before, we decided to skip it and do other parts of the park instead.
We basically stayed in the northern part where we enjoyed the bison and many hot springs. We did the park in two days from Billings this time around, so you can do it!
Billings is a fantastic place to spend a week or two for vacation. There’s lots to do in the city and in the nearby areas. From unparalleled outdoor activities to tremendous historical sites, it has it all. Whatever you do, make sure to get up on the Rimrocks and enjoy that view! What about you? Have you been to Billings? What was your favorite thing to do there?