By Kay and David Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times
Montana bills itself as “Big Sky Country,” a pretty accurate claim in our opinion. The self-described Treasure State is blessed with mountains and hills for recreation, prairies for farming and ranching, and lakes, rivers, and streams for boating, fishing and swimming. Stand in the middle of the state and it seems as if you can see a thousand miles in any direction.
Montana is home to two of our country’s best-known national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone, although the latter is sort of a stretch since a relatively small portion of the park creeps over Montana’s southern and western borders from Wyoming. Still, Montana can claim at least a sliver of America’s first national park. Drive east of the Rockies and the Montana prairie appears to stretch to the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to outstanding natural wonders, Montana offers a large array of historical sites, museums, dude ranches, rodeos, fairs, parks, and more. There is certainly plenty to do and see in Big Sky Country. Even Ben Cartwright and his sons might have sold the Ponderosa and moved here if only they had the opportunity to witness Montana’s beauty.
Visiting Big Sky Country
Travelers considering a visit to Montana typically think mostly of the Rockies that fill the western portion of the state. Trip planning centers around locations such as Whitefish, Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell, Flathead Lake, Glacier, Yellowstone, and, perhaps, Butte. Most fail to consider locales east of the mountains. We’ve listened as travelers complained about the long drive across Montana during a trip to their mountain destinations. These are the same people who would almost certainly complain about driving through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, and the Dakotas. In Texas, they have a point.
We are here to tell you there is more to Montana than the western quarter of the state. Actually, a lot more, and it’s less crowded, less touristy, and likely less expensive. You can even see greater distances because there are no mountains to block the view. Best of all, visiting central and eastern Montana puts you in a land where the old west remains a vibrant part of the culture.
The Other Montana
Billings, the state’s largest city with a population of just over 100,000, is a strategic location from which to explore the “other” Montana. Located in the southeastern section of the state that locals call “Custer Country,” Billings sits along the banks of the Yellowstone River and is ringed by sandstone bluffs called “The Rimrocks,” or, in native parlance, “The Rims.” The city is perhaps best described as “a big, small town,” in that, while not particularly large in either size or population, it’s citizens enjoy many of the amenities found in larger cities.
The Montana economy has remained relatively strong during the nation’s recent economic struggles. The same is true for Billings that is benefiting from energy resources from the Heath shale oil field to the north, and the Bakken oil field to the east. The city serves as the trade and distribution center for most of Montana, northern Wyoming, and the western portions of North and South Dakota, areas that are proving rich in energy resources.
The town is sometimes called the “Magic City,” a name that stems from its origin. When the Northern Pacific Railroad was evaluating the area for a station location in the late 1800s, people in the small town of Coulson were so certain of being chosen that they raised land prices to levels the railroad considered unreasonable. As a result, Northern Pacific President Frederick H. Billings built the railroad’s own town that seemed to “magically appear.”
Hence, the magic city of Billings.
What’s Doing in Billings
Billings boasts art galleries, museums, and several theatres. Live performances are scheduled throughout the year at the Alberta Bair Theater (www.albertabairtheater.org), a former Fox Theater that was refurbished and reopened in 1987. The Moss Mansion Historic House Museum (www.mossmansion.com) returns visitors to the early 1900s during an hour-long tour of the red sandstone home with original furnishings. The mansion was designed by the New York architect, Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also created the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
Billings and the surrounding area support numerous markets, rodeos, fairs and festivals. Montana’s largest fair takes place here each August. The last weekend of the fair is accompanied by one of Montana’s largest professional rodeos (www.montanafair.com). Attend and be introduced to the fair goers’ favorite food, Viking on a Stick, that consists of a linear meatball coated with dough and deep fried. The result is a consumable with the appearance of a corndog on steroids. Check the Billings website noted below for a calendar of events during the period of your visit.
Sporting events take place throughout the year. Cincinnati Reds Pioneer League affiliate, the Billings Mustangs, play in newly constructed Dehler Park (www.billingsmustangs.com). The relatively short season generally begins in mid-June and ends in early September. The Billings Bulls hockey team, an affiliate of the Northern Pacific Hockey League, plays at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark (www.billingsbulls.com). The season runs from early October to early March. Rocky Mountain College (www.rocky.edu/athletics) and Montana State University Billings (www.MSUBSsports.com) each compete in a variety of sporting events during the school year.
The Area’s Indian History
The southeast region of the state is understandably rich in Indian history. The Crow Indian Reservation is approximately 60 miles east of Billings, while the reservation for the Northern Cheyenne is a little farther east. Each August, the Indian community of Crow Agency becomes “Teepee Capital of the World” during the week-long Crow Fair. The colorful event is highlighted by parades with participants on horseback, dancers in colorful native dress, an all-Indian rodeo, and, of course, stands selling fair food that includes fry bread and Indian tacos.
Chief Plenty Coups State Park near Pryor, 35 miles southeast of Billings, preserves the farmstead and 1884 home of the important Crow chief who helped bridge the gap between two cultures. The Visitor Center and home include displays interpreting the chief’s life and importance. (http://stateparks.mt.gov/chief-plenty-coups/).
The area’s most memorable historical event occurred in 1876 when Custer’s 7th Cavalry was defeated at the Little Bighorn. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (formerly, Custer Battlefield National Monument), located 65 miles east of Billings, preserves the site where Lt. Col. George A. Custer and 262 soldiers died fighting several thousand Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. This proved to be one of the Indians’ final battles in an attempt to preserve their way of life. A short orientation film and display area are offered in the Visitor Center. Ranger talks and walking tours are offered several times daily during summer months. The road through the battlefield includes descriptive signs at important locations (www.nps.gov/libi).
Other Things to See and Do in the Billings Area
Big Horn County Historical Museum, 46 miles east of Billings, takes visitors back in time as they stroll through an outdoor museum arranged as a Western village with restored buildings that include a railroad depot, church, gas station and tourist cabins (www.bighorncountymuseum.org). The museum is quite impressive for such a small community.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument, 28 miles east of Billings, is the site of the only remaining mark left by Lewis and Clark during their epic expedition to explore the West. The 500-foot sandstone pillar beside the Yellowstone River served as Clark’s tablet when he stopped on July 25, 1806, to inscribe his name and date that remain clearly visible. The monument also has an impressive interpretive center with exhibits and a video. “Clark Days,” with many activities including a reenactment of Clark canoeing down the Yellowstone and landing at Pompeys Pillar, takes place the last weekend of July (www.pompeyspillar.org).
The picturesque resort town of Red Lodge, 60 miles southwest of Billings, is well worth a visit any time of year. The Beartooth Highway connecting Red Lodge with Yellowstone National Park is considered one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the state. Beartooth Bike Tours ferries passengers and bikes to the Montana-Wyoming border where enthusiasts enjoy scenic wonders and the wind in their faces as they bike down the mountain. (www.beartoothbiketours.com)
Red Lodge offers one especially unusual attraction: pig races. Each summer evening on Thursday through Sunday, Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse offers pig racing on a track behind the restaurant. We don’t remember pork being on the menu. (www.redlodge.com/bear creek).
Outdoor recreational activities are particularly popular in the Billings area as evidenced by equipment superstores Cabela’s and Scheels All Sport, along with smaller specialty outdoor shops. The area’s parks offer trails for hiking and mountain biking. Two Moon and Riverfront parks include trails along the Yellowstone River. Phipps, Swords, and Zimmerman parks offer hiking and biking trails that require a little more effort. Six golf courses are available for duffers who like to hit the links.
Montana is well-known as a fishing destination and the state attracts many visitors who wish to do little else. Numerous lakes, rivers, creeks and reservoirs offer accessible fishing sites that make the state an angler’s heaven. Most of these same bodies of water offer opportunities for canoeing, kayaking and rafting. In some cases, especially river rafting, a guide is recommended.
For a true western experience consider a guided horseback ride. Bitter Creek Outfitters (www.bittercreekoutfitters.com) and Western Romance Company (www.westernromancecompany.com) each offers horses and guides for wilderness trail rides..
During winter months, ice skating and cross-country skiing are popular in this part of the state. For downhill skiing, try the Red Lodge area (www.redlodgemountain.com) 60 miles south from Billings.
IF YOU GO:
Getting There: Flights leave Valdosta at 5:45 a.m. with connections in Atlanta and Minneapolis to arrive in Billings at 12:36 p.m. (the flight west gains two hours). A later 10:40 a.m. flight arrives at 6:30 p.m. Return flights leave Billings at 6:20 a.m. and arrive in Valdosta at 5:27 p.m. Ticket prices are constantly changing but expect about $525 with Tuesday departures typically being least expensive. Departures on other days can result in ticket price increase of as much as $500.
Accommodations: Most major hotel chains are represented in the Billings area. We stayed at BootHill Inn & Suites near the airport; (866) 266-8445; www.boothillinn.com. A 289-room downtown Crowne Plaza was renovated in 2008; (877) 227-6963; www.ichotelsgroup.com Both offer a complimentary airport shuttle.
Dining: Several excellent dining establishments are in the area. Stella’s Kitchen & Bakery in downtown Billing offers fresh squeezed orange juice, mammoth cinnamon rolls, and pancakes that lap over the edges of a large plate. Plan on little for lunch if you visit for breakfast. Walkers American Grill and Tapas Bar is a good choice for evening dinning.
Additional Information: Billings Visitor Information Center, (800) 735-2635; www.visitbillings.com. Montana Office of Tourism, www.visitmt.com
David and Kay Scott reside in Valdosta, Georgia, and are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot).