Billings: Your Gateway to Montana

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As my family and I approached Billings last summer, we felt the rush of anticipation that comes from arriving in a big city. At the same time, we were surrounded by Montana’s glorious “Big Sky,” as we pulled into “Montana’s City.” With a population of more than 100,000 people, Billings is one of those rare finds: A sophisticated urban environment (known for its art collections, western heritage, accessible airport, and a great food and craft brewery scene) along the banks of the beautiful Yellowstone River and surrounded by the sandstone Rimrocks.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

We love browsing Billings’ easily walkable Historic Downtown, with its vibrant food scene (ranging from comfort foods like BBQ and burgers to a variety of ethnic foods and more), affordable hotels, boutique shopping, the awesome Skypoint (70 feet high!), and fun festivals like the Strawberry Festival and the Christmas Stroll.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

Kids and grownups alike are delighted to discover that the Yellowstone River actually runs right through Billings. We’d encountered the beautiful river on our way to Billings via Yellowstone National Park, and were envious of the fact that our Billings-based friends get to enjoy the river year-round! It’s the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, and is perfect for fishing and paddling. You can also enjoy the river from 500 feet above when you visit the Rimrocks.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

Experienced fishermen know that Billings and the surrounding area offer an endless variety of streams and the finest places to try fly fishing for blue ribbon trout and other freshwater fish.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

Billings boasts miles of trails perfect for walking or cycling. My kids loved exploring the city’s parkland. You’ll want to spend some time walking along the Yellowstone River, exploring the Rimrocks at Swords Rimrock Park Trail, lovely Zimmerman Park, and other natural spaces. The Billings Visitor Information Center is a good place to learn about the trail system and pick up maps, personal tips, and even a loaner bicycle.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

You can find a variety of live music almost any night in Billings. The Pub Station brings in nationally and internationally known bands as well as local bands. There are also several other small venues in town that feature live music throughout the year as well as Alberta Bair Theater and MetraPark, which put on larger concerts. In the warmer months, you can take in outdoor concerts, including Billings’ Alive After 5 and Magic City Blues Festivalin historic downtown. Whatever your musical tastes — rap, country, rock, hip-hop, alternative, blues — Billings’ music scene is playing your song.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

Don’t miss Four Dances Recreation Area for jaw-dropping views of the Yellowstone Riveralong a footpath that takes you to the top of a rimrock wall. You’ll see the uniquely western ponderosa pines in rocky outcroppings and sagebrush in an area that’s great for hiking (no bicycles), and for winter exploration on skis or snowshoes. 

— Courtesy Visit Billings

Sure, we came to Montana for the mountains, rivers, and the chance to spot bison and other wildlife. But we were absolutely delighted to explore the Yellowstone Art Museum, home to one of only three Visible Vaults in the U.S. and a truly exceptional permanent collection of major American artists. Every year, the museum is also the scene of a contemporary art auction.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

My family has been visiting ZooMontana for years, and we’ve loved the way the zoo has grown and how it’s now welcoming more visitors than ever, even playing host to special events like weddings (our friends’ daughter had a lovely outdoor ceremony there a few years back!). You can meet local wildlife including gray wolves, grizzlies, and, in the near future, bison, and also encounter more exotic residents like this red panda.

— Courtesy ZooMontana

One of the most awe-inspiring experiences you can have on your visit to Billings is a visit to Pompeys Pillar, a rock outcrop about 200 feet above the Yellowstone River about 30 miles east of town. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery passed through here in 1806 on epic exploration of the Louisiana Purchase on their way back from the Pacific Coast, and Captain William Clark carved his signature into the sandstone here. While we strongly urge you to leave the rocks unscarred on your visit, we promise you’ll get a chill as you see Clark’s handiwork along with drawings of animals left by earlier inhabitants. The knowledgeable staff and exhibits at the interpretive center will add insight to your visit. And, we recommend bringing a picnic lunch – the Pillar’s location along the river makes for a beautiful setting to enjoy the outdoors.

— Courtesy Southeast Montana

Your little cowboys and cowgirls will especially enjoy seeing the history of the old west brought to life at the Western Heritage Center in historic downtown Billings. Here, a collection of more than 16,000 artifacts and documents illuminate the rich history of the Yellowstone River Valley.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

A day trip outside of Billings to the east, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area immerses you in a truly exceptional range of environments, including forest, mountains, prairie, canyons, and high desert, all within a manageable piece of parkland. If you like fishing, pack your rod and reel and visit the Bighorn River. Boating, kayaking, and canoeing are all excellent ways to enjoy the colors and scenic beauty of Bighorn Canyon.

— Andy Austin/Courtesy Southeast Montana

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is the site where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry were defeated by thousands of Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors in one of the last major battles between the Plains Indians and the U.S. army. Those of us who learned the words “Custer’s Last Stand” at an early age will find the monument eye-opening and extremely moving.

— Courtesy Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

On our way to Billings, I took my family to Yellowstone National Park and enjoyed three days of hiking, wildlife encounters (including good-natured "traffic jams" caused by bison crossing the road), and, of course, views of the iconic waterfalls. While Billings is a convenient "Gateway to Yellowstone," on our trip, Yellowstone turned out to be our "Gateway to Billings" as we packed up and hit the Beartooth Highway bound for the big city.

— Michele Firpo-Cappiello

"You're gonna love the Beartooth Highway!" we were told by every local we met on our vacation in Big Sky Country. And they were, of course, 100 percent correct. After our unforgettable visit to Yellowstone National Park and a night in Cooke City (one of Budget Travel's Coolest Small Towns in America, located just outside the park), we hit the Beartooth Highway's amazing curves as we climbed higher and higher, above the tree line, until we felt literally and figuratively on top of the world. We even photographed our holiday greeting card up there, but as beautiful as some images are, they never quite capture the unbelievable scale of the Beartooth Mountains. The ride from Yellowstone National Park to Billings on the Beartooth Highway is the most spectacular drive in America.

— Courtesy Visit Billings

All that hiking, paddling, and exploring makes a person mighty thirsty. We adore Billings' Walkable Brewery District, where you can sample world-class craft beers and even do a "brewery crawl" without having to get behind the wheel. With several family-friendly restaurants included, this was a perfect experience for all of us. Raise a glass to your incredible Montana adventure. You've earned it!

— Courtesy Visit Billings

From the gorgeous heights of the Rimrocks to the vibrant food and craft brewery scene downtown, Billings is truly "Montana's City," a place where Big Sky Country meets urban sophistication. Budget Travel's editor in chief reports on why he and his family loved their visit to Billings, and why you will too.

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