You know about Yellowstone…you may have heard about Glacier…but Billings is the Montana Trailhead, and the surrounding Southeast Montana territory can’t be missed while you’re there.
Billings sits along the Yellowstone River and edges the sandstone Rimrocks. It holds heroic (and tragic) history from Lewis and Clark, Sitting Bull…even dinosaurs! Keep reading for a list of our favorite experiences.
Within the Billings Area
ZooMontana is not huge (like you might expect if you live in Atlanta) but it is by far one of the best zoos we’ve ever visited. To be fair, it’s a bit of a misnomer to even call it a zoo. Sanctuary is a better term. All of the animals are rescues, and their mission is all about animal welfare and conservation and not exploitation. While many zoo’s claim this, ZooMontana lives it.
It’s is a private, non-profit organization which depends solely on grants and donations to keep its doors open…and it’s also AZA accredited. That’s an unbelievable feat!
But let’s get to the good stuff…
The animals are so well taken care of…and you have the opportunity to get very close! Some of our favorites included the bison, the gray wolves…and the boys’ all-time fave was the Siberian tiger. That tiger loved following them back and forth along the glass!
Oh! And did we mention the GRIZZLY BEARS!!
Don’t miss the animals inside the building attached to the gift shop, too. You’ll often find the staff showing off a Eastern screech owl or an adorable Pygmy hedgehog! Plus your kids will love the snakes and spiders!
The Yellowstone River is the longest un-dammed river in the US. It flows out of Yellowstone Park, getting wider and slower as you enter Billings where it’s called the “lower” river.
Riverfront Park offers outstanding trails for biking or walking along the water.
If you prefer to see the river from a different perspective, then head to Swords Park Trail. It’s a 2-mile excursion along the Rimrocks (the Rims) with awesome views of Billings and the Yellowstone River Valley.
Downtown is small…but you can’t miss it..and it’s worth making time for, for sure! Aside from fantastic restaurants and superb shopping, there are a few historical gems tucked in here as well.
Yellowstone Art Museum. This delightful museum displays art that puts emphasis on Montana and the Northern Plains region. The permanent collection is over 7500 pieces. There are plenty of classes and workshops. In fact, if you’re visiting on a Friday then be sure to stop in for Family Fun Friday Nights, where families can create art together. We love the Children’s Collection!
Moss Mansion. Preston Moss was in influential entrepreneur in Billings. He built the Moss Family Mansion in the early 1900s, and today you can tour the home and learn about the legacy he left in Billings.
Western Heritage Center. Much like the Yellowstone Art Museum, the Center seeks to preserve an extensive collection of Western artifacts. Some of the most popular include heart-wrenching paintings from POW Ben Steele…and a history of how the Parks’ shared “bear safety” tips. We’re fans of the first floor, which was almost entirely artifacts from the local Crow Native Americans.
Pro Tip: If you want even more Montana history, take a short drive to the Yellowstone County Museum. The Western room is great, and the kids will love the steam engine parked outside!
Brewery District. Finally, if it’s beer you love then Billings is where to go. Six breweries and two distilleries make up Montana’s only walkable beer trail! Head over to the link for a printable PDF of the trail, with a little history on each stop.
Pictograph Cave State Park
Only about 5 miles from Billings, Pictograph Cave State Park is a great place to fall back in time…all the way back to the prehistoric days!
Start in the visitor’s center to learn about the area, and then head out on the short loop trail to see the pictographs for yourself! There are over 100 rock paintings within the Pictograph, Middle and Ghost caves, some as ancient as 2,000 years old! Bring your binoculars!
Where to Stay in Billings
Northern Hotel. Northern Hotel is one of the only non-chain hotels you’ll find in the area – and we love it! It’s even been called one of the best hotels in Montana.
It’s also wonderfully historic… The hotel was first built in 1902 by P.B. Moss (aka Moss Mansion above) and Henry W Rowley. It hosted Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but was destroyed by a fire in 1940.
Not to worry – they rebuilt it…and it changed hands several times before reopening again better than ever in 2013.
185 rooms include rooms (king or two queens) and suites. There are also two restaurants in the building, a gym, and easy access to all that Downtown Billings offers.
Billings KOA. Did you know the Billings KOA is the very first KOA ever opened in the country? We’ve stayed at about a dozen KOAs, and this is our favorite!
Even if you’re not in an RV, you should still consider a stay in one of their Deluxe Cabins.
Amenities include laundry, a pool with hot tub, bike rentals, mini golf, and more. We also loved the proximity to Yellowstone River.
Day Trips From Billings
Beartooth Highway is a sensational stretch of road that leads Southwest from Billings. It actually heads over the state line into Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park.
Is it worth it? YES! In fact, it’s been called “the most beautiful drive in America” by CBS. It’s also one of the most diverse ecosystems you can drive through!
If you want to take the entire Highway, plan about 3 hours of drive time on that stretch. If you don’t want to take the 2 hours back to Billings right away, then make a stop in Red Lodge. Our friends here can tell you everything you need to do in Red Lodge, MT. Be sure to check on road conditions – the elevation can bring snow and ice during months you would not expect.
Medicine Rocks State Park
Medicine Rocks is so unexpected…so mysterious…so strange….and PERFECT. I think one of the odd things about it is that you drive through the flat prairie lands for what seems like forever – and then BOOM! There it is!
The clusters of sandstone rocks tower as high as 80-feet in the air…and they look like Swiss cheese!
You can climb in them and take photos. There is a short hiking trail, and even camping spots.
I hated seeing so much graffiti, though. The sandstone is very soft, and too many visitors have carved their initials into the mounds. PLEASE don’t do this!! These amazing structures are left from the sand deposits of a waterway that ran through the area 63 millions years ago.
Makoshika State Park
Many people think that the Badlands are only in South Dakota, but that’s not true. You’ll find gorgeous Badlands as you drive from Billings to Makoshika State Park…and in fact, Makoshika means Bad Land in Lakota.
While the badlands here are spectacular, the real draw are the dinosaurs!
Makoshika is one of the largest state parks in Montana, the most popular, and one of the stops along the Montana Dino Trail.
We stayed here overnight, which gave us the opportunity to hike several trails, including a short but strenuous trail that took us to see a real Hadrosaur fossil still partially in the sandstone.
The park also houses the fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, too. Be sure to stop by the visitor center for the full story!
Pro Tip: Near Makoshika is another dino stop, Frontier Gateway Museum. We didn’t make it here because it is not open on Sundays (while we were there) but it is so close that you shouldn’t miss it if you visit during the week.
Carter County Museum
Carter County Museum is also on the Dino Trail, and worth a stop if you’re in the area. (And it’s near Medicine Rocks!)
We saw tons of dino casts and Native American artifacts. The boys loved the 2-headed cow…and sticking their head into a T-rex mouth, of course!
This little stop is a gem!
Little Bighorn Battlefield
I just want to be honest with you all – we didn’t stop here. I’m not a fan of Custer and the way the Native Americans were treated by the US government. I assumed the site would honor Custer – call him a hero. I couldn’t stomach it.
What I learned later (when we were back home) is that the Crow give a very affordable 1 hour tour of the battlefield. The proceeds stay with their tribe, and you gain their unique perspective of the events.
I wish we had known about this…if you visit, I hope you’ll do the tour and let us know about it.
Beyond Montana – Worth the Effort
Southeast Montana borders Wyoming, North and South Dakota. While visiting, we dipped our toes just over the border, and here were some of those must-see stops.
Theodore Roosevelt State Park (North Dakota)
From Makoshika State Park, it’s a short trip to Theodore Roosevelt State Park in North Dakota. To be clear, this park is HUGE, and you probably can’t explore everything on a day trip.
We opted for a visit to the South Unit, which is right off the interstate in a drive from Makoshika and Glendive (though word is that the North Unit is even more spectacular. Honestly, not sure how that could be – it’s all fantastic!)
The South Unit boasts a 36-mile scenic drive, which we took. The ranger will tell you it takes about 90-minutes…but we spent about 4-5 hours on the loop because we got out and took many of the shorter hikes.
I highly recommend the Wind Canyon Trail. We also loved the history of the Coal Vein Trail and the Ridgeline Nature Trail.
Also – this is the first place we saw wild Bison! Plus prairie dogs, mule deer, wild turkeys, and more!
Devil’s Tower National Monument (Wyoming)
About 4 hours from Billings, you can visit Devil’s Tower – the first National Monument. It’s further than you may be comfortable with for a “day trip” into the Black Hills, but it is so amazing that I recommend adding an extra day to see it if you don’t see yourself getting back to the area.
We added a day by camping at the Devil’s Tower KOA, with a gorgeous view of the tower from our site. They show Close Encounters of the Third Kind every evening, which is fun tribute to the monolith. And afterward, you’ll want to test your night-time photography skills if the night is clear. The monument set against a starry night is magnificent.
We spent the next morning walking the trail around the base of Devil’s Tower. We saw a number of climbers taking on the 867 ft tower.
You’ll also see several cloths hanging from trees around the tower. Be sure not to touch them. These are prayer cloths. The tower is considered a sacred worship site by many Native American’s. In fact, the name Devil’s Tower is an American accident…the Indian name for Devil and Bear sound very similar; the Kiowa name is actually Bear Tower.
The Badlands (South Dakota)
You saw a hint of the Badlands near Makoshika…but if you want to see them in all their full beauty then you simply must head into South Dakota!
Sorry to be a tease, but there is MUCH to see here, so we’re dedicating a full post to it – coming soon. Know this, though….after you explore Montana, you’ll want to come back to this part of the US, and South Dakota should be next on your list.
More From Montana (and the area)
- 19 Reasons You Absolutely Have To Visit Glacier National Park
- 5 Amazing Places To Stay When Visiting Glacier National Park
- Visiting The Breathtaking Going To The Sun Road In Glacier
- 17 Reasons Should Make Yellowstone Park A Priority
- 5 Captivating Things To Do By Old Faithful In Yellowstone National Park
- Helpful Tips For Camping In Yellowstone National Park
- 5 Spectacular Things You Must Do In Mammoth Hot Springs
- Wyoming Ski Resorts, Including The One Regulars Want Kept Secret