Billings is the largest town in Montana, but it tends to be neglected as a tourist destination. It is overshadowed by the Glacier National Park in the far north of the state, and Yellowstone to the south. However it has a stunning natural location in the Rocky Mountains, and it is surrounded by state parks and historic sites. There is lots to see and do, both in the city of Billings and in the surrounding countryside.
Discover the City of Billings
Named after the president of the Northern Pacific Railway, Billings was built as a railroad town in 1882. It quickly grew as a commercial centre, and expanded again with the discovery of oil in the mid-20th century.
But what you notice first is the spectacular geology of the town. On one side it is bounded by the Yellowstone River, on the other the huge Rimrocks (almost 250 tall in some places) loom over the city. This makes for a unique natural environment.
The Historic Centre of Billings
In the early days Billings was very much a pioneer town, and you can still see buildings from that era in the historic centre. These include the Beaux Arts style Billings Depot, built for the railway in 1909 and now used as an events venue. Behind the Depot is a long series of information boards detailing the history of Billings and life in the west.
Many of the historic buildings are in the Montana Avenue area, between 23rd and 30th Streets, and Visit Billings have produced a trail you can follow. You will notice that this is described as a Brewery Trail, as it takes in several craft breweries (and a couple of distilleries). I can recommend a stop in the Montana Brewing Co, housed in the old Montana Power Company building. This bar has its own brewery, and you can see the machinery at work.
Don’t miss the mural in the old post office on 1st Avenue North. Painted in 1942, this is one of the “post office murals” created in the 1940s as part of the New Deal art project. The Billings mural is called “Trailing Cattle” and depicts a herd of cattle being driven through the Montana landscape. (The mural is behind glass doors, but you can still get a good view of it.)
Museums of Billings
Billings has several museums where you can explore the history and heritage of the city and the region.
Western Heritage Center
The Western Heritage Center is housed in one of Billings’ historic buildings, a Romanesque structure that was formerly the Parmly Billings Memorial Library. The exhibitions cover different aspects of regional heritage: when I visited there were displays of Native American culture and an exploration of changing attitudes towards local wildlife. I was particularly interested in a section on the immigrant communities (Chinese, German and Scandinavian) of Billings.
Yellowstone County Museum
The Yellowstone County Museum is another museum in a historic building. In this case it is the McCormick Cabin, a log cabin built as a home for a pioneer family in 1893. Because of its size it soon became a centre for community celebrations such as Thanksgiving. Originally in the city centre, the building was moved to its current location at Billings Airport in 1956.
The collections include exhibits on Native American history, ranchers and pioneers. And there is a room devoted to the intriguing subject of Native Ghost Dancing. Don’t forget to go outside to the back of the museum: there is a spectacular view over the city.
Other Museums in Billings
The Yellowstone Art Museum focuses on American art and, in particular, on the art of the Rocky Mountains and northern Plains. The Moss Mansion is a historic house with an opulent interior, built in 1903 and inhabited by the prominent Moss family until the 1980s.
Natural Environment of Billings
The natural environment is a major attraction for visitors to Montana. And, despite the oil refineries, there is plenty of nature to explore in Billings itself, including The Rimrocks, the parks and the Yellowstone River.
The Rimrocks are a massive sandstone outcrop that circles the city on two sides, and would once have stood at the edge of a vast inland sea. The parkland areas at the top of The Rims are popular places for hiking and climbing, and provide a peaceful retreat from the city. (However, if you suffer from vertigo it is advisable to keep well away from the edge…)
There are several historic spots to discover on The Rims. The Swords Park has a two mile hiking trail, starting near the airport. It includes the Black Otter Trail (named in honour of a Crow Indian chief) and the grave of Yellowstone Kelly, a hunter, trader and soldier, and real-life legend of the West.
The Four Dances Park (also named after a Crow chief) is a quieter area on the edge of the town. A short uphill hike from the car park gives you spectacular views over the Yellowstone River and across to the other Rims. This area is also known as Sacrifice Cliff on account of a local legend: it is said that two Crow warriors rode their horses over the cliff after returning home to find their village wiped out by smallpox.
Nature in the City
Billings is well provided with parks and recreation areas. To the south of the city is the Riverfront Park, on the banks of the Yellowstone River, which offers hiking trails, picnic places and fishing. Families may also enjoy ZooMontana, a 70-acre wildlife park and botanic garden with an emphasis upon regional wildlife.
Billings as a Base
However long your stay in Billings, you will want to spend time outside the city. Montana is very much an outdoor state, with lots of opportunities for hiking, fishing, canoeing and horse riding. There are several state parks, many of them based around historical sites, ranging from prehistoric caves and rock art to the Little Bighorn Battlefield (read more about the state parks and national monuments of South East Montana).
Or just take a road trip, to enjoy the wide open spaces and unrivalled scenery of the Rocky Mountians. Head south to the Beartooth Pass, said to be one of the most scenic drives in the US, with wide alpine views, forests, lakes and waterfalls.
If you wish to explore further, you can take two or three days to hop over the border to Wyoming. Here you can marvel at the wildlife, scenery and geysers of Yellowstone National Park, or immerse yourself in the history of the Wild West at Cody.
Billings has an airport with good connections across the United States (coming from the UK I found it easiest to fly via Dallas).
When you arrive you will almost certainly want to hire a car. Within the city centre you can find taxis and Uber, and there are buses (including to and from the airport). However the buses don’t go everywhere, and several of the hotels are outside of the the town centre, in areas that are not pedestrian friendly. And you’ll need your own transport to explore outside the city. (Despite Billings’ origins as a railway town, passenger trains no longer run to the city.)
Eating and Drinking in Billings
The best meals I had were at Juliano’s, in a historic building dating from 1902, and at Walkers in the town centre. However, if you are vegan or vegetarian you need to be aware that this is the land of the big steak, and eating out can be a problem. There is a list here of restaurants with vegetarian or vegan options, but you may prefer the flexibility of self-catering.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.