East of the Rocky Mountains, sunny Billings Montana is a deceptively appealing blend of history, scenery and recreation that requires digging beyond its industrial facade. This old railroad town and financial center for eastern Montana is the nexus for exploring the so-called Big Open: coulees, ocher rimrock and scattered ponderosa pines on landscapes that seem never to disappear on an endless horizon. Billings also serves as a gateway to the famed battlefields Indian country and Yellowstone National Park’s best entrance for breath-taking beauty and wildlife viewing.
Don’t let first impressions fool you. For many, a superficial introduction to Montana’s largest city (pop. 103,000) is filtered by visible refinery stacks and sprawling warehouses sidled up against Interstate 90. Or from driving along busy and ragged 27th Avenue, the primary artery connecting I-90 with downtown Billings and Logan International Airport on the rims.
Scratch a little deeper, blow away the dust, and you’ll begin to see why Billings calls itself “The Magic City”. You might even come to understand why residents are so fiercely loyal to this financial, social and cultural hub of Montana’s vast eastern half. Truth is, while Billings wrings its collective hands over Bozeman’s ascension as an alluring destination for tourists and immigrants, there is a great deal to appreciate here — good reasons why the population is expected to increase by another 50,000 residents within 20 years.
Billings offers consistently warmer and sunnier weather than any of Montana’s seven largest communities, allowing for year-round golf and a lengthier outdoors season. The nation’s longest undammed river, the iconic Yellowstone, flows largely unnoticed between ponderosa pine-dotted ocher cliffs that provide both solitude and altitude for views. Live theater and headliner musicians routinely take the stage at the Alberta Bair Theater or for outdoor concerts. Minor league baseball lights up warm summer nights. Our favorites for imbibing in Billings comes from a robust array of microbreweries, and dining in Billings offers a wide array of options for all budgets.
In the near distance are the dramatic shoulders of the Beartooth Mountains and a hairpin drive to Yellowstone National Park dubbed America’s most beautiful. Though Bozeman is mostly thought of as Montana’s primary gateway to Yellowstone, Billings is only slightly farther. We submit that Yellowstone’s northeast entrance is the most engrossing, partly for the spectacular scenery along the way and also for the wildlife viewing in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley — dubbed “The American Serengeti”. Billings is mostly a plains city, but from the rimrocks north of the city you can see seven mountain ranges within a 100-mile radius.
A Rim with a View
Before getting a full overview of The Magic City, fill up with breakfast downtown at Stella’s Kitchen & Bakery, where the hearty portions of eggs, bacon and pancakes are just a tune up for their enormous and famous homemade cinnamon rolls and sticky buns.
After loosening your belt, work off some of those calories with a drive up 27th Avenue for a brisk walk or pedal along the ocher rimrock rising abruptly along the city’s north edge. Veer right at the round-about and park anywhere above the rim at Swords Rimrock Park for great views anytime, but best absorbed at sunrise or sunset. Against the distant cliffs, beyond the state’s two tallest buildings and tree-lined streets, the Yellowstone eases between cottonwood trees like a slithering snake. Before descending back into downtown, stop in the 1892 log cabin housing the Yellowstone County Museum at the entrance to Billings Logan International Airport. You can’t miss the Northern Pacific locomotive out front.
Park ‘n Stroll: Back downtown, you can easily spend the morning exploring reinvigorated Montana Avenue, once a seedy district that now boasts six art galleries, gastronomical delights in solid and liquid form, and snapshots of Billings history mounted on street corners. Within a few walking blocks are the Western Heritage Center, Yellowstone Art Museum, iconic cigar shops, and the NOVA Performing Arts Center.
Downtown offers an array of midday food alternatives, but for a classic Billings experience — and what might be the best hamburger in Montana — drop by The Burger Dive for always-fresh burgers made no fewer than 16 different ways, including a ‘Juicy Lucy’ that comes with the admonition to poke it with a fork lest you splatter yourself upon first bite.
Save a window in the afternoon for a tour of the Moss Mansion Historic House Museum west of downtown. Designed by the same New York architect who built the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the Moss Mansion is the consummate snapshot of turn-of-the-century wealth in Billings. If it looks familiar, perhaps it’s because of cameo appearances in the films Lonesome Dove and Son of the Morning Star.
Billings takes its dining seriously with a diverse array of restaurants, grills, bistros, pubs and diners that belie its steak-and-potato persona. Among the best is The Rex and its outdoor patio on Montana Avenue. The steaks and seafood are always fresh, the beers locally brewed, the wine selection one of Billings’ best and The Rex merits some admiration for being among the first to invest in what was once a badly blighted area. If you’ve still got your mojo going after supper, check the calendar for what’s happening at the NOVA or Alberta Bair Theater.
Out and About
Begin with a gentile breakfast at Harper and Madison, a quaint neighborhood joint near the hospital that’s packed on weekend mornings. Owner Joanie Swords briefly closed the popular café and bakery in late 2015 to expand her menu but will continue to provide one of Billings’ best wake-up calls.
You’ll notice driving around town that Billings has a strong Native American presence, and its origins are faintly evident after a quick drive to the south rims and the three yawning caves of Pictograph Cave State Park. From there, about 20 miles east of Billings is the sole remaining evidence of more recent history: the Lewis & Clark Expedition. On July 25, 1806, Capt. William Clark climbed a rock formation above the Yellowstone River and etched his name and the date in the sandstone of what is now Pompeys Pillar National Monument.
If you’ve had your fill of burgers for midday fare, you can find some surprising diversity. The old cowboy and railroad town also has a Dutch cafe called a Stroopwafel bakery. Caramel Cookie Waffles on 17th Street West, the homemade soups and Paninis leave plenty of room for the main draw — hand-baked and flame-fired chewy waffles that are sinfully addictive.
Wind down in the afternoon at Montana’s lone zoo, Zoo Montana, which offers a fascinating look at outdoor critters from around the world that thrive at the same latitude as Billings while also featuring a plethora of indoor creatures from both hemispheres. If outdoor adventure comes in the shape of a shopping bag for some in your party, Scheels at Shiloh Crossing across the road from the zoo might just be the ticket. Scheels is as much a monument as it is a store – a place to turn loose the kids on the ferris wheel and then get lost in a vast retail wilderness that covers all the bases for sports and outdoor gear.
At the end of the day, if you were to poll Billings residents about the one don’t-miss dinner stop in the city, the likely top vote-getter is Juliano’s, Located in a converted 1902 stable in a residential area northeast of downtown, Juliano’s sounds Italian but the chef is Hawaiian and the menu has a definite South Seas tint. On the brews front, Montana Brewing Company downtown keeps raking in national awards for such creations as their Fat Belly Amber, Sharptail Pale Ale and Custer’s Last Stout – all to be nursed while ordering from complete lunch and dinner menus.
Professional Bull Riders (PBR) in April, the Montana State University Billings Wine & Food Festival in May, Magic City Blues Festival in July and MontanaFair and Crow Fair (in Crow Agency) in August.