Shaped by the waters of the Yellowstone River in the south and the towering Rimrocks in the north, Billings is a unique blend of natural beauty and cultured city life. What was once a land that sat on the shores of the Western Interior Seaway (a vast sea that went from the present-day Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic North), is now a bustling hotbed for adventurers, foodies, and art-lovers alike.
Our first stop in Montana's most magical city is ZooMontana, the only zoo in all of Montana. Open year-round, ZooMontana is located on 70 acres, and houses more than 100 different animals. Animals from across the globe have found their way here, including tigers, pythons, parrots, even a local grizzly bear. All animals have been rescued from above the 45th parallel, meaning they all come from regions that are 45 degrees north of the equator and, therefore, typically colder climates. The zoo makes a point of designing and building enclosures that are as close to the animals' natural habitats as possible. In addition to the animals, ZooMontana also has a sensory garden where hearing- and/or visually-impaired visitors can enjoy the animal experience. Admission costs $9 for adults and $6 for kids, and parking is always free.
One of Billing's first breweries, Canyon Creek Brewery was started by long-term resident Ron Kalvig. Kalvig brews up all of his own recipes and sells them by the pint for $4 (or $3 during happy hour). Canyon Creek has a good selection of about 15 different beers, including some lesser known ones like black malt liquor. The large patio has become a popular place for both beer and dog lovers to hang out and enjoy some sun.
Located in the heart of downtown Billings, the Northern Hotel is one of the more upscale, elegant accommodations in the city. With 160 rooms and suites, two different restaurants, and a large workout facility, guests will find everything they need for an extremely comfortable stay. The service at the Northern Hotel is as premium as its beautiful, modern decor. Grab a cocktail in TEN, the hotel's modern American restaurant, before taking a short walk to either the Yellowstone Art Museum or the Alberta Bair Theater—both conveniently located just minutes away.
You can't visit Billings and not go to the Burger Dive. This little brick restaurant in the middle of town has been serving up unforgettable burgers, fries, and hot dogs since 2010. Brad and his wife Andi run the restaurant, and are always willing to say hello and offer their recommendations. Many of the burgers have won local, national, even global awards. Brad's most recent creation is the "I’m Your Huckleberry" burger, which won the Burger Champion award at the World Food Championship. This burger comes with Brad’s famous huckleberry hatch chili barbecue sauce, bacon, goat cheese, and roasted red pepper mayo. With almost 20 different burgers on the menu, including classic and non-meat options, there is truly something delicious for everyone.
If you're looking to learn a bit more about the history behind Billings, then a tour of Moss Mansion is perfect for you. This beautiful brick residence was once home to the Preston Boyd Moss family, and was designed by the same architect who did the original Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Through a one-hour guided tour, visitors will learn all about the Moss family and their impact on the surrounding community. Everything inside the mansion is either original or has been replicated to look exactly like an early 1900s artifact. The surrounding great lawn and gardens are truly remarkable, and the small museum has a variety of rotating exhibits. The guided tours cost $15 per person, or you can pay $12 and wander the mansion on your own (pro tip: take the guided tour).
With a slightly different vibe than the Northern Hotel, the Dude Rancher Lodge is a truly rustic ranch. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Dude Rancher Lodge has been housing guests since 1949 and hasn't lost any of its original charm. With custom-built western-style furnishings and carpeting, each room is adorned with the brands of local ranchers who originally invested in the property. The lobby has a large stone fireplace and complimentary coffee. There is also a restaurant on-site, which serves home-style cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
When people think Yellowstone, they probably don't think of an art museum. Yet everything at the Yellowstone Art Museum—from the paintings to the sculptures to the murals—is focused exclusively on Montana and its surrounding regions (including Yellowstone National Park). This bright, modern space has a variety of different exhibits, all showcasing artists from local communities. The museum is open every day except Monday, and admission costs $15 for adults and $6 for kids and students.
A unique new restaurant to grace the Billings food scene, the Grotto is both a kombucha bar and entirely vegan. But don't let this diary-free, gluten-free establishment scare you. The Grotto sells delicious wraps, salads, pizzas, even cheesecake. Stop by for breakfast and get one of their smoothie bowls, topped with a generous portion of fresh fruit (and maybe an edible flower or two).
If you've never ridden a horse before, that's no problem for Bitter Creek Outfitters. This family run trail-riding organization takes small groups of visitors out on leisurely treks through the scenic Montana countryside, spotlighting five different mountain ranges, and offering a unique perspective of the city of Billings. Every participant is matched with a specific horse, and all groups are taken out with a professional guide. It is strongly recommended that you make a reservation (and wear pants), as Bitter Creek tours can book quickly, especially in the summer. There are one-hour, two-hour, and all-day private rides offered, as well as special add-ons, like picnic lunches or wine and cheese pairings. If you want to explore Billings, on horseback is definitely a unique way to do it!
A trip to Billings in the summer isn't complete without a stop at Lake Elmo. This 64 acre reservoir is actually located inside the city limits of Billings, and is the perfect place to swim, boat, paddle board, fish, or just sit on the shore and enjoy a picnic. If you want to fish, head down to Roger's Pier and drop a line. Or, if you prefer to be out on the water, you can rent a kayak in town from The Base Camp and haul it up to the lake (only non-motorized boats are allowed). Around the water, you'll find plenty to do, including a nature trail, a playground, picnic shelters, even a 200-square-foot dog park.
Often referred to as Montana's Trailhead, Billings is a warm welcome to kick off your adventure in Big Sky Country. So, if you plan on visiting Glacier or Yellowstone National Park any time soon, make sure you add Billings to your itinerary. You won't regret it.