This post is sponsored by Montana’s Yellowstone Country.
If you are looking for a charming, cozy town for a winter getaway in Montana, you should definitely consider Red Lodge. Since it’s less than a two-hour drive from our house we visit Red Lodge pretty regularly. I created this itinerary to visit Red Lodge, Montana in winter so you can join in the fun.
We spent two days playing in Red Lodge and one day along the Beartooth Front to the west. There are several very small, very cute towns worth checking out and Red Lodge is a good basecamp for visiting them.
Red Lodge sits below the stunning Beartooth and Absaroka Mountains where 28 peaks rise over 12,000 feet. The fabled Beartooth Highway, with its dramatic switchbacks and eye-popping views, connects Red Lodge with Cooke City, Montana and Yellowstone National Park, but only in the summer. In winter, you can ski and snowshoe into the mountains.
Getting to Red Lodge
Many people start their Yellowstone Country vacation at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN), which is just outside of Bozeman in Belgrade, Montana. Rent a car at the airport and take I-90 to Columbus. From there, take Highway 421 southeast to Joliet. Then turn right (south) on State Highway 212.
You could also fly into Billings Logan International Airport. From there it’s just over an hour to drive to Red Lodge. Drive east on I-90 head south on State Highway 212 at Laurel.
Montana Travel Guidelines
Play it Safe. When traveling in Montana during the pandemic, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Know local public health guidelines before you arrive
- Understand locations and services could be limited
- Stay home if you are sick
Additional guidelines include:
- Plan Ahead: Check for closures, pack supplies and have a backup plan
- Keep Space: Keep 6 feet of space from others and wear a mask in crowded spaces, inside or out
- Be Respectful: Respect local guidelines, the land and people
- Protect the Outdoors: Minimize Impact and give wildlife space
- Explore Locally: Pick a basecamp and support local businesses
History of Red Lodge, Montana
As with much of the land in the area, what’s now called Red Lodge was the ancestral homeland of the Apsaalooké (Crow) people. They spent summers in the area.
Red Lodge got its name from the red clay the Apsaalooké used to cover their tipis or lodges.
Coal was found in 1866 and then gold was discovered nearby in 1870. Coal mining drew immigrants — Finns, Scots, Irish, Italians, and Slavs — to work in the mines and in mine-adjacent businesses. Red Lodge was the Wild West, complete with 20 saloons to serve the growing population.
In 1897, Sundance Kid robbed the Red Lodge Bank. Buffalo Bill Cody, William Jennings Bryan, Calamity Jane, and Frederic Remington all stayed at the Pollard Hotel.
Strip mining, the Great Depression, and a horrific mine disaster caused the closing of most mines in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Not to be kept down, the people of Red Lodge turned from mining to making bootleg liquor – or “cough syrup.” It was sold to “patients” across the United States.
These days, Red Lodge depends on tourism and ranching. Bikers, skiers, families on vacation, and other outdoorsy types come to Red Lodge to play outside (and visit some of the saloons). The area around the town is used for agriculture.
Historic downtown Red Lodge still features businesses built from the 1880s to 1915. Download a self-guided historic walking tour map and discover Red Lodge’s heritage while you walk around downtown.
Red Lodge Winter Itinerary
I used to spend a couple of days in Red Lodge each winter when the kids were little. Now that everyone can get a little farther down the trail with a lot less effort on my part, I was excited to explore again.
Red Lodge Itinerary Day 1 : History and Nordic Skiing
Tour the Carbon County Historical Museum
We started our Red Lodge adventure with a visit to the Carbon County Historical Society & Museum to get a better understanding of Red Lodge and Carbon County’s past. Their exhibits include a short history of the original inhabitants of the area – Apsaalooké (Crow) people, a colorful display of the many immigrants that moved to Red Lodge to work in the mines, and aptly housed in the basement, exhibits on Carbon County’s mining history. Don’t miss the walk-through mine shaft.
Lunch at Red Lodge Pizza Company
I think we eat at Red Lodge Pizza Company every time we are in town. The pizza is good, they serve craft beers, and this time we tried the Crazy Cookie. The large chocolate chip cookie is served warm with two scoops of ice cream on top. It was scrumptious. They also serve burgers and do dine-in, take-out, and delivery.
Cross Country Ski at Red Lodge Nordic Center
We planned to ski at the Red Lodge Nordic Center after lunch, but there wasn’t enough snow while we were there and the trails were closed. However, the boys and I have skied there a couple times in the past.
Over 15 km of trails are groomed for classic and skate skiing and have resplendent views and mellow terrain. We found the trails to be very family friendly. There is a warming hut and bathroom.
Another option for cross-country skiing is the Silver Run Ski Trails system.
The boys and I skied the easy 4 km loop when they were little. There’s also a 7 km intermediate loop and an 11 km advanced loop. I think the difficulty rating is based on distance, not technical difficulty or elevation change.
The mellow trails run through trees and boulders. It’s really pretty, especially the lower portions of the loops which follow Rock Creek.
Getting there: Drive about five miles up the West Fork of Rock Creek to the Silver Creek Ski Trails on the left.
Call the Forest Service (406.446.2103) or Sylvan Peak Mountain Shop (406.446.1770) for snow conditions. It can be pretty rocky if there isn’t enough snow. You can rent skis and snowshoes at Sylvan Peak Mountain Shop.
We ended walking up the West Fork Road and around Wild Bill Lake on this trip. From December 1-April 15 the West Fork Road is only plowed to Wild Bill Lake. From there you can ski, snowshoe, or walk the gently inclining road. Snowmobiles use it as well.
Dinner at PREROGATIvE Kitchen
This hip restaurant serves farm-fresh local produce in unusual dishes such as risotto sliders and Thai pork belly curry. The menu at PREROGATIvE Kitchen changes seasonally and they make efforts to be as sustainable as possible. Call ahead because at the time of our visit they were only open four days a week.
Day Two – Columbus and the Beartooth Front
We ate breakfast in our vacation rental so we could get an early start on the 45-minute drive to Columbus. Early for us means leaving at 9:30. You may get up earlier and want to grab breakfast and coffee in Red Lodge.
Museum of the Beartooths
The Museum of the Beartooths in Columbus tells the story of Stillwater County’s history. If you haven’t been to one of Montana’s many county museums, don’t miss this opportunity to see what life was like in rural Montana. From indigenous people to rodeo stars to WWII heroes and everything in between, this well-done museum shows Stillwater County with pride.
Call ahead to make sure they are open or schedule a private tour.
Montana Silversmiths Factory Outlet
Montana Silversmiths started in 1973 with custom Western silver jewelry. They are well known for their engraved and highly decorative belt buckles, but they make several styles of jewelry right in Columbus. Visit the Montana Silversmiths Outlet before driving to Absarokee (and make sure it’s the outlet, not the factory… we made that mistake.)
Lunch at Wild Flower Kitchen
We called Wild Flower Kitchen from Columbus and ordered lunches to go for a picnic. The owner and staff could not be nicer and the restaurant between Absarokee and Fishtail is lovely. In addition to grilled sandwiches, soups, pastries, and cookies, they have a variety of ready-made meals that you can pop in your oven for dinner. I had the fig and brie sandwich and it was so good.
Snowshoe Woodbine Falls Trail
This is a sweet little trail leaving from the Woodbine Campground. Last time I hiked here I carried both the boys on the way down and back to our campsite. Times have changed and I now hurry to keep up with them.
The campground is closed this time of year, so we parked at the gate and walked a couple minutes to the trailhead. It was raining during our hike, but snowshoes would be helpful later in winter.
Follow the trail upstream to a footbridge. Cross Woodbine Creek and start making easy switchbacks up the hill. The trail winds through the forest and into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area before reaching a rock-walled viewing platform.
The waterfall is impressive at 260 feet.
- Getting There: From Fishtail, drive 28.3 miles on County Road 419 to the signed campground and trailhead (three miles past the Stillwater Mine).
- Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 300 feet
Dinner at Cowboy Bar and Supper Club
It didn’t work out for us to stop at the Cowboy Bar and Supper Club in Fishtail on our return from the hike. I’ve always wanted to eat there. It’s an old-school cowboy bar (as the name specifies) that serves steak, chicken, and seafood. It always seems to be hopping.
Day Three – Breakfast, Snowshoeing, and Beer
Breakfast at the Pollard Hotel Dining Room
The best way to start the day in Red Lodge is breakfast at Marli’s in the Pollard Hotel. Not only is it a beautiful, historic hotel, but their breakfast menu is also so tempting. My only complaint is there were too many things I wanted to eat.
In our quest for enough snow to snowshoe, we drove up the Beartooth Highway to the Greenough Lake Campground and tromped around. The mountain views were worth the effort alone.
Aprés Snowshoe at Red Lodge Ales
We always look for a brewery and this trip was no different. Before heading for home we had lunch and beer at Red Lodge Ales. I’m a sucker for their Bent Nail IPA and Henry likes Czechmate Pilsner. This time I had a hard cider from Last Chance Cider Mill in Billings, which is always a delight.
Where to Stay in Red Lodge
If you want to stay at the same place as Buffalo Bill Cody, William Jennings Bryan, Calamity Jane, and Frederic Remington, try the Pollard Hotel. It’s a cool, historic hotel in downtown Red Lodge.
This time we stayed in a vacation rental house on the banks of Rock Creek. There are a bunch to choose from by visiting Red Lodge Rentals. We made sure to get one with a hot tub and a view of the cottonwoods along the creek.
Or check out other hotels in Red Lodge, Montana.
Other Things to Do in Red Lodge in Winter
Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary
It’s a little different in the winter. The gorgeous flowers are gone, of course, and the bears are hibernating, but there are still plenty of critters to learn from.
The YWS is dedicated to the care of Yellowstone ecosystem wildlife that cannot return to the wild due to injury or human imprinting. Their non-releasable wild animals act as ambassadors to help teach visitors about the value of wildlife, habitat preservation, and conservation.
Downhill Ski at Red Lodge Mountain
Their motto is “Red Lodge Mountain is Montana Skiing, pure and simple. No lift lines, no attitude, no big prices. Just great snow, great people, and an authentic experience in Montana’s Rocky Mountains.”
I haven’t skied there, yet, but friends tell me it’s a fun little mountain. We will get there eventually.
If you are renting equipment, you may want to rent it in town. Sizes are quantities are limited on the mountain.