BILLINGS – The Magic City often gets overlooked when Montanans think about a weekend getaway, but it shouldn’t. From museums, to pictographs, to dining and waterparks, Billings is the perfect get-out-of-town destination.
“I remember staring at the two-headed calf (at the Yellowstone County Museum) with total fascination,” said Jen Johnson, a Missoula native. “Now I can’t wait to see my kids’ reaction.”
Billings began as a railroad town, and was named for Frederick H. Billings, a former president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, but Montana’s largest city is now so much more than that.
Lewis and Clark, Chief Plenty Coups, George A. Custer, Sitting Bull and Calamity Jane all passed through or lived near Billings and left their mark, making Billings a history buff’s dream. Add to that the six mountain ranges that surround the city and there is plenty of outdoor recreation, wildlife viewing and fresh air breathing.
Lesa Maher of Livingston recently took her son to the Yellowstone Art Museum for the “Art of the Brick” exhibit.
“The Lego exhibit was a birthday wish for Finn this year,” Maher said. “Our family took the quick trip to Billings the week the show opened. We loved seeing the Lego used as sculpture, and Finn loved the bins filled with Lego bricks outside the exhibit so he could build and be creative, too.”
Whether it’s Lego bricks or a two-headed calf that draws you in, the fastest-growing city in the state, and the retail destination for a huge area, is well equipped to host travelers from across the state with its many hotels, shops and recreational opportunities.
Yellowstone Art Museum
There’s always interesting pieces at the YAM, but right now the “Art of the Brick” traveling exhibit will wow the whole family. Nathan Sawaya builds life-size (and sometimes larger-than-life) sculptures from Lego bricks that make you rethink the possibilities of those little plastic blocks. Just outside the exhibit hall, Lego lovers can try their own hand at brick art. The exhibit runs through Jan. 4, 2015.
• Address: 401 N. 27th St.
• Website: www.artmuseum.org
Yellowstone Country Museum
Just up the street from the YAM, and up on the Rim, the Yellowstone County Museum sits on the edge of the airport overlooking Billings.
The museum has an impressive display of artifacts focused on the prehistory of Montana and the Plains through the 1950s, including materials specific to Northern Plains Indian tribes, western expansion, mining, cattle and sheep herding industries, textiles, and more.
The highlight is the two-headed calf that makes you say, “only in Montana.”
• Address: 1950 Terminal Circle
• Website: www.pyjrycm.org
Pictograph Cave and Chief Plenty Coup state parks
Long before Lewis and Clark took their fabled trip across the West, and through Montana, prehistoric hunters found a nice little canyon near the Yellowstone River. They would stop there on their trip from one hunting ground to another to seek shelter in the sandstone caves, eat the local plants and take advantage of Bitter Creek.
Those prehistoric hunters left behind artifacts and more than 100 pictographs, or rock paintings. The oldest rock art in the cave is more than 2,000 years old. The park’s three main caves — Pictograph, Middle and Ghost caves — were home to generations of prehistoric hunters.
You can see it, too, when you take a self-guided tour on the quarter-mile paved loop trail and explore the visitor center.
• Address: 3401 Coburn Road
• Website: stateparks.mt.gov/pictograph-cave/
Another nearby State Park is Chief Plenty Coups State Park. Chief Plenty Coups was a leader of the Crow Indian tribe. He left his home as a museum where you can learn how his mysterious visions and animal friends influenced his life. There is plenty of room to picnic, hike or play in the creek.
• Address: 1 Edgar/Pryor Road
• Website: www.plentycoups .org
Filled with trees, Riverfront Park is stunning in fall. There are plenty of wooded paths to run around on, and as the trees drop their leaves you can gather them into piles for jumping into. The bird watching is pretty good, too.
Adjacent to the Yellowstone River and with a lovely pond, the park is prime fishing territory. Cast your fly for catfish, carp, sunfish and trout. If you left your rod at home, choose one of the multiple picnic tables for lunch and enjoy the view. The local ducks are used to being fed, so watch your sandwich if you don’t want to share.
• Address: South Billings Boulevard
• Website: www.yrpa.org
The Moss Mansion
Designed by New York architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, this huge, red-sandstone, turn-of-the-century mansion has been shown on TV and in films, and combines several architectural styles inside. The tour captures the turn-of-the-century life of the prominent Moss Family. See original draperies, furniture, fixtures, Persian carpets and artifacts.
The Christmas decor is up, and Christmas tours are available now through the new year. Candlelight tours start Dec. 5.
• Address: 914 Division St.
• Website: www.mossmansion.com
Zoo Montana, on the west end of Billings, is a favorite for kids and adults. The small zoo is perfect for a couple hours of animal watching and playing in the park, or wandering through the gardens. While you can see red pandas, a Siberian tiger, a grizzly bear, wolves and bald eagles, kids love the barnyard.
Draft horses play with barrels and you can feed the goats. The indoor Living Wall holds toads, snakes and other little critters.
Check the website for programs and tours including ZooLights, which starts Dec. 5 and the Noon Year’s Eve celebration Dec. 31.
• Address: 2100 S. Shiloh Road
• Website: www.zoomontana .org
At The Reef Indoor Water Park, you can splash, slide and ride the waves regardless of the weather. Fall in Montana can be sunny and warm, or snowy and cold. Either way, the Reef is like a little beach vacation.
Located inside the Wingate Hotel, The Reef is the largest indoor water park in the state and is as large as a football field. There are two big, winding slides; a 55,000-gallon wave pool; a 25-person hot tub; a basketball pool; and an interactive playhouse complete with slides, squirt guns and a 250-gallon dumping bucket.
• Address: 1801 Majestic Lane
• Website: www.thereefindoors.com
After a full day exploring Billings, it’s time to eat. Commons 1882 opened recently and is the new home of former Cafe DeCamp owner Jason Savage, one of two chefs here (in the former location of George Henry’s). Try the beet salad and the Wagyu sliders served with Savage’s homemade smoked tomato ketchup.
• Address: 404 N. 30th St.
Pug Mahon’s Irish Pub
For an authentic Irish meal of corned beef and cabbage, washed down with a Guinness or Harp, of course, Pug Mahon’s is the spot. Opened in 1983, the pub has consistently grown and now takes up half a block.
• Address: 3011 1st Ave. N.
• Website: www.pugmahons .com