What Are Some Fun Things Do in Billings, Montana?
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.
Since we live just a couple hours from Billings, we have taken lots of day trips. When the kids were younger, I’d play Pippi Longstocking in the car and we’d giggle our way to the Billings zoo or the Lego exhibit at the Yellowstone Art Museum. We’ve celebrated birthdays, both our own kids’ and friends’ birthdays at The Reef Water Park. Recently we spent a few days in Billings exploring even more and were delighted with what we found.
The reason a lot of people don’t associate Billings, USA with Montana sightseeing is that it is a real town. There is a huge oil refinery near Highway 90 and strip malls all over the place. But the thing about Billings is that once you get off the highway and poke around a bit, you’ll find a large number of Billings, Montana things to do.
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.
How Did Billings Get Its Name?
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. There are so many fun things to do in Billings, MT that it has made my list of top things to do in Montana.
Billings got its nickname, the “Magic City” because it grew so quickly from its founding in March 1882.
What is Billings Known For?
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.
Montana State University Billings and Rocky Mountain College both have campuses in Billings along with many other Billings public schools.
Billings is also known for its booming oil industry. As the largest city in the five state region and the closest to the Bakken Formation, which is lousy with oil and gas, it plays an important role in oil refinery and drilling supplies.
Billings is also known for the “Rim” or “Rimrocks.” The Rimrocks are geological rimrock sandstone formations that outcrop in sections of Billings. The Billings airport is on the Rim, as is the Yellowstone County Museum, and Swords Park. Eighty million years ago the Billings metro area was the shore of the Western Interior Seaway, a sea that went from the present-day Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic North, according to Wikipedia and science.
How Big is Billings, Montana?
Billings has a population of 109,642 (2017) and is the largest city in Montana. That might not seem very big where you come from, but in Montana, Billings is definitely the “big city.”
The area of Billings is 43.52 mi².
Where is Billings Montana?
Billings is in the south-central part of the state. It’s right on I-90 and northeast of Yellowstone National Park.
Map of Billings, Montana
What Can You Do in Billings, Montana? Billings, Montana Attractions
There are so many things to so in Billings, that I can possibly list them all. Consider this your introduction to Billings attractions. It is especially heavy on things to do in Billings with kids, but I’d enjoy almost all of these even if my kids weren’t with me.
Museums in Billings
When you visit Billings, be sure to stop in at one or more of the city’s museums.
Yellowstone Art Museum
There’s always interesting pieces at the YAM, our favorite exhibit was the “Art of the Brick. 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. In addition to traveling exhibits, the YAM features contemporary art from regional artists. Don’t miss the “Visible Vault” out back. The Visible Vault is where you get to see the collection that isn’t on display in the museum. 401 N. 27th St., www.artmuseum.org
Yellowstone County 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.” 1950 Terminal Circle, www.pyjrycm.org
Western Heritage Center
The Western Heritage Center is a regional museum located in the Historic District in downtown Billings, Montana. Built in 1901, the library turned museum houses a collection of artifacts about the history of the Yellowstone River Valley and the Northern Plains. 2822 Montana Ave, http://www.ywhc.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 at the Moss Mansion historic house. Visit in winter for the Christmas candlelight tour. 914 Division St., www.mossmansion.com
What To Do In Billings: Outside
Filled with trees, Riverfront Park is stunning year round. There are plenty of wooded paths to run around on and 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. South Billings Boulevard, www.yrpa.org
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.
One of my favorite things about Zoo Montana, after the gardens, is that they only keep animals that live about the 45th parallel and are used to the climate in Billings.
Check the website for programs and tours. 2100 S. Shiloh Road, www.zoomontana .org
Go For a Hike or Bike Ride
There are several places to hike and bike in and around Billings. Among the things to see in Billings, Montana, the hiking trails top my list.
Four Dances Natural Area
I wrote more about this BLM-managed area in this post. The property is native sagebrush/grassland, and ponderosa pine in the rocky outcrop areas near the river cliffs. 200-500 feet below, cottonwoods line the Yellowstone River. We had sweeping views of Billings in one direction; the Yellowstone River, wide-open spaces, and the Pryor Mountains in the other direction.
You can get some really lovely photos up there and it’s a short walk. There is a loop trail of about 1.5 miles, but you can get to the edge of the cliff, and the views, in about five minutes. 1100 Coburn Road, https://www.blm.gov/visit/four-dances
Pictograph Cave State Park
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. Unfortunately, the pictographs are fading. Be sure to bring binoculars. See this post for more information about visiting Pictograph Cave State Park. 3401 Coburn Road, stateparks.mt.gov/pictograph-cave/
Swords Rimrock Park
Up on the Rim, you’ll find two miles of paved trail for walking, running, or biking. Another five miles of trail takes you down to the Yellowstone River. The views over Billings from the Rim are really fantastic and make this a worthwhile stop on your trip to Billings.
Two Moon Park
The Yellowstone River Parks Association says this about Two Moon Park, “Two Moon Park, named for the Northern Cheyenne chief who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, borders the Yellowstone River on the south and a steep, forested bluff to the north. A grand loop trail runs around the park, but it is intertwined with numerous other paths and trails, some through open meadows and others ducking under Hansel-and-Gretel-like bowers. On the downstream end of the park, the Weeping Wall, shot through with seeping springs, attracts a great variety of birds and mantles the cliffside with sheaths of ice in the winter. At the upper entrance to Two Moon Park , you can hop onto the paved Dutcher Trail, which continues north to the far end of the Heights and upstream to Coulson Park.” Two Moon Park Rd, http://www.yrpa.org/parks/two-moon-park/
Indoor Activities in Billings, MT
Unfortunately, the weather isn’t always lovely in Montana, so it’s nice that there are so many Billings things to do that are indoors and active. Kids have a lot of energy (as do we adults), so it’s nice to have a way to burn it off when the weather is cold and windy.
Get Air Trampoline Park
Our kids are huge fans of the Billings trampoline park. We had a blast jumping, playing dodgeball, and scrambling on the Ninja course. You can buy one to three hours, but one was plenty for us. On Tuesdays, you get two hours for the price of one. We went during school hours and it was really quiet. I imagine it can get kind of crazy in there. 1400 S 24th St W, http://getairbillings.com/
The Reef Indoor Water Park
When we wonder what to do in Billings, MT in winter, The Reef springs to mind. 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 (one of the water slides is totally dark inside, which makes it even more fun); 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.
The Reef is attached to the Big Horn Resort, but you don’t have to stay there to use the water park. There are concessions in The Reef. 1801 Majestic Ln, https://www.thereefindoors.com/
STEEPWORLD Climbing and Fitness
One of the newer Billings activities is an indoor climbing gym. They have:
- Indoor rope climbing on 40+ foot Walltopia walls for all levels
- Lead, Top Rope, or Autobelays
- Two separate bouldering areas equipped with padded foam flooring
- Boulderland- for all ability levels and kids climbing
- Main Bouldering area- for more advanced climbing
- Full service Fitness Mezzanine with premium cardio & fitness equipment
- Full service Gear Shop for all your climbing needs
We haven’t tried this, yet, but it is on our list for next time we are looking for indoor fun and activity in Billings, Montana. 1230 S 31st St W, https://steepworld.com
Events in Billings, MT
There is always something going on in Billings. From performances at the Alberta Bair Theater to rodeos at the Metra, to art exhibits, to food festivals. If you want to know what kind of Billings events are happening today or next month, check the calendar at the Visit Billings website.
Where To Eat In Billings, Montana
Billings, Montana has quite the food scene. I didn’t realize that until recently. Our last trip to Billings overlapped with Restaurant Week, put on by the Downtown Billings Alliance, and we had the chance to sample some of the delectable meals and drinks.
Downtown Billings is also home to a walkable Brewery District. It’s not an official brewery district, but it’s 1.5 miles with a bunch of breweries, distilleries, and cider houses. Git yer self-guided walkable brewery district map here.
There are too many good restaurants to choose from, but here is a sampling.
After a full day exploring Billings, it’s time to eat. Commons 1882 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. 404 N. 30th St., http://www.commons1882.com/
Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill
We fell in love with this place. The food is really good as is the cider. We ordered tacos that each came paired with a different cider. The food is artisanal and well considered. Try the sweet potato and mushroom tacos. They brew beer as well as make cider. 2203 Montana Ave, https://www.lastchancecider.com/
The Sassy Biscuit Co.
Ok, I could eat here every day. The atmosphere is cute, retro, and welcoming. The food is so good. It’s dressed up comfort food with a focus on local and seasonal ingredients. Our kids loved the Sojourner – towered French toast, strawberries, and Chantilly cream. I went for the Semper fi sandwich-fried egg, house smoked bacon, kickass cheddar, garlic aioli. I skipped the bacon, much to the chagrin of my non-vegetarian husband.
Owner Jilan Hall-Johnson went to culinary art school and decided to open the Sassy Biscuit Co. when her Marine husband was stationed in Billings. 115 N 29th St, https://www.thesassybiscuit.com/
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. 3011 1st Ave. N, http://www.pugmahons.com/
Things To Do Near Billings, MT
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument
Pompey’s Pillar is the only place where you can see physical evidence of the Corps of Discovery’s journey to the Pacific Ocean and back. Lewis and Clark split up to explore more on their return, and William Clark, Sacajawea, and others followed the Yellowstone River to this mound of rock. Then Clark chiseled his name in the rock. The pillar is named after Sacajawea’s son, Pomp.
Clark’s signature isn’t the only thing worth seeing at Pompey’s Pillar. The Yellowstone River and riparian zone look beautiful in all season, and the visitor center has lots of interactive exhibits about the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The Monument opens in early May, but even when it’s closed, visitors can walk 3/4 mile to the pillar. A Lewis and Clark Museum is open 9 am to 5 pm daily when the Monument is open. Entrance: $7/vehicle or your National Park Pass. 30 miles east of Billings off exit 23.
Read more about Pompey’s Pillar and other Lewis and Clark sites in Montana here.
Chief Plenty Coup State Park
Another nearby State Park is Chief Plenty Coups State Park. Chief Plenty Coups was the last traditional chief of the Crow Indian tribe. He left his home as a museum where you can learn how his mysterious visions influenced his life. The spring, which Chief Plenty Coup saw in a vision as a child, is strewn with offerings. The Crow people use this area for gatherings and heritage celebrations.
There is plenty of room to picnic, hike or play in the creek. The visitor center is well done and even though this State Park is far from everything, it is well worth the trip. 1 Edgar/Pryor Road, http://stateparks.mt.gov/chief-plenty-coups/
It’s about an hour’s drive from Billings to the town of Red Lodge. This biker/skier/tourist town is nestled at the base of the Beartooth Mountains. From the end of town, you can drive over the Beartooth Highway (summer only) and into Yellowstone National Park.
Red Lodge has lots of opportunities for hiking, cross-country and alpine skiing, and playing outside.
Our trips to Red Lodge always include a stop at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary to see local wildlife that can’t be released into the wild and to the old-fashioned candy shop.