With 110,000 citizens, Billings is Montana’s largest city. It was created by and named for the president of the Northern Pacific railroad who built a key rail stop a few miles outside of Coulter. Although it has long-since disappeared, Coulter was an established town and paddle-wheel steamer stop.
The area grew into a regional transportation, distribution and retail hub. It continued to grow due to its proximity to the Bakken oil field, the Heath shale oil field, coal mines and its regional agricultural (especially sugar beets), education, and medical center.
The railroad, which was responsible for the city’s birth and much of its growth, form the heart of the city’s historic district with the nicely renovated 1909 train depot (now an event space), along with the Rex Hotel being the centerpieces of the Montana Street Historic District. The handful of city’s other interesting historic buildings such as the 1903 Moss Mansion, the Masonic Temple and a private club are scattered around the city, most of whose buildings appear to be from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Unfortunately, the railroad, which gave birth to and has contributed so much to the city’s growth, now divides the city with regular freight trains. Some of the trains can be two to three miles long and take 10 to 15 minutes to pass, blocking all traffic.
The area’s history, however, goes back much further than the beginning of the 20th century. One area of the city, in particular, provides remnants of human habitation as far back as 11,000 years ago.
Pictograph Cave State Park
These Pictograph Caves are a National Historic Site that contains three caves that overlooked the Yellowstone River and were close to edible and medicinal plants and traditional game migration routes. They have been home to humans for more than 9,000 years. They were the ceremonial sites of Blackfeet and Crow Indians and were where 17th- and 18th-century trappers took refuge.
Each of these groups left evidence of their stays. These include remnants of old fire pits, dozens of pictographs painted on the caves’ walls with charcoal and reddish pigments, and over 30,000 physical artifacts.
The visitor center provides dozens of examples of prehistoric artifacts, ranging from hunting and food preparation tools, to tools for shaving skins and sewing garments, to decorative carvings and beads and remnants of woven baskets. The caves also yielded ancient artifacts from hundreds of miles away, such as harpoon points carved from caribou bone and soapstone carvings that provide evidence of established trading patterns with the Pacific Northwest.
Pictographs, that were traced through the carbon dating of pigments, suggest contributions from different eras and civilizations. While many are difficult to make out with the naked eye, certain weather conditions (such as heavy moisture and the appearance of occasional calcium films on the walls) and scientific tools and techniques bring out many others. These include everything from basic, several millennia-old human and animal figures through later images of armed warriors, to symbolic representations of supernatural beings (called thunderheads), an image of a turtle carbon-dated to 1480-1650 A.D. and 17th- and 18th-century representations of rifles.
Another cave (the so-called Ghost Cave) shows evidence of much older life, albeit not human. This is in the form of fossils of clams and other marine life from a prehistoric seabed than used to cover the area.
On a more contemporary vein, the Billings area also provides a number of outdoor recreation opportunities. We took advantage of a few of these with hikes and walks through some of the neighboring parks. These include:
- Zimmerman Park, which offers scenic walks atop the Rimrock sandstone cliffs and panoramic views over the city;
- Phipps Park is advertised as 2.5 miles with a 400-foot elevation gain. The elevation gain to the top of a rimrock-lined butte was concentrated in a short distance and steep. We, however, must have taken a long route around the top of the butte since our Fitbit and timing suggested about 4.5 miles. Still, it was a very pretty hike with a surprise. Integrated throughout the park was an 18-hole Frisbee golf (or disc golf) game with obstacles that would put the most challenging golf course to shame. Some holes were in gullies, next to big bushes, under rock overhangs. Even more difficult were the ones that sat on top of the butte. Yet others were so close to the edge that a slightly errant toss or unexpected gust would carry the Frisbee over the edge. One, in particular, was right on the tip of a steep edge, allowing zero room for error.
- Four Dances Recreation Area, where we took an abbreviated portion of its main trail. This was probably about a one-mile round trip (with perhaps 250 feet of gain), to a lookout point that towered over the city, the Yellowstone River and the rolling grasslands below.
- Norm’s Island Park, a pretty, roughly two-mile trail through a forested park that encircles Norm Scoenthal Island along the Yellowstone River and Bebe’s Channel.
Some locals also highly recommended that we visit the DanWalt Gardens, which consists of trees, shrubs, water features, and seasonal plants. We, unfortunately, weren’t able to capitalize on this suggestion.
Yellowstone Cellars and Winery is a nine-year-old Billings winery that sources grapes from Washington’s Yakima Valley. It produces about 5,000 to 6,000 cases per year, most of which are sold directly through its tasting room/event space and its wine club.
We tasted several wines that we enjoyed: 2018 Chenin Blanc, 1016 Malbec, 2015 Rimrock Red Bordeaux blend, 2016 Sangiovese and 2016 Tempranillo. The barrel sample of the 2017 Carmeniere also shows promise. Given the prices of $19 to $26 a bottle, the wines are quite attractive. The tasting room is open every afternoon and evening. It also serves snacks including pizzas, flatbreads and cheese, and charcuterie plates. It has music on Friday and Saturday evenings.
- Ten at the Northern We shared a roasted bison marrow bone (which lacked the earthy taste of beef marrow) with gremolata and crostini, and a tasty dish of pan-fried oysters with fries and roasted carrots. A side dish of pan-fried mushrooms was disappointing. The wine was a satisfactory 2016 Pike Road Willamette Valley pinot noir.
- Jake’s Steakhouse. Although Jake’s s quite popular, we were not impressed. The bison ribeye was cooked perfectly, but was tough and had little taste other than the overly garlicky butter (not to speak of the extra-garlicky mashed potatoes). While Joyce tried to order her overly breaded Alaskan halibut slightly under-cooked, she was told it could be done no less than 140 degrees. She soon regretted her acquiescence and ended up leaving the fish uneaten. Surprisingly, the restaurant did not offer an alternative and also charged for the meal. This said, her baked potato was very good and Tom enjoyed the unusual and interesting cranberry-citrus salad dressing. The wine list was a reasonable size, but uninspiring. We ended up with an acceptable 2016 L’Ecole #41 Columbia Valley merlot.
- Wild Ginger. The miso, tobiko and red clam sushi that we had at lunch were both good. Tom’s yam soup was thin but pretty good (other than for the lack of shrimp). But our shrimp summer roll was disappointing. It didn’t have any discernable shrimp, was wrapped so loosely that it would not hold together, and was served with some strange, cherry-flavored dipping sauce with peanut sprinkled on top.
- Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery is an extraordinarily busy bakery and breakfast spot where every dish is huge. Our hotel (Best Western, see below) gave us a voucher for breakfast. As all hotel guests were trying to get in at the same time, we had a short wait. We had fried eggs (over easy and over hard—as requested), hashbrowns and bacon. The only disappointment was the biscuits and gravy, which was barely warm.
As we were also in town for a conference, we ended up at a couple of event locations.
- Henry’s Garage is an old auto garage that is decorated in an unusual mixture of classic cars and neon gas station. Although technically we didn’t eat here, we were here for a social event that included food. The venue and atmosphere were great even though the property was a bit out of the way.
- Camelot Ranch. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so loud if we could have gone outside but the rain kept everyone inside. This is a large ranch-style building with a balcony for the band. While the acoustics made it extremely difficult to hear, the Indian Big Feather dance was very impressive
- The Pub Station, a former city center bus station transformed into a music venue. It has a large inside music stage and two bars offering a selection of 32 drafts, plus bottles and wines. Outside is a small bar, a “snow machine” and a video screen. The band was impressive but too loud to permit conversation. A state law interestingly (not to speak of inconveniently) allows alcohol to be served inside or outside, but not carried between one and the other.
- Train depot, a nicely renovated 1909 structure that was scheduled to be demolished after Amtrak stopped passenger service in 1979. It was renovated by public contributions and reopened as an event space in 2000. The night we visited, one room was the occupied by a band, another by a craft distillery tasting and another by a bar and historical and cultural exhibits and experts to describe events surrounding area excavations, Crow Indian culture, historical events (especially the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Little Big Horn and local aquaponic and craft food. We were surrounded by passed food and by local history experts dressed in period attire who loved to provide detailed information about the periods they were portraying. A wonderful way to end the conference.
Since we were in Billings Montana for a conference, we stayed in two different hotels. The first was downtown. The second was the convention center hotel.
- Best Western Clocktower Inn is a fairly comfortable hotel that is right in downtown and walkable to downtown sites. It has free parking, and a comfortable room has good wifi and good air conditioning. And, if you show your key at many of the downtown restaurants, you get 10% off. Breakfast was included at Stella’s (above) which is next to the property. Definitely a good place to stay.
- Billings Hotel and Convention Center. OK, so this is a convention hotel. We stayed here for the TBEX (Travel Bloggers conference) conference we were attending. The hotel itself is OK. Not great, not bad, but OK. The bed was a little soft for us, the pillows a little too big for us, but it all worked. The air conditioning and wifi were good and the staff was friendly. The shower was hot and good. It had a nice little coffee bar outside the bathroom where you could also put on your makeup. They had a shuttle to/from the airport which was good as uber was a ridiculous $25 for a 15-minute ride (we found uber very expensive in general in this city). We did not use the pool or hot tub but it looked like the kids loved the water slide. There is not much around the area other than the convention center. We did walk a short distance to Yellowstone Winery and also took a several mile walk to the riverfront park. But other than that, you need a car or other transpiration. They claim the rooms are recently renovated but they still show age. Yes, the rug and TV look fairly new. But you needed an extension cord if you wanted a plug by the bed. A lamp with a plug and a USB port would have been an easy addition. Or one of the clocks that now have USB and power plugs. But they did find us an extension cord. A decent 3 star for an older place to stay if you have to. Newer hotels were right next door and might be worth checking out if you have a conference here.