Even before the city was founded, the Billings area already had a history of people nearby, as it was used and settled by Native Americans for land and hunting grounds. The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through Billings (the area at least), and is a scant 30 miles away from Pompey’s Pillar, a 200-foot-high rock formation considered a landmark by early pioneers. In June of 1876, General George Custer and the 7th Cavalry were killed 65 miles southeast of Billings in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
So when Billings was finally founded in 1882 as the head of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s western line (the town was named for the president of Northern Pacific Railroad, Frederick Billings), the area already had a rich history of people and events. By 1885, Billings was populated by more than 2,000 people, mostly due to the fact that land was literally being given away. Most families would make their way to Billings via freight car with everything they own for a free 40-acre plot of land. Many of these same families would develop successful farms.
Billings has grown rapidly since that point, supported by industries such as agriculture, transportation, and energy; it is now a thriving community and Montana’s largest city, with a population of 89,847. Billings’ success is also due to the fact that it is home to Billings Logan International Airport, one of two international airports in Montana (the other being located in Missoula).
A day trip to Billings from Yellowstone National Park is a fun and exciting trip for the whole family, or a nice relaxing drive for one person. Start in Canyon Village (they have a gas station, and it’s gonna be a long drive), and then go west toward Grand Loop Road. Take a right onto Grand Loop Road and go 18.4 miles to the Northeast Entrance Road, where you’ll hang a right. Go 28.6 miles to the Northeast Entrance, and keep going on U.S. up and through the Beartooth Pass. After 111 miles, go right on the exit ramp to merge onto I-90 E, and then take exit 446 to merge onto I-90 BL E. At that point, you will be in Billings. (The Beartooth Highway is an attraction in its own right; you can read more about it here.)
Once you are in Billings, there is no shortage of things to do and sights to see. There are several fascinating museums that make their home in Billings, including the Yellowstone Art Museum (401 N. 27th St.) and the Yellowstone County Museum (1950 Terminal Circle). The Yellowstone Art Museum, much like the Whitney Gallery of Western Art located in Cody as part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, houses many works by famous Western artists like Charles M. Russell and Joseph Henry Sharp.
The Yellowstone County Museum, in contrast, honors the West in a different way. Instead of paintings and sculptures, the Yellowstone County Museum features traditional Native American clothing and memorabilia, as well as a reconstructed chuck wagon and a disturbing diorama of Indian death called “Sacrifice Cliff.” The Yellowstone Country Museum also features the last steam engine train, a two-headed calf, and the only known 1910 Kenmore automobile in existence.
If you want to learn more about the history of the area, pack up the car and head over to Garryowen, Montana to visit the Custer Battlefield Museum (I-90 Exit 514). To get to Garryowen, go southeast on N 27th St. to 2nd Av. N., then left onto I-90 E. Take exit 456 toward Sheridan for 57.9 miles, and then exit 514 toward Garryowen. From there, go left at MT-451, and then left at Frontage Road to reach Garryowen and the Custer Battlefield Museum. Sights at the museum include artifacts from the Custer Battlefield and the period, a photography collection from D. F. Barry, and a tomb to an unknown soldier that includes an inscription by Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow.
Another piece of history is the beautiful Moss Mansion (914 Division St,). Made out of dazzling red sandstone, the mansion was home to P.B. Moss, his wife Martha, and their five children (a sixth one, a daughter, would not live past the age of five due to diphtheria), P.B. Moss was a prominent banker who also organized the first dial telephone company in the Billings area, and founded the newspaper that eventually led to the Billing Gazette. With the assistance of a man named H.W. Rowley, Moss helped develop the Billings Light and Water Power Company as well as the Northern Hotel, which still stands (but is currently closed). He also assisted others in his community by helping to develop local irrigation, a sugar factory, and the Billings Polytechnic Institute (now called the Rocky Mountain College). Besides helping his community, Moss also tried to run as the Democratic candidate for Congress in 1922, tried to develop a city called Mossmain, and was a Mason and a member of the State Knights Templar. He would eventually die in 1947 from a heart attack, at the age of 83. Today the Moss Mansion is a historical site that features numerous oil and china paintings done by Mr. Moss’s wife, Martha Moss, and several quilts and needlepoint items done by their first daughter Kula Moss on display. Admission for adults is $7, $5 for seniors 62+ and students with ID, and $3 for children ages 6-12.
Another fun thing to see is a reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand, which takes place near Hardin, Montana. Shows take place on June 27th, 28th, and 29th at 1:30 p.m. with one show at 5:00 p.m. on the 28th. For more information on the show, visit their website for ticket information, as well as info on the cast in the reenactment.
To see some of Montana’s natural beauty, take the drive out to Pompey’s Pillar (I-94 Exit 23), which is not only awe-inspiring, but also features a engraving done by Captain Clark (of Lewis and Clark) himself as well as a spectacular view of the Yellowstone River. To get to Pompey’s Pillar, head southeast on N. 27th Street toward 2nd Avenue N., then left onto I-90 E., and then keep going on I-94 E. for 23 miles. Exit 23 will take you towards Pompey’s Pillar, but you’re not there. After exit 23, go left at Fly Creed Road., then right at the Custer Frontage Road, and then right at Cane Street.
But perhaps the greatest reflection of Montana’s natural, rustic, and wild atmosphere would be Zoo Montana (2100 S. Shiloh Rd.), which includes exhibits featuring bears, wolves, otters, eagles, and other symbols of the West. But Zoo Montana also features exhibits of red pandas, Siberian tigers, sika deer, and the pygmy marmoset (read: monkeys. Tiny monkeys. Tiny adorable monkeys). To get to Zoo Montana, take exit 443 off of I-90 to Shiloh Road.
After all the excitement, you and/or your family will probably be hungry. Never fear, since there are many restaurants in the area. Downtown’s Montana Brewing Company (113 N. Broadway) is one of the best brewpubs in the region. For a snack/groceries/provisions for the road, swing by the Good Earth Market (3024 2nd Av. N.) for local, organic, and quality foods.
After dinner or in between attractions, take some time to walk around Billings, especially on a cool summer night. If you’re in Billings sometime between July 17 and October 2, then stop by the Farmer’s Market (Broadway and 2nd Avenue N.) for a relaxing morning. The Farmer’s Market runs from 8:30 a.m. to noon.So after a long day out and about, it’s back in the car for the long ride back to Yellowstone National Park. Or, you could stay the night before you head back. Hotels in the area include Country Inn & Suites by Carlson-Billings (231 Main St.), Red Roof Inn (5353 Midland Rd.), and the Sheraton Billings Hotel (27 N. 27th St.).