Yellowstone Country (south-central Montana) Billings – Miles City – Red Lodge – Livingston – Yellowstone National Park
South-central and southeast Montana is Yellowstone Country. Most of this region is vast, mostly treeless, plains, extending west from the North Dakota border to the city of Billings. Southwest of Billings, the plains give way to beautiful mountains.
The history of the region centers around the great Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone River begins in Yellowstone National Park. The river meanders northeast across the plains of southeastern Montana, until it joins with the Missouri River in North Dakota. The Yellowstone is one of America’s last free-flowing rivers. It is clearly a national treasure.
Buffalo and other wildlife flourished along the Yellowstone River’s broad valley and the adjacent plains, during the early 19th century. The river served as a lifeline for the Native Americans.
Today, the Yellowstone River Valley is a highly productive agricultural region, producing crops as diverse as alfalfa, sugar beets, and corn. Large numbers of Hereford and other cattle are raised on ranches in Yellowstone Country. Cities, such as Glendive, Miles City, and Billings, have prospered because of the presence of the river.
THE UPPER YELLOWSTONE RIVER VALLEY
Billings, Montana (pop. 92,998) is the chief city along I-90 and the upper Yellowstone Valley. Billings is a good base from which to make forays to other places and attractions in south-central Montana and northern Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park, the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, and Cody, Wyoming are not far from Billings.
The city of Billings has an unusual and unique setting, built as it is at the foot of a massive wall of rimrocks. In geologic history, the Yellowstone River cut deep into the earth creating the present day Yellowstone Valley. This action exposed the magnificent sandstone cliffs which are today the city’s landmark. From the valley floor near the river, it’s more than 460 feet to the top of the rimrocks. A park on top the rimrocks offers fabulous views of the distant Pryor Mountains and the Rockies farther to the west.
The Yellowstone County Museum is near the Billings airport. It’s small, but all the good historical stuff is here. In downtown Billings, on Montana Avenue, the Western Heritage Center features super exhibits about the homesteading era in Montana.
ZooMontana is one of the top attractions in Billings, Montana. Visitors can view wildlife in natural habitats. The zoo is proud of its waterfowl, owl, river otter, and Siberian tiger habitats. The zoo also features a Sensory Garden with native and exotic plants. At the Homestead exhibit, kids enjoy a collection of domestic animals. ZooMontana is located a few miles west of the city on Shiloh Road.
Pictograph Cave State Park is a few miles south of Billings. In prehistoric times, Indians camped at the cave and added some 106 primitive paintings to the cave’s sandstone walls.
Shopping is excellent in Billings, Montana. The first stop for many visitors is Scheels All Sports in the Rimrock Mall. Scheels sells things for outdoor activities, such as camping, fishing, and hunting. Just down the street on King Ave. is the huge Big Bear Sports Center. Big Bear stocks tons of outdoor clothing and sporting gear, suitable for all sorts of outdoor activities.
For the best in western wear, shoppers go the Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters in downtown Billings (114 N. 28th St.). This extra nice store has a super selection of hats, boots and shirts. For general information about Billings, try the Billings city guide.
Billings has excellent accommodations. The Dude Rancher Lodge (406) 259-5561 is located west of 27th Street, just north of the downtown. The restaurant of the Dude Rancher Lodge is popular with locals. The Riversage Billings Inn (406) 252-6800, in the same area, is hard to beat. The Northern Hotel (406) 867-6767 offers first-class lodging in downtown Billings.
For dining, Bistecca at the Granary has the best food and atmosphere in Billings. Located on Poly Drive. For an extra nice atmosphere and good prices dine at Jake’s restaurant downtown. For yummy seafood and ribs, try Montana’s Rib & Chop House located on Majestic Lane in the far west end of Billings. For sandwiches, and fresh-baked goods, don’t miss the McCormick Cafe on Montana Avenue.
Red Lodge (pop. 2,200) is a small, alpine village. At some 5,555 feet in elevation, Red Lodge is a good place to stay cool when towns further out on the plains bake under the summer heat. During the winter season, skiing is a favorite activity at Red Lodge Mountain ski area south of the city. The Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary in Red Lodge is a popular attraction for tourists.
The Red Lodge Cafe on main street is a favorite place to have a good meal. For lunch or dinner, the Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen & Wine Bar is tops. Bridge Creek has a Starbucks Coffee Bar. For lodging, stay at the Pollard Hotel (406) 446-0001. The Red Lodge Inn (406) 446-2030 in Red Lodge is also a good choice. For lodging in a country setting try Blue Sky Cabins (406-446-0186).
The Rock Creek Resort (1-800-667-1119) is located a few miles south of Red Lodge on U.S. Highway 212. The nearby Old Piney Dell Restaurant and Bar is a favorite dining spot for locals and travelers. The restaurant has a very pretty setting, along the banks of Rock Creek.
Yellowstone National Park is the main outdoor attraction near Red Lodge. The ascent into Yellowstone Park begins on the spectacular Beartooth Highway (U.S. Highway 212), just outside Red Lodge. The Beartooth Highway winds its way up the mountain and the drive is an absolute thrill. Panoramic views delight motorists at every turn in the road.
Travel Tip: Alternate route to Yellowstone National Park from Red Lodge, Mont.: from Red Lodge, take Montana 308 east to Belfry, then Montana 72/Wyoming 120 south to junction with Wyoming 296, then take Wyoming 296 (Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, also called Sunlight Basin Road) west to U.S. Highway 212 and the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
A neat way to view Red Lodge is to drive into the town from the east on Highway 308. The road enters the city from a high elevation, revealing Red Lodge nestled in the beautiful valley below. Highway 308, itself, is an interesting drive, as it winds through the hills past the old coal mining town of Bearcreek. The Bearcreek Saloon and Steakhouse is the main show in town. Try their Weizen or Glacier Ale.
Travel tip: Bring a warm jacket or sweater. It’s often very cool in mountainous areas, even in July.
At Livingston (pop. 7,626), the Yellowstone River takes a sharp turn south toward Yellowstone National Park and its source high in the Absaroka Mountains. The beauty and wildness of the Yellowstone River is an awesome sight to behold as it flows near Livingston.
The Livingston area is vacation headquarters for south-central Montana. Outfitters offer horseback riding, float trips, wildlife viewing, fishing and other outdoor activities. Dude ranches are a big attraction in this part of Montana. An extra nice guest ranch is the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch near Emigrant.
The 2nd Street Bistro in the Murray Hotel downtown offers the best dinning experience in Livingston. For a tasty treat, breakfast and lunch, try Pinky’s Cafe, also downtown.
Yellowstone National Park
Most Americans dream of visiting Yellowstone Park at least once in a lifetime. And for good reason. The park is famous for its numerous geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles. Old Faithful is the park’s and possible the world’s best know geyser. Seeing Old Faithful erupt and shoot million of gallons of steaming hot water hundreds of feet high, against the backdrop of a blue sky and the surrounding black forest, is an experience long remembered. The gush of approval from onlookers, always present in big numbers when Old Faithful erupts, adds to the excitement of the moment.
Perhaps a surprise to many first-time visitors, Yellowstone Park is heavily forested. The most common trees in the park are lodge pole pine, fir, spruce, and aspen. A few years ago, major forest fires burned thousands of acres of forest in Yellowstone. Today, recovery is well underway with millions of young trees covering the mountains and valleys.
Tourists come to see the animals. And they aren’t often disappointed. Elk, buffalo, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears call the park home. Coyotes, mountain lions and many species of birds are common, too. Wildlife is especially abundant in the Hayden Valley between Canyon Junction and Fishing Bridge. Yellowstone Lake, in the southeastern part of the park, is a favorite of fishermen.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is one of the most beautiful sights in the park. The river flows through a deep gorge, cut into layers of yellow-colored rocks. Near Canyon Village, the river cascades over the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. The Lower Falls is a special place to stop on every Yellowstone vacation. Osprey nest in the conifers high above the river’s gorge. Travel tip: Shoot lots of film here.
Check out Yellowstone National Park’s Web site for more information. See the National Park Service’s map on how to get to Yellowstone. For weather near the park go to the Weather Channel for the current conditions and forecast for West Yellowstone, Montana.
One route to leave or enter Yellowstone Park is along U.S. Highway 89, the Gardiner, Montana entrance. The highway follows the course of the Yellowstone River. The Absaroka Mountains, home to gray wolves, black bear, and other wildlife, tower above the roadway.
Lodging in Yellowstone is handled by Xanterra Parks and Resorts (866) 439-7375 or visit Yellowstone National Park Lodges.
Travel tip: Yellowstone National Park is a big, big place, so plan your time carefully, when driving to and inside the park. Stay overnight at West Yellowstone or Gardiner, Montana (both cities are near the park’s entrance), then get an early morning start into Yellowstone.
THE LOWER YELLOWSTONE RIVER VALLEY
I-94 is the main route in southeastern Montana and Yellowstone Country. Visitors entering Montana from the east usually stop in Glendive. Glendive (pop. 4,400) is a sleepy, small town, built around ranching, the railroad industry, and tourism. Makoshika State Park, an area of rugged badlands located east of the city, is a popular attraction.
Tourists often go hunting for Montana moss agates in the nearby Yellowstone River Valley. The moss agate is a type of quartz gemstone. Amateurs and rock hounds dig through gravel deposits along the river to find the agates. When cut and polished, moss agates make beautiful jewelry. Moss agate jewelry is sold at the Jordan Inn gift shop in downtown Glendive.
In Glendive, the Best Western/Jordan Inn (406) 377-5555 and the Astoria Hotel & Suites (406) 377-6000 offer good lodging.
Medicine Rocks State Park is a little-known treasure in southeast Montana. The park is located near the village of Ekalaka (pop. 445), many miles south of Glendive. Over millions of years, wind and water erosion have eroded the landscape in this area, leaving exposed huge irregular-shaped masses of sandstone. The rocks stand like behemoths and rise high above the surrounding grassy plains. The rocks are testimony to the passage of geologic time and a sign of ancient, mysterious times when ferocious dinosaurs roamed eastern Montana.
Ekalaka is home to the Carter County Museum. The museum has a nice rock and mineral collection which is open to the public.
Travel tip: Buy a cowboy hat and other western digs in Glendive. You’re in the Wild West, now.
Miles City, Montana (pop. 8,700), also on I-94, is the cowboy capital of the world. This prairie village is home to the famous Bucking Horse Sale (3rd weekend in May). If there are real cowboys left in the world, they all must live in Miles City, Montana.
The folks of Miles City are especially proud of their modern public library, which, by the way, is a nice place to seek refuge on a hot summer afternoon. In July the sun bakes everyone and everything in Miles City. On a typical summer day, Miles City’s weather makes a traveler from south Texas feel right at home. For lodging in Miles City, try the Holiday Inn Express (406) 234-1000. For a special experience, travelers stay at the Yellowstone Bluffs B&B in Miles City.
From Forsyth (pop. 2,100), travelers can continue west on I-94 and follow the Yellowstone River to Billings, or leave the interstate highway and go west along U.S. Highway 12 to Roundup and into the heart of Montana’s ranchland. Forsyth is a nice place for a short visit. Hungry travelers stop early to beat the huge crowds that always show up at the Rails Inn restaurant. The Bloomin’ Onion is a good choice for upscale dining and drinking fine wine.
Off the interstate highway, reminders of Montana’s pioneer days are evident for all who care to explore. Old homesteads are always an interesting find. Near Hysham (pop. 364), an old log cabin sits quietly and abandoned on the short-grass prairie. An ancient windmill stands nearby, and rattlesnakes hide under wind-dried boards. Horseshoes lay scattered on the ground by the broken down corral. Dreams long forgotten. Who might have lived in a place like this? Were the days happy and prosperous? On a warm summer afternoon, a visitor to the cabin is greeted by curious mule deer. The mule deer soon become spooked by the “intruder” and run slowly to the surrounding hills.
Travel tip: Pictures okay, but don’t mess with private property.
Before the mountain men, prospectors, and settlers moved west, Montana was home to thousands of Native Americans. The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, near Hardin (pop. 3,300), is testimony of their valiant efforts to protect their land from outsiders. The U.S. Army had been sent west by the government to subdue Native Americans. At the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876, various tribes fought back and were victorious. Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull delivered a deadly blow, killing George Custer and many soldiers. An outfit called Apsaalooke Tours offers a one-hour tour of the site. A stop here is a must for all who travel this way.
Travel tip: There’s no sales tax in Montana, so buy now.
Copyright © 2017 John Sandy