Whenever I visit Big Sky Country, I ask the locals for insider recommendations for the best things to do in Billings MT. Then, of course, I have to scout each one to examine whether it makes the UNSTOPPABLE-approved list or not. The following best things to do in Billings MT fit the criteria: exciting, interesting, inspiring and beyond the typical. Let’s go…
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“I’m in love with Montana. For other states, I have admiration. But with Montana, it is love.”
–John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
This morning I resonated with John Steinbeck as I think back over all the fun things I did in Montana this week. With so many things to do in Billings MT, and the surrounding area, it isn’t easy to choose. So I wanted to vet a list for you, so you won’t miss out on any of the best things to do in Billings MT.
1.) Food, glorious food! Beyond hot sausage and mustard!
With well over five James Beard nominations in the past 10 years, Billings could well be the foodie capital of the state. So then, one of the best things to do in Billings MT is to splurge for one of their fabulous restaurants. You probably already know that Billings is renowned for its prime beef, so if you’re a meat eater, you’ll want to check out some of the traditional steakhouses. But if you’re not, there are plenty of Modern American eateries that offer vegan and vegetarian delectables.
One of those places is The Marble Table, where I could eat appetizers all night long. Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-trained Chef Jason Marble was born and raised in Billings and sources local ingredients whenever possible. The peanut- and tree-nut-free establishment, which serves up elevated comfort food, was a James Beard finalist for the best new restaurant 2022.
Another fabulous place to sink your teeth into is the hip Walkers Grill. The Billings mainstay since 1993 serves regionally-farmed food in a casual but classy atmosphere. The high-level service makes you feel like the servers are your new Montana friends, not servants. Chef Nick Steen was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Mountain region, and his seared duck breast pictured above was evidence of his expertise.
2.) Reliving the Old West is one of the best things to do in Billings MT
Relive the Old West at the Western Heritage Center. With over 40K western artifacts, including Native American beadwork, western tack, historic guns and regional Western art, exploring the center is one of the best things to do in Billings MT.
The museum received federal appropriations for the American Indian Tribal Histories Project, a program contributing to the preservation of local Crow/Apsáalooke/Absaroka* and Northern Cheyenne/Tsėhéstáno* tribal histories. The Western Heritage Center is one of six museums in Montana accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
Go beyond the typical and check out their ‘High Noon’ lecture series and historic walking tours.
3.) Shop at an authentic pawn shop or thrift store
One of the locals directed me to Western Pawn Brokers within walking distance of my downtown hotel. I felt as if I were walking into a western museum, but the artifacts, antiques and artwork could be procured and taken home.
While in the pawn shop, the salesperson received a call from Hungary. Proving once again that people across the world love the Wild West! You can learn much about Native American culture by visiting the Far West Gallery, part of the Western Pawn Shop. The attendants are knowledgeable; all you need to do is ask.
The thrift shops also offer western memorabilia, including taxidermy fish, deer and bear. In addition, I enjoyed looking at the old handworked patchwork quilts.
4.) Walk on the Wild Side at ZOOMONTANA
So, I’m not typically a zoo person, but this facility has me won over. Executive Director Jeff Ewelt and the energetic team are dedicated to taking in only rescue animals or animals needed for worldwide breeding programs.
What does that mean? Many of the animals living here in large outdoor pens, like Bruno, the grizzly bear, were pets, and once they outgrew their human homes, the owners relinquished them to ZOOMONTANA. Others, like Emelio the Bald eagle, shot by a poacher, received their injuries in the wild.
Animals in an international breeding program also find their homes here. For example, the wolverines of different bloodlines came from Sweden and Norway to breed and produce more wolverines.
Over 80 animals | 56 species
You might note that I mentioned the creatures roam in large outdoor pens. It’s because of the zookeepers’ mission is to protect animals from the 45th Parallel. Animals like pandas and leopards come from ecosystems on the 45th parallel, where temperatures and conditions are similar to those in Billings, Montana, so they can spend much of their time outdoors.
So then, you can participate in one of the best things to do in Billings MT with no bad feelings, no regret, no remorse or no shame.
RELATED: Things to do Albuquerque New Mexico
5.) Forge your own path on the Billings Brew Trail
Self-guided beer trails and guided food tours make it fun to experience the history and culture of a city, whether you’re a first-timer or a long-term resident. Brewmeisters typically choose historic buildings for their locations, and here in Billings, that’s no different. Follow the Billings Brew Trail on the downloadable app or paper map, and you’ll wander through history that includes Calamity Jane, Teddy Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh.
On the Billings Brew Trail you can walk to six breweries, two distilleries and one cider house from your downtown hotel. Be careful crossing the tracks, which of course, divided the town in the early days between the upper crust and four blocks of bordellos until the automobile, phone, WWI, and education on venereal disease chased prostitution out of town.
In addition to those award-winning brewpubs on the walkable trail, Billings offers a spirit distillery and more craft breweries off the brewed path.
Of course, you might be a little crazy, or just down-right schnockered if you tried them all in one go around. So drink responsibly and use your phone to check into the breweries for specials and a chance to win stickers, T-shirts and pint glasses. Must be 21+.
Get the details about prizes and how to download them to your phone at www.visitbillings.com/billings-brew-trail.
6.) Discover more about the Old West at Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site
Take in the views of the Yellowstone River Valley from the top of Billing’s Rimrocks at the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site. Yellowstone Kelly was a famous frontiersman, explorer and government scout in Yellowstone country. You’ll find his grave along with informational panels that interpret the life of the adventurer who witnesses a changing West.
The controversial figure was a friend or foe to the Native Americans who lived here, depending on the tribe. Yellowstone Kelly was enlisted to confirm reports of miners trespassing on the Crow/Apsáalooke/Absaroka* Reservation. Later, after killing two Oglala Lakota Sioux warriors who ambushed him, he was lauded by some Gros Ventre/ʔɔʔɔɔ̋ɔ́niinénnɔh/A’aninin/Aaniiih/Haaninin* people for his bravery.
Local author, Peter Bowen, writes novels about Yellowstone Kelly.
The evocative interpretive site is on Swords Rimrock Park Trail near the Billings Logan International Airport. You can drive to the site or take in all the views and more points of Wild West interest by hiking on biking the popular trail. That’s why the next of the best things to do in Billings is…
7.) Best things to do in Billings MT: Ride eBikes at Swords Rimrock Park
Ride an e-bike, as I did on the Swords Rimrock Park Trail, or take a hike. You’ll see many locals walking their dogs and enjoying the views below. I hiked the trail from the airport on a previous visit to Billings.
Besides the magnificent views, this trail is unusual because it takes you to many sacred sites. For example, the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site is a Crow/Apsáalooke/Absaroka* vision quest site. You can also explore Boothill Cemetery and Skelton Cliff, a sacred burial place for the Crow/Apsáalooke/Absaroka* people along the trail.
8.) Taste true local flavor on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail
Montanans love beef, and you will too once you taste Montana-grown beef. There’s no better way to test the best than on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail.
Restauranteurs’ ingenious culinary expertise shines through with innovative burgers like the “I’m Your Huckleberry” Burger pictured above. First, the 2016 World Food Champions Burger is sauced with roasted red pepper mayo and huckleberry Hatch chile BBQ sauce. Then The Burger Dive in Billings loads it up with bacon, goat cheese and arugula.
On this trip to Montana, I was able to sample three of the 24 gourmet Montana beef burgers of the Southeast Montana Burger Trail. Read about one at How the Quest for the Best Burger Menu Led to Authentic Connection. I’ll be back for more Montana beef!
Download your Southeast Montana Burger Trail map.
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9.) Swoon-worthy sweets: Brockel's Chocolates
One of the best things to do in Billings MT is to choose between dark or light handmade chocolates at Brockel’s Chocolates. When I walked in, the rich aroma of fine chocolates met me at the door. The hand-dipped chocolates are made fresh every day except Sunday, so the heavenly scent is sure to greet you as well.
After looking through the colorful cases, I finally chose dark chocolate with orange ganache made from orange juice and fresh oranges. YUM! You’ll be amazed at the overwhelming selection of chocolates, hard candies, copper-kettle fudge and caramel corn. The mind-blowing choices might just make you feel like a kid in a candy store.
10.) Take a pontoon boat ride through sacred Crow/Apsáalooke/Absaroka* country
One of the best-kept secrets of the National Park System and one of the best things to do in Billings MT is to visit Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The scenery is stunning–one of my Facebook friends says it looks like a flooded Sedona, AZ. And I couldn’t agree more.
However, the gentle lap of the water against the marina dock is not something you would hear in Sedona. But why stand on shore? Get out on the peaceful water in a pontoon boat. You will be floating through sacred Crow/Apsáalooke/Absaroka* country. It was in these mountains where the story of a boy and his stepfather took place.
I was blessed to ride in the pontoon with Tanya Gardner, a member of the tribe. She pointed to the mountain crags and ledges, each uniquely carved by erosion. I was impressed that she recognized the place where the story took place.
Seven sacred rams
The Crow/Apsáalooke/Absaroka* tradition says that the jealous stepfather pushed the boy over the cliff. The boy landed on a ledge, and after praying for four days, seven sacred Bighorn sheep rams rescued him. At night you can see the rams in the dark skies. They are what we call the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters.
Tanya reported that even today when a mother remarries another man, her parents raise her children. So in that way, the culture protects stepchildren.
The Crow Tribe operates the pontoon tours at Ok-a-Beh Marina. You can reserve pontoon boats by phone only at 406-384-6930.
The marina is typically open Memorial Day–Labor Day weekends (weather permitting).
DIRECTIONS: 45 miles south of I-90 and Hardin on State Highway 313. Located inside the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area on the north side of Bighorn Lake. The first left after passing Fort Smith is the Ok-a-Beh Road. It winds up on top of the Bighorn Mountains, revealing spectacular views of the Bighorn River Valley, then drops into the canyon where you find Ok-a-Beh Marina and boat launch.
Where to stay in Billings, Montana
I recommend staying downtown, which allows walking access to the Billings Brew Trail and many of the mom-and-pops on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail. Billings has a fun, walkable downtown area.
The Northern Hotel is my pick for modern digs in a historical setting. The design, Montana urban with a Western flair, includes huge floral bouquets in the well-dressed lobby, leather and cowhide-covered contemporary furniture and a huge fireplace that brings guests together in the lobby.
*I believe that it is important to recognize the Native names for these places and people groups.
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Hi, I’m Stacey
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel is a travel blog focused on immersive travel that highlights food, wine and the spirituality of place. I also occasionally write about life as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim. I hope you enjoy what I post here. Feel free to leave comments! Read more…
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Whenever I visit Big Sky Country, I ask the locals for insider recommendations for the best things to do in Billings MT. Then, of course, I have to scout each one to examine whether it makes the UNSTOPPABLE-approved list or not. The following best things to do in Billings MT fit the criteria: exciting, interesting,