ONLY A FEW AIRPORTS CAN DAZZLE YOUR EYES THROUGH AN AIRCRAFT WINDOW, and you’ll find one in Billings. Perched high on the Rimrocks’ river-carved cliffs, Billings Logan International Airport surprises first-time visitors with blazes of gold sandstone and broad vistas of the Yellowstone River Valley.
You can practically hike from the tarmac—the Rimrocks are graced with multiple parks and trails. Follow Black Otter Trail to inspiring views of Billings and five mountain ranges. In Swords Park, visit the memorial to Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly, a frontiersman, trapper and scout who roamed the northern Plains in the late 1800s. You’ll get more great views of the Rimrocks from Four Dances Recreation Area. A journey through the Rims also leads to Pictograph Cave State Park, where faded pictographs hint at the stories of humans who inhabited Pictograph Cave and neighboring caves as long as 2,000 years ago.
Billings itself lies in the Rimrocks’ embrace. Start exploring at the Yellowstone County Museum, set in a historic log cabin by the airport. Exhibits feature Native American beadwork, wildlife mounts, elaborately tooled saddles, pioneer wagons and more. Then tour the 1903 Moss Mansion, designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, architect of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The fabulous three-story mansion was built for Preston Boyd Moss, a bank president and entrepreneur who helped to develop Billings.
The Yellowstone Art Museum houses Western art in the renovated and expanded former county jail. Look for iconic Western photographs from the late 1800s by Laton Alton Huffman—portraits of Native Americans, scenes from buffalo hunts and cowboys riding the open range—and paintings by Will James and Charles Russell. At dinnertime, nab a table at the Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill to feast on Montana Wagyu beef, smoked trout tacos and locally made hard cider in a lofty, brick-lined space. Then lay your head on a luxurious pillow at Northern Hotel, a chic historic property downtown.
HISTORY LESSONS The next morning, go east on I-90 to the plains town of Hardin adjacent to the Crow Indian Reservation. Get a dose of homesteader lore at the Big Horn County Historical Museum, with more than two dozen buildings, including a 1917 Lutheran church and farmhouse, then push on to Crow Agency. Each August, the Crow Fair Celebration Powwow and Rodeo transforms these rolling grasslands into the Teepee Capital of the World—nearly 1,800 teepees are erected for the week-long cultural celebration.
At Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the mood is more somber. In the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, Lt. Col. George Custer and his 7th Cavalry were outwitted by thousands of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Visit the Indian Memorial and the 7th Cavalry Monument on Last Stand Hill, explore the visitors center, and listen to a cell phone audio tour. Crow Indian guides from Apsáalooke Tours lead one-hour journeys, offering their perspective on the battle and the events that led to it.
Across from the monument’s entrance, browse modern Crow and Northern Cheyenne art, jewelry and beadwork at the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Cafe, and sample buffalo burgers. Then hop back in the car for a two-hour jaunt northeast to Miles City, set at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers. Farmers and ranchers populate this town year-round, but their numbers swell in May for the annual Bucking Horse Sale. A tradition since 1951, the event includes a bustling auction of untamed horses as well as Western barbecues, horse races and street dances.
The Range Riders Museum commemorates the era of the open range with its trove of rare firearms, Native American artifacts and 13 authentic Old West buildings. View Western art inside the water-holding tanks at the WaterWorks Art Museum, then mosey over to Black Iron Grill for “cowboy candy”—locally ranched beef tips. Rest overnight in remodeled rooms at Miles City Hotel and Suites.
BADLANDS FINDS When day breaks, steer east to Baker for a quick stop at the O’Fallon Historical Museum, home of the world’s largest steer, stuffed and on display. Then head to Glendive, where the Yellowstone River turns mellow as it flows through prairies dotted with rugged badlands. The Frontier Gateway Museum displays dinosaur fossils and a skeleton cast of a long-legged Struthiomimus.
On the town’s outskirts, eroded buttes are lined with dinosaur fossils and translucent agates. More than 10 species of dinosaurs have been unearthed in 11,000-acre Makoshika State Park, Montana’s largest state park and a photogenic spot to view badlands’ geology. Explore geology exhibits in the visitors center, then hike to badlands overlooks. If you want to search for fossils to keep, visit nearby Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs, located on a private ranch.
At the prairie-front enclave of Terry, drop into the Prairie County Museum to see items like the only steam-heated outhouse west of the Mississippi. The neighboring Cameron Gallery displays riveting photographs by Evelyn Cameron, a wealthy British woman who left her privileged life to settle the gritty Montana prairie. North of town, the Terry Badlands offers a slice of the landscape Cameron adored. Multicolor hoodoos and spires sculpted by wind, water and time extend all the way to the horizon.
On your return to Billings, stop at Pompeys Pillar National Monument to view the only remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A short but steep walk up a series of boardwalks leads to the spot where Captain William Clark carved his name in the 150-foot-high pillar, which towers over the prairie. His looping longhand from July 1806 is still clearly visible in sandstone.