Last week I started to tell you about how insanely awesome Montana is, but I started running long. It’s sort of impossible to squeeze it all in a blog post. Now, I am trying to squeeze it in two blog posts, which is not much easier. This week I’ll tell you about some of my most absolute favorite places in the world, so you’re in for a treat!
- Yellowstone National Park, Beartooth Highway, and Red Lodge
- Billings, Pompeys Pillar, & Little Bighorn Battlefield
- Kalispell, Flathead Lake, Whitefish, Glacier National Park
First, to quickly refresh your memory: my husband, 2.5-year-old daughter, two dogs, and I embarked on a 6800+ mile road trip this summer. Montana was part II of III and lasted about 3 weeks. These are some of the things I did during this three-week period. For a detailed route/ itinerary, check out my Furkot itinerary.
Yellowstone National Park, Beartooth Highway, and Red Lodge
Yellowstone National Park is 3472 square miles (larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined) of untouched, magical land, mostly in Wyoming, with small parts in Montana and Idaho. America’s first national park, established in 1872, Yellowstone has roughly 300 active geysers and about 10,000 hydrothermal features, over 40 major waterfalls, and is home to the largest concentration of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48. The most famous attraction of Yellowstone, Old Faithful erupts faithfully every 91 minutes. Honestly, I could go on forever listing fascinating factoids about Yellowstone, but I’ll just let Teddy Roosevelt sell it to you.
“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.“
President Theodore Roosevelt
I’ve been to Yellowstone several times. This year we went to a section I’ve never been before, the famed Lamar Valley where wolves and bears can regularly be observed. We saw lots of bison on this trip, but no bears or wolves. I don’t know why we don’t normally go out to the East side of the park, because after seeing it for the first time, it is truly breathtaking. This year we made it a priority because our mission was to drive the Beartooth Highway.
The Beartooth Highway, called by many, “America’s Most Beautiful Drive” and according to my husband, this is verified, spans 68 miles through southwest Montana, northwest Wyoming, and Yellowstone National Park. It is difficult to put in words how amazing this drive is, so I encourage you to watch my husband’s short video on the drive. Reaching over 10,000 feet at the summit, the landscape is rugged and beautiful. It reminds me of the Scottish Highlands, but higher in altitude.
To do the Beartooth Highway Drive, you have to start at one of two places: Silver Gate/ Cooke City, MT, just outside of the Northeast Yellowstone Entrance, or Red Lodge, MT, 60 miles south of Billings. Due to the many switchbacks and pullout opportunities for photos, the drive takes two to three hours from start to finish, though you could easily spend all day on the drive. Here’s how we did our Beartooth weekend:
Day 1 – Livingston, MT: prior to Yellowstone trips I like to stay in Livingston for two main reasons. (1) The Murray Hotel and (2) 2nd Street Bistro. The Murray Hotel is an authentic western hotel with modern upgrades. The service is great and the accommodations are comfortable and elegant. We stayed in a two bedroom
suite and really enjoyed the space and full kitchen, dining area, and living room. [Don’t believe me? Ask Anthony Bourdain. He said it was one of his favorite hotels in the world. Guess what? I found it first, Anthony! I know how to pick a good hotel. ;)]
The 2nd Street Bistro is owned/ operated by the same folks that own the Murray Hotel, so I guess you could say these people know something about hospitality and service. They combine classic French cooking techniques with local meats and produce. I am picky about Prime Rib and I really savored their prime rib! Other places we enjoy in Livingston are Neptune’s Brewery, the Katabatic Brewing Company, and Montana Cup for coffee and bagels.
Day 2 – Livingston, MT →Yellowstone North Entrance (Gardiner, MT) → Lamar Valley, Yellowstone → Cooke City, MT → Beartooth Highway → Red Lodge, MT → Billings, MT: Long day, right? Yes, there are ways to break it up and not do such a long day, but you must plan in advance. To stay in Yellowstone or in Cooke City, for example, you have to book in advance because lodging is limited and demand in the summer months when the Beartooth Highway is open is high. However, this long day is do-able. Wake up early if you can and get on the road, make frequent stops, and enjoy the journey – don’t worry about the destination. Psst…bring a coat! It gets cold and windy up at the top, even in August.
Since I already covered everything up through the Beartooth Highway, I’m going to talk a little bit about Red Lodge. Had I known better, I would have planned to stay the night here. Red Lodge is a great little town. Apparently, Ernest Hemingway used to vacation here frequently and the main character in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ was from Red Lodge. There is a ton to do in the area for outdoor recreation, but the downtown is charming, filled with lovely shops, delicious restaurants, and entirely walkable. A couple of our favorites in Red Lodge are Red Lodge Ales just outside of town, and Heist Studio + Gallery. I got some really cute locally made copper earrings at Heist and we had a wonderful dinner at Red Lodge Ales while enjoying their backyard beer garden and a fine selection of beers.
Billings, Pompeys Pillar, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield
I’d always been put off by Billings. To me, it was just a pass-through city on I-90 heading east or west through Montana to some other destination, despite the fact that it is the largest city in Montana. I was excited to see another side of Billings this time and it didn’t disappoint. Here are my Billings recommendations. Stay at the Northern Hotel, dubbed as unpretentious western luxury (that is an accurate description). Eat, drink beer, and be merry at Überbrew. Shop ‘til you drop or ride the Ferris Wheel at Scheels. Check out an amazing collection of western art, including a sculpture by Deborah Butterfield at the Yellowstone Art Museum.
A half hour outside of Billings is Pompeys Pillar and one hour outside of Billings is the Little Bighorn Battlefield. I recommend visiting these locations as day trips from Billings, as lodging is somewhat sparse outside of Billings. Pompeys Pillar is a natural geologic formation that juts out of an open field next to the Yellowstone River. The pillar contains the etched signature of Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This signature is the only physical evidence that remains of the Corps of Discovery trail. My husband was fascinated to see his signature.
The Little Bighorn is where Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer famously had his “last stand”– 268 of Custer’s men died in a battle against thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. This battle became a turning point and has been considered the beginning of the end of the “Indian Wars”. For history buffs, this is a must-see. For everyone else, it’s still an amazing place to learn about the foundations of modern America’s society and the tragedies that took place between the Native Americans and new settlers. Give yourself at least 2-4 hours to visit the visitors center, listen to the park ranger’s presentation, drive the 10-mile loop and, and take a self-guided walking tour.
Bias alert! I was born here and if I ever move back to Montana, Missoula is probably where I’ll move. But… there’s a good reason for that (and mind you, I’ve lived all over the US and across the world, so I have a decent perspective to draw from).
Truly speaking, I am convinced I have to move there to be able to experience all it has to offer. Aside from all the outdoor recreation that is available to enjoy in and around Missoula (much like every Montana town), Missoula is a town full of culture and entertainment. First, I love that there is always some sort of event going on in Missoula, from the gigantic farmers market every Saturday, to music in Cara’s Park on Wednesday nights, to very loud and energetic college football games at University of Montana’s Washington Grizzly Stadium.
For now, I’ll simplify and give you some of my Missoula favorites (aside from what I already mentioned):
- Walk or bike along the Clark Fork River downtown to people
watch and enjoy the sounds of the river. You can see people fly-fishing, surfing (yes, I said surfing), and kayaking all year round on this river.
- Ride the carousel in Cara’s Park. This carousel is hand-carved, hand-painted and hauls butt!
- Eat and/or drink at Biga Pizza, Plonk, The Double Front Café, Tamarack Brewing Company, Market on Front, Big Dipper Ice Cream, and Hoagieville.
If you need more convincing, just watch Brad Pitt again in “A River Runs Through It”.
I know I said I would tell you about Kalispell, Flathead Lake, Whitefish, and Glacier National Park this time, but I lied. I’m going to do something even better. I’m going save it for when my dear husband has compiled an epically amazing video of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and share it with you then. So until next time… friends!
Ciao for now.