If you’re an American history buff, you’re probably familiar with the important role Montana played in settling the West. Or, you may envisage Montana’s snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear streams and vast prairies pictured in movies such as “A River Runs Through It” and “The Horse Whisperer.”
It’s true that Montana is sparsely populated – we have the third-lowest population density in the country, after Alaska and Wyoming. There are more cows than people in Montana! It’s also true that Montana’s rugged beauty is largely untouched. This is Big Sky Country, where memories of the cowboy lifestyle of the nineteenth century linger in our landscape and our fashion, which relies heavily on flannel, cowboy hats, and boots.
Who we are
Montanans are active outdoorsmen and women. Plenty of us work outside – as farmers, ranchers or in the construction and oil industries. But when we’re not working, we’re usually playing outdoors.
Hiking, rock climbing, mountain climbing, rappelling, fishing, hunting, golf, mountain biking and horseback riding are popular activities here. Winter sports are big in Montana, with 15 ski resorts, including the well-known Big Sky Ski Resort.
In Billings, we enjoy the downtown skateboard park, bike trails, motorcycle hill climbing, boating, rodeos and festivals, like the strawberry festival and the wine & food festival. In August, we’re busy picking huckleberries.
If we pass you on rural roads in our trucks, we’ll probably wave because Montanans are known for being warm and friendly. We chat with strangers we run into at the diners, cafes and eight craft microbreweries around town.
Wildlife encounters are common – and we don’t mean the popular bison burgers served up at local restaurants. But most of us are packing and we’re experienced in safety. After all, Calamity Jane hails from this area!
Located in the south-central part of the state, Billings is the largest city in Montana. Founded as a railroad town in 1882 and named for Frederick Billings, former president of the Northern Pacific Railway, it grew so quickly, it earned a second name: the Magic City. The railroad established Billings as the western railhead for further westward expansion, but also led to its development as a trade and distribution center, which it remains today, although the oil boom accelerated growth in recent years.
Montana is part of the Bakken oil development, but another shale oil discovery was made just north of Billings, which contributed to growth and a strong economy that avoided both the housing bust and the 2008 economic downturn.
Home to Montana State University and two private colleges, Billings also offers the Billings Logan International Airport near the downtown area. Easy access and numerous hotels make Billings a popular destination for conventions, concerts and sporting events. A zoo and botanical gardens are among other attractions in the city.
You can’t talk about Montana without mentioning the scenery. Billings is divided by long cliffs called Rims or Rimrocks, and the Yellowstone River runs through the southeast part of the city. More than 80 million years ago, the Yellowstone River created a canyon known as the Yellowstone Valley, in which Billings is located. Once the shore of the Western Interior Seaway, the area received deposits of sediment and sand, which was compressed into a stone called Eagle Sandstone. Over the last million years, the river carved a path through this stone, forming canyon walls now known as the Rimrocks.
Seven mountain ranges can be seen around the city:
- the Bighorn Mountains, with more than 200 lakes and two peaks that rise over 13,000 feet
- the Pryor Mountains directly south of Billings, which are home to the Wild Horse Range
- the Beartooth Mountains just north of Yellowstone National Park, featuring Granite Peak, the highest point in the state and the Beartooth Highway, a soaring series of steep switchbacks that creates a breathtaking drive
- the Crazy Mountains west of town
- the Big Snowy Mountains, featuring Crystal Lake
- the Bull Mountains, a low-lying range that is heavily forested
- the Absaroka Range along the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park
An extensive system of well-maintained trails and pathways known as the Heritage Trail System winds through metro Billings. The city is bike-friendly; check out award-winning Swords Park trail, a four-mile paved bike path on the north end of town.
Other popular destinations in the area include:
- Chief Plenty Coups State Park on the Crow Indian Reservation – the only museum dedicated to the Crow culture
- ZooMontana, Billings’ 70-acre wildlife park and arboretum
- Yellowstone Art Museum contains Montana’s largest collection of contemporary art
Worth a drive are:
- Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area on the Montana/Wyoming border offers hiking, boating and camping amidst spectacular views
- Red Lodge Mountain Resort, an alpine ski resort in south-central Montana along the Beartooth Mountains
- Beartooth Highway, which links Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park
- Yellowstone National Park, America’s first park, featuring geysers, canyons, rivers, forests, hot springs and hundreds of species of animals
What’s in a name
The Magic City has been known by many names. Once called Clark’s Fork Bottom by settlers, it was known as Ammalapáshkuua, meaning “where they cut wood,” by the indigenous Crow people because of the sawmill built by early settlers. The Cheyenne and Gros Ventre in the area had names with similar origins: “the sawing place” and “where they saw lumber.”
The Crow have lived in the Billings area since at least 1700, and the current Crow Nation is just south of town. But they weren’t the first residents. As evidenced by the Pictograph Caves just five miles south of the downtown area, people have occupied the region since at least 2600 BCE. The caves contain more than 100 rock paintings. The oldest pictograph is of a turtle and has been radio-carbon dated to be at least 2,100 years old. Other images are of animals, warriors and rifles, all documenting the Native American’s history. To date, more than 30,000 artifacts such as stone tools and weapons have been excavated.
Much later – in 1806 – the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through. William Clark carved his name and the date into a rock, which is the only remaining piece of physical evidence of their trip. He called the place Pompy’s Tower, after the son of Sacajawea, his Shoshone guide and interpreter. Pompey’s Pillar National Monument has become a favorite historic attraction.
There are others, such as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, about 100 miles away. Near the Crow Agency, in 1876, it was the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand, where the Lakota and other Plains Indians tribes defeated Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry – a devastating loss for the U.S. Army that sparked a turning point in the Indian Wars.
The scout who carried news of the battle, Muggins Taylor, is buried in Boot Hill Cemetery in Coulson, a ghost town bordering Billings. Coulson was a stereotypical rough western town where gunplay in the street settled arguments.
There’s a lot to see and do in Billings. The first thing you’re likely to notice is the natural beauty of Big Sky Country, but you’ll soon feel the space around you. While we have all the technology and comfort of 21st-century living, you’ll feel the past around you as you explore our scenic, peaceful land.
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