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Billings, Mont.: Bright Lights

Tasty restaurants, hopping nightlife, a wild zoo—big city treats beckon from the Yellowstone Valley in Montana.

Two Moon Park on the Yellowstone River, image
Photo caption
At Two Moon Park near the Yellowstone River, Shane Colton scans the land and sky for wildlife.

My dad still remembers his first good look at Billings. It was 1956 and Grandpa had driven the family to the top of the Rims, a sandstone ridge overlooking Montana's Yellowstone Valley, for a view of city lights that stretched for miles. After spending the first 10 years of his life in small prairie towns, Dad was primed to be dazzled. "If New York City is any bigger than this," he said, "I'd sure like to see it."

With a population of just over 100,000, Billings is the largest city within 450 miles. The typical Montana amenities are all here—a lively river, mountain views, clear air—but we have big-city perks, too. People drive from northern Wyoming and from all over eastern and central Montana to eat at the restaurants, catch bull riding at the MetraPark arena, take in a concert at the Alberta Bair Theater, or watch the local talent perform in a musical at the Venture Theatre. Billings, a railroad town that bulked up on sugar beets and interstate commerce, today feels busy but not crowded. It's plugged-in but only a 20-minute drive from open country.

Long known as the Magic City (the Big Apple was taken), Billings now has an official brand: Montana's Trailhead, which translates roughly to "You can get someplace interesting from here." Yes, Yellowstone National Park is less than three hours away, and you'll need only an hour to reach dramatic Beartooth Pass or Little Bighorn Battlefield. But that implied shove out the door does the city a disservice. When I have visitors, I don't shuffle them off to Interstate 90.

I start our grand tour at the Rims. The view impresses even in daytime: the lofty Beartooth and Pryor mountains to the south, the tree-filled city below. A quick drive away in Two Moon Park, eagles and white-tailed deer flash through big cottonwoods.

We make sure to visit ZooMontana, especially when kids are along. The wolves and the wolverine tend to sleep the day away, but we once saw Bruno the brown bear wielding a pair of lodgepole pine trunks like giant chopsticks. The river otters twirl in their tank, and the tiger prowls majestically, pleasing shutterbugs. Just minutes away, kids splash and shriek year-round at the Reef, the state's largest indoor water park.

For a look at classic Billings, we tour the red sandstone Moss Mansion, built in 1903 for banker Preston B. Moss, who also dabbled in ranching, newspapers, telecommunications, and utilities. The home's decor—a Moorish entry, a French parlor, a master bedroom with mahogany furnishings—seems as eclectic as Moss's business interests.

My guests do get hungry eventually. If they don't want what I'm cooking—their loss, really—choices abound. The banana-stuffed French toast makes downtown's bustling McCormick Café a favorite breakfast place most days of the week. Saturdays the morning crowd migrates 20 miles down the road to enjoy steaming stacks of pancakes while listening to live bluegrass at the Prairie Winds Café in Molt.

For dinner there's Bistro Enzo's catch of the day, perhaps halibut with tomatoes or a skate wing with capers. At Walkers Grill, tapas such as honeyed goat cheese and roasted mussels jump from small plates. Prefer a thick steak? No place beats the Rex. Or just grab a patio table at the Montana Brewing Company and nurse a hoppy Sharptail Pale Ale while watching the downtown scene. Come nightfall, sip a martini at the Carlin while the Érnán Cortes Quartet jazz combo finishes a set, and you'll know you're in a real city.

Photography by Lynn Donaldson

This article was first published in March 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.