The wide-open state of Montana that stretches across the prairie of the Great Plains, known as 'Big Sky Country', borders three Canadian provinces and is the fourth largest state in the country.
'Montana' is Spanish for mountains, and indeed the state is mountainous, being traversed by the Rocky Mountain chain. However sixty percent of the state is prairie. Agricultural lands provide some of America's most attractive and renowned national parks, wildlife refuges, and forests.
In Montana are the Yellowstone National Park, the Glacier National Park, and the Bighorn Canyon, to name just a few natural attractions Montana has to offer. With more than two million acres of geysers, Yellowstone is the largest and most famous national park in the world, spilling over into Idaho and Wyoming. Smaller, but no less magnificent is the Glacier Park, which covers one million acres of rugged mountain terrain, forests, waterfalls, and glaciers.
Montana is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise, with a multitude of opportunities for hiking, riding, hunting, and fishing in summer and skiing in winter. Native American culture also features high on its list of attractions: the prairies having been home to legendary tribes like the Cheyenne, Crow, and Blackfeet. The various Reservations are strongholds of their heritage are where traditional dress is worn, rituals are performed, and arts and crafts produced. Visitors must be sure to explore the 'ghost towns' left from the 1862 gold rush, the many museums and art galleries, and the historic buildings and battlefields of this multifaceted state.
Though most of the state is undeveloped, there are a few towns in Montana worth visiting: Billings, conveniently located near Yellowstone, is a hub of arts and culture; Butte is a former mining town with several museums dedicated to the industry; while Bozeman is a college town with some good museums and art galleries, and hosts the Sweet Pea Festival each spring.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Moss Mansion was the home of the Preston Boyd Moss family built in 1903, and has been preserved to capture the family life of the well-to-do of the era. The house was designed by New York architect, Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, whose best-known work was New York's Waldorf Astoria. Most of the original fixtures are still in the house which visitors can view during informative guided tours of the property.
The Western Heritage Center in downtown Billings, affiliated to the Smithsonian Institution, has a collection of more than 16,000 artefacts documenting the life, culture and history of the Yellowstone River Valley. The centre's constantly changing gallery exhibitions draw around 22,000 visitors a year. The centre also hosts activities like storytelling hours, lectures, and scavenger hunts. Be sure to check the website for schedules.
Montana's premier art museum, the popular Yellowstone Art Museum exhibits contemporary and historic art of the Rocky Mountain West region.
Established in 1984, the museum now contains more than 3,000 works, including the Virginia Snook Collection, the largest public display of the drawings, paintings, books and memorabilia of cowboy illustrator Will James. The museum hosts events throughout the year, including art auctions and semi-annual festivals.
Montana's zoological park and botanical garden hosts around 70,000 visitors a year and is one of the State's most popular tourist attractions, the only zoo within 600 miles (965km) of Billings. The complex covers 70 acres to the west of the city, exhibiting animals and plants native to the northern Rockies and high plains, and similar latitudes in Europe and Asia, in state-of-the-art natural habitats.
Billings has a semi-arid climate, with low humidity all year round. Summers (June to August) are sunny, warm and pleasant, with average temperatures between 52°F (11°C) and 87°F (31°C); and autumn is a particularly lovely season with spells of 'Indian summer'. The first frost usually comes at the end of September. Winter (December to February) brings fairly heavy snowfalls, but snow does not accumulate; average winter temperatures stay between 18°F (-8°C) and 40°F (4°C). Warm 'Chinook' winds, during February and March, keep late winter and early spring mild and pleasant.
Montana's east and west regions experience very different climates, separated by the Continental Divide, although generally the state tends to be hot and dry in summer and cold in winter, with snow. The western regions generally has a milder climate than the east, with warmer winters, cooler summers and lighter winds, and rainfall is more evenly distributed throughout the year. The east tends to have less humidity than the west, as well as more sunny days on average. Montana's cold winters are frequently broken by warm, windy spells in the east, known as 'Chinook' weather, which can last for several days at a time. The heaviest snowfall throughout the state is from November to March, and most cities receive an annual average of 30 to 50 inches (76 to 127cm). Rainfall is generally light, with most falling between May and July.
Billings' downtown area can be a bit confusing for visitors, as it was designed on a grid system with numbered avenues increasing numerically both to the north and south of Montana Avenue, and numbered streets crossing it from east to west. The central area is compact and can be explored on foot. Most visitors, however, prefer to rent a car to explore the city and outskirts. The city bus service is the Billings MET Transit, which is easy to use. MET buses stop at most corners and at stops with a distinctive blue and green sign. Exact fares are required, paid to the driver. Buses run from 5.50am to 6.40pm on weekdays and from 8.10am to 5.45pm on Saturdays. There are no buses on Sundays or major public holidays.
Billings, an old railroad town in Montana with humble beginnings, is a unique destination offering a big city appeal as well as access to open spaces and beautiful landscapes.
History is a key drawcard to this city. Visitors to the Pictograph Cave State Park can venture to the prehistoric era with its cave paintings over 2,000 years old, still in their original state. The Western Heritage Center in downtown Billings, home to over 16,000 historical artefacts from the Yellowstone River Valley, is a popular choice with history buffs, as is the Moss Mansion Historic House. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1903-built Moss Mansion has been preserved to capture family life as it was way back when in the state of Montana and draws in many visitors each year.
For those with a penchant for the arts, the Yellowstone Art Museum is a most memorable stop with exhibits of both contemporary and historic art from the Rocky Mountain West. Billings is also home to a Performing Arts Center as well as several theatres and a symphony orchestra.
Visitors in search of some open space and natural beauty need only take a short drive to the Chico Hot Springs set in the aptly-named Paradise Valley. Chico Hot Springs is home to two open-air mineral pools as well as many outdoors activities such as horseback riding, hiking, white-water rafting, fly fishing, and more. A drive to Missoula will prove a unique excursion filled as it is with hippies and students.
With a history of providing visitors with much to explore, as well as some incredible outdoor activities, Billings makes for a memorable visit.
The Custer National Forest is scattered across Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, but the forest headquarters are in Billings, Montana, and most hiking and camping is undertaken in the part of the forest located about an hour's drive to the south of the city. Custer is the most ecologically diverse forest in the north of the USA, renowned for its lake and stream fishing and home to mountain goats, big horn sheep, elk, muley and white-tailed deer, black bear, cougar, and moose. A popular outing from Billings is to follow the spectacular Beartooth Scenic Byway. The Beartooth area is also one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park.
The world's first national park, Yellowstone was established in 1872 and despite its popularity today, most of the park still remains an undeveloped wilderness of magnificent mountain scenery, waterfalls, alpine lakes and rivers. It is renowned for its geothermal wonders and abundance of wildlife. Spilling over into Wyoming and Idaho, the enormous park is situated on top of the Yellowstone Caldera, a collapsed volcanic crater that was formed 600,000 years ago and holds within it the greatest geothermic area in the world. This unique environment includes features such as exploding geysers, thousands of steaming fumaroles, hot springs and bubbling mud pools. The park also includes one of the state's most popular attractions, the Old Faithful Geyser, which draws thousands of tourists to witness its regular eruption of steaming water.
Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of wildlife in lower USA, including grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, and large herds of bison and elk. The two narrow waterfalls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River cut a striking picture in the yellow-coloured rock that gives the park its name, with superb views and hiking trails for all abilities. The large alpine Yellowstone Lake fills the eastern part of the caldera and offers opportunities for boating and fishing expeditions in summer. All places of interest are accessible along the loop roads, but the intensity of visitors in summer, especially between July and August, means that one needs to hike away from the main paths to experience the true wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.
The 'Garden City' doesn't have much in the way of gardens, but Missoula is an outdoor sportsman's Eden. Downtown is a collection of unique shops and lively bars where it is easier to walk or bike than drive. The University of Montana starts right where the hill ends and is a beautiful campus to wander, or catch a football game to see the Montana Grizzlies playing.
Tourists often visit Missoula for outdoor activities of all kinds from skiing, kayaking, hiking, and rock climbing, to hang-gliding and mountain biking. Festivals from Ale Fest (beer) to Testy Fest (cow balls) make their home here, so come ready to celebrate and play.
Listed as a National Historic Landmark, Pictograph Cave State Park, located just six miles (10km) south of Billings, provides an ideal setting for a wonderfully scenic, historically fascinating day-trip.
Covering an area of 93 acres, the park is home to a complex of three caves, Ghost, Middle, and Pictograph, all linked by a paved walking trail. Two of these three caves contain evidence of habitation dating back over 4,500 years ago. To date, more 30,000 historical artefacts, such as bone tools, arrow heads, and beaded jewellery, have been discovered within the park. The pictographs that give the park its name date back more than two millennia, and their meaning is still being debated by archaeologists.
Visitors to the park can anticipate pristine picnic areas, and interpretive signage, which provides good information about the prehistoric paintings, as well as the area's geology and vegetation.
Though they're hardly in a fashionable area, the unpretentious Chico Hot Springs are quickly becoming a popular attraction in Montana, drawing guests from New York and Hollywood. Set in the aptly-named Paradise Valley near the town of Emigrant, the springs contains two open-air mineral pools with temperatures around 93°F (34°C), perfect for relaxing. There's a restaurant and a lively bar onsite, and outdoor activities like horseback riding, dogsledding, hiking, fly fishing, white-water rafting, and cross-country skiing are on offer.