Billings, Montana

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Day 9 started off cold and cloudy.  I knew that my primary destination for the day, the Beartooth Highway (southwest of Billings, leading into Yellowstone) wasn’t going to be as beautiful as normal, under all the clouds that were hanging over Montana.  So, I figured there was no need to be in any hurry.  Instead of hitting the road first thing, I decided to drive into Billings, Montana, for a look around.

Even though Billings is Montana’s largest city, a cold Sunday morning isn’t exactly the best time to witness any excitement.  I parked near a large kinetic sculpture known as Skypoint, which was installed over the intersection of North Broadway (28th Street) and 2nd Avenue back in 2002.  The sculpture was meant to provide a focal point for the revitalization of downtown Billings, and it must be working, since I was instantly drawn to it.

Just beyond Skypoint, the Wells Fargo building is one of Billings’ most prominent skyscrapers — although the term “skyscraper” is a bit generous, here in big sky country.  The 14-story Wells Fargo Bank tower is actually the third tallest structure in Billings.  The tallest is First Interstate Center , a 20 story building that’s also the tallest in all of Montana, and the largest commercial development within 500 miles.

Not far away from Skypoint, the Babcock Theater has a beautiful marquee.  Nowadays, the theater is used as a boxing arena, for fights on Thursday nights.

There are two other historic areas worth checking out, both of which line up along the railroad tracks.  First, drive down Montana Avenue, east of Broadway.  Old brick buildings, like the McCormick Hotel…

… and the Carlin Hotel (both built around 1905) are lined up on the north side of the street.  On the other side…

… is Union Depot, built in 1909 and renovated in 1997.  Of course, its more attractive side faces the railroad tracks, since back in the early 1900’s, that’s the first thing visitors would see.

Loop back around through downtown (Montana Avenue is one-way, so you will have to go up to 1st Avenue for the return), then take Broadway south, to an area that’s quite literally on the “other side of the tracks”.

The businesses on Minnesota Avenue look a little more rough-and-tumble than those on Montana Avenue. The Minnesota Avenue corridor was one of the first developed areas of Billings, and some of its buildings are the city’s oldest structures.  Construction started in this district in 1882, and in the decades that followed, saloons, warehouses, and houses of ill repute could all be found here.

In the photo above, you’ll notice the Oasis Bar (next door to the Western), which was built some time between 1896 and 1900.  The building’s second-story facade is mostly original, while the first-story storefront has lost some of its historical character.  The Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board calls it “insensitively altered”.

The YHPB has a fact-packed guide to a walking tour of downtown Billings, which is were I gathered much of the info on this page.

After driving out to the east end of town, just to see what was there (it’s not necessarily worth your time), I got back on Interstate 90 for the drive back into Billings.  Just as you cross the Yellowstone River, there’s a nice view of the entire downtown district, including all of the city’s “skyscrapers”.

I drove through the city, then continued west on I-90, headed for Laurel, and the turnoff to follow US 212 across Beartooth Pass.  I hadn’t made it far from Billings, when…

… the rain started pouring.  Would my trip over the pass be a washout?  Or a whiteout?  Would I be able to see any of the scenery that makes the Beartooth Highway one of the most beautiful roads in America?  There’s your tease… now, how could you not move on to the next page?

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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