Sway from side to side as your horse trots on toward the seemingly endless horizon in front of you. Below the ground, pictograph caves with art from 2,000 years ago await your exploration.
A trail ride past sweeping vistas combined with ancient cave drawings seems like an extraordinary day’s itinerary, yet this wealth of outdoor wonders is common in Billings, Montana, and its surrounding area. Known as Montana’s Trailhead, Billings lies three hours from Yellowstone and right next door to a utopia of outdoor adventure.
“A lot of people use Billings as a base of adventures,” said Andy Austin, public relations manager for Visit Billings. “We have a lot of amenities with our breweries, shopping and dining.”
From Billings, your group can choose its own adventure, whether it’s horseback riding, cruising on a pontoon boat through a canyon, hiking near historic sites or embracing the thrill of a jeep tour in Big Sky Country.
Bitter Creek Outfitters
To experience the western United States the way John Wayne would have wanted, you should see Montana’s vistas from atop a horse. Bitter Creek Outfitters, 10 minutes outside of Billings, offers this opportunity for horse-riding newbies who want just a taste of the Wild West experience.
Visitors first meet their horses to become acquainted, then get a short introduction to trail riding from guides. Then groups clamber up and head out at a leisurely pace across the outfitter’s 7,000-acre working cattle ranch.
Along the way, riders will view Montana’s Yellowstone Valley with the area’s distinctive rocky formations, ponderosa pines and fields of wildflowers. Guides will point out five different mountain ranges, as well as local history, fauna and wildlife such as mule deer and wild turkeys.
The route also crosses over Pictograph Cave State Park, which runs partially beneath the ranch.
“The horseback-riding trails run on top of the caves,” said Austin. “It gives people an interesting perspective on the caves. Your group can do a ride and then explore the caves from down below with one of the rangers.”
Prehistoric hunters lived in the park’s caves, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Tours explain the significance of animal and warrior images, as well as many artifacts excavated from the site.
Bighorn Canyon Boat Rides
Hidden Treasures Charters
Looking up at the colorful stone walls, you can see a visual record of the ancient history of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The area is best explored by boat along the canyon’s lake, and groups can book a cruise onboard Hidden Treasure Charters’ narrated canyon tours.
These scenic boat tours travel 16 miles into Devil’s Canyon, which is up to 1,000 feet deep in some places. Guests will learn about the geological history and wildlife of this lesser-known park on the narrated tour while enjoying the magnificent views all around.
“Bighorn Canyon is one of my personal favorite places,” said Austin. “It’s amazingly beautiful. It’s a 71-mile-long canyon that comes out of nowhere.”
Groups can also opt for the more laid back two-hour Sunset Cruise from Hidden Treasures Charters, with heavy appetizers and colorful skies to match the canyon. Bighorn Canyon’s lake also attracts fishing enthusiasts, which is why the operator also offers fishing charters.
After your float, your group should explore some of the remaining 120,000 acres of the park, including any of the 27 miles of trails. During the summer, rangers lead tours to some of the park’s historic ranches preserved from original settlers’ early attempts at making a living on the open range.
Groups should also stay vigilant for sightings of bear, bighorn sheep and one of the largest herds of wild horses in the country.