Right Out Your Front Door...
by Brenda Maas
I lived along the shores of Lake Superior for eight years, but for some strange reason I never kayaked the natural sea caves just one and a half hours drive away. I’m not sure why. It seemed like I was always busy—with my job, with restoring our 1918 four-square house, with having and caring for babies. The caves weren’t going anywhere, I reasoned. But I did.
I’ve moved twice since then and still regret not taking just one afternoon out of eight years to leave my comfort zone and explore those natural wonders. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson—sometimes the best adventures are right out your front door.
Here are several destinations, within a 1-1/2 hour driving distance of Billings that you may someday regret not exploring. So, grab the kids, camera and sunscreen and head out your own front door!
Beartooth Nature Center
What: A great place to educate your kids about protecting and conserving Montana’s wildlife.
Where: 615 Second Street East in Red Lodge—about an hour from Billings, south on Highway 212.
Why Go? Each animal has a story to tell, which will easily teach your child lessons in safety and conservation that no amount of parental harping could. Animals at BNC cannot be returned to the wild because of injury or because of habituation to humans—they would not survive.
Good to Know: BNC also offers several special events throughout the year, including a kids’ educational series on “Wild Wonders” and Family Fun Days. All trails are wheel-chair and stroller accessible.
Don’t Miss: The bio book that tells each animal’s personal journey to the Center. Currently 63 animals call BNC home. Four mountain lions, two bobcats, two wolves and four black bear live at BNC—these are animals that many Montanans will never see in the wild, yet they are native to this state. And, there’s nothing like an up-close-and-personal look at the strength and grace seen in a mountain lion’s eyes.
What to bring: Questions about protection Montana’s wildlife.
How Much? $2.50/ages 5-15 and $6/adult or $55/annual family pass includes reciprocity with Zoo Montana.
For More Info: Check ahead for seasonal hours or special events at 406-446-1133 or www.beartoothnaturecenter.org
(1) Mountain Lions Lewis and Clark enjoying a beautiful Red Lodge day. Photo courtesy beartooth Nature center
Buffalo Bill Historical Center
What: Five intensive museums plus a research library all under one roof—basically a one-stop-shop.
Where: 720 Sheridan Avenue in Cody, Wyoming about 75 miles south of Billings.
Why Go? The Seasons of Discovery Center in the Draper Museum of Natural History alone could entertain a preschooler for over an hour. Try on an authentic buffalo robe (it’s heavy and hot!), identify which bone came from which animal or peer through a microscope at what lives beneath our eyesight.
Good to Know: Trying to take in everything in one day, with children, would be akin to running a marathon. Pick one area and enjoy!
Don’t Miss: The Draper Museum of Natural History, which begins at a mountain summit and descends in a spiral to the river valley and plains, features Passport Field Stations where children can get their passports stamped while working their way through the museum. Plus, ask about the BBHC Art Hunt, “Hidden in the Galleries,” which gives school-age children a concrete image to find in various museums to help direct their interest.
What to bring: Good walking shoes, your curiosity and patience
How Much? $15/adult and $10/ages 5-12 and $13/ages 13-18. However, the $45 family rate covers two parents plus children for one day, while a $60 family membership covers the family for one calendar year.
For More Info: 307-578-4032 or www.bbhc.org
(2) Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Little Bighorn Battlefield
What: The site of the June 25, 1876, battle between the General Custer’s 7th cavalry and 12,000 Lakota (Sioux), Cheyenne and Arapaho. This is one of the last areas where the Northern Plains Indians fought to preserve their way of life.
Where: About 60 miles southeast of Billings, take I-90 and exit at highway 212 ( exit 510) and follow signs.
Why Go? Try standing on the windy, prairie battlefield and imagining the intensity of such a battle. This is a pivotal piece of history that every Montanan and American should know.
Good to Know: Includes a five-mile road tour, movie of the battle and daily “Battle Talks” at the Visitor Center patio.
What to Bring: Binoculars and maybe a sketchbook & pencil or crayons—the kids could draw their own battle or landscape sketches.
Don’t Miss: The Indian Memorial—the ironic ending of “Custer’s Last Stand,” which has been commemorated in thousands of books, movies, paintings and other forms of artistic impression, is that the Native American’s lost their nomadic way of life.
How Much? $10/car or no fee with federal recreational pass
For More Info: Check ahead for seasonal hours at (406) 638-3224 or www.nps.gov/libi/
(3) Photo courtesy of National Park Service
Pictograph Caves State Park
What: The images of animals, warriors and even rifles across three caves tells stories that lasted thousands of years.
Where: Seven miles southeast of Billings, exit I-90 at Lockwood exit, then six miles south on Coburn Road
Why Go? The pictographs are more than 2,100 years old and over 30,000 artifacts, including stone tools, weapons, paintings and instruments, have been collected from the park.
Good to Know: The interpretive loop is about one-half mile long but terrain is rugged and not-wheel-chair accessible.
What to Bring: Binoculars and maybe a sketchbook & pencil—can the kids tell their own “pictograph” stories?
Don’t Miss: Have your kids visit the web site’s “education” link before or after your personal visit.
How Much? No fee for Montana residents.
For More Info: 406-245-0227, www.pictographcave.org or www.stateparks.com/pictograph_cave
(4) Photo courtesy of Pictograph Caves State Parks
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument
What: Interpretive center and glass enclosed carving of William Clark’s name and visitation date: July 25, 1806.
Where: Approximately 30 miles east of Billings, exit I-94 at Pompey’s Pillar (exit 23) and follow signs.
Why Go? Few people in our nation of 306 million can claim to have seen the only remaining physical evidence that Lewis Merriweather and William Clark travel here over 200 years ago. Long-used by Native Americans, fur trappers, military personnel, railroad workers and early settlers, the pillar is an indisputable “book” of Montana and American history.
Good to Know: The climb to Clark’s signature is 150 feet high, approximately 1,000 feet long and about 200 steps.
What to Bring: A picnic lunch—the area is adjacent to the Yellowstone River and shaded by large cottonwoods.
Don’t Miss: Kids will love trying on the re-created buckskin clothing in the interpretive center and sitting in the dug-out canoe. Also, Clark Days on July 25-26 include extra speakers, activities and demonstrations for all ages.
How Much? $7/carload or federal recreational pass
For More Info: Call ahead for seasonal hours at 406-875-2400, www.pompeyspillar.org or www.mt.blm.gov/pillarmon
(5) Photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Brenda Maas has been writing since she covered her high school sports teams for the local paper. She and her husband Brett take plenty of big a'bentures with their three young boys–just taking the whole family to the grocery store, for example.