50 Hikes 50 States Project–Montana
It was hot. Denver’s summer had set in with record-breaking highs, and we wanted another reprieve from the heat. Thinking that a trip north would help, we routed out our next two states to the north, Montana and Wyoming, where we thought the temps might be lower.
They weren’t. But it was fun to get out of the plane and into a road trip of about 1200 miles. Lucky for us, we had a brand new Tesla to break in, and a road trip was the perfect way to do it.
The Story of Gregg Shorthand
We headed north out of Denver and learned quickly that driving a Tesla and planning logistics is an entirely different way to plan a trip. (See post.) I decided we’d go all the way to Montana first, driving through Wyoming on the way, hike Montana, then work our way back to Denver with a hike in Wyoming on the way back.
Thus, we settled in for 5 hours the first day and 5 the next of highway driving to arrive at Billings. On the way, we stopped in Casper for the night. The next morning, in order to break up all the driving, we asked our daughter if there was anything she wanted to do on the trip. She had recently gotten interested in vintage and antique shops, so we had a late breakfast at the amazing Eggington‘s (where I got a lovely Greek frittata and focaccia biscuit) and stopped in a local antique shop.
A few months before this trip, my daughter and I had enjoyed a discussion about Gregg shorthand. She couldn’t believe there was a “language” for taking notes and that generations of mostly women had taken shorthand classes in high school. My mother actually had taught shorthand. My sister, two grades older than me, was the last class of shorthand at her high school. I still remember my mom’s Steno pads filled with shorthand and my sister struggling to master it.
At the antique shop, I found an old Gregg Shorthand Primer, published in 1916. I showed it to my daughter; she was fascinated. I plunked down the $4, and the next three hours in the car was all about shorthand. She read the introduction out loud in the car which discussed the history of the art and the international competitions for shorthand experts. This sparked quite a conversation about transcription, male/female roles in the workplace, and communication.
Finally we rolled into Billings.
Two Days in Billings, Montana
Billings sits along the Yellowstone River between two bluffs. Along its banks, we found railroads and their histories, refineries, and a darling town with a small university presence.
Our AirBnB sat just a few blocks from downtown. Wanting to stretch our legs, we wandered into town and stumbled upon a First Friday Art Walk through Billing’s galleries and a few vintage shops (go to Montana Vintage!) We laughed our way through vintage dresses and admired bison art while sipping wine and nibbling cheese.
The next morning we set the GPS to our hike. Bad planning and not paying attention to details, the GPS told us our hike at Mystic Lake was another two hours outside of Billings and two hours back. We simply didn’t have the stamina to drive another 4 hours more than what we had already done, and we quickly did some googling to find another hike.
Hiking Four Dances Trail
Lucky for us, a great hike with bluff views begged us to come explore just a few miles outside of Billings. We pointed the Tesla to the Four Dances trailhead and were on our way for a quick twenty-minute drive to hike “the Rims.” The location was originally a sacred site of the Crow tribe, and Four Dances, its chief, had a vision quest at this location.
Down a short dirt road, we arrived at the BLM’s Four Dances Recreation Area. The parking lot’s compost toilet was well cleaned and maintained by the local host, Lyn. He’d been there for ten years and couldn’t wait to talk with us. I told him about our 50 Hikes 50 States Project, and his eyes sparkled. He had gifts for us to share with others as we traveled the country; 50-year anniversary hat pins and stickers of the national trail system! What a treat!
With Lyn’s local knowledge, we set out.
Under 85 degrees, we hiked up a gravel path to the fork that beckoned us to the river. Up and over a sage and juniper brush trail, we began a descent through juniper on a shale and soil path that took us down into the bluff, which had risen from the Western Interior Seaway over 80 million years ago. At times the trail was steep, requiring some slow stepping with sure feet. Benches along the way offered nice breaks in shade. We continued along down the poorly maintained trail into the woods, arriving to the river.
At one point along the down path, I stopped and wondered if I should really continue on the rocky grade. I wished I had my poles with me.
The Yellowstone River is a main tributary of the Missouri River and drains the Yellowstone watershed. It runs through Yellowstone National Park and was the closest we’d get to Yellowstone National Park on this trip. Being a Saturday in the summer, we simply wanted to enjoy Montana and Wyoming without visiting Yellowstone National park on this trip, even though I know some of the secrets to avoiding crowds at Yellowstone National Park.
After dipping our toes in the river, we hiked back up the trail from whence we came for a total of about 1.5 miles round trip, and continued up the hill to the top of the bluff. We hoped to see a variety of wild visitors passing through, including deer, bears, foxes, moose, waterfowl and peregrine falcons that nest in the cliffs. We didn’t.
Finally, Some Great Views!
As we climbed to the top of the rim, views popped up of the Sawtooth Mountains all they way to Idaho. The Yellowstone River snaked through our view, with Billings blowing up the beauty by billowing refinery gunk. We ignored Billings.
Along the edge of the bluff, we hiked a loop taking us to the rim and dropping just below it to sit on jutting infinity ledges. My Instagram account couldn’t have been happier. I scrambled to the ledge edge while my height-fearing husband politely stayed closer inland and took pictures. I couldn’t resist taking a short video of him trying to navigate the down while overlooking the edge. For someone with a fear of heights, this jaunt to the edge might be a bit much.
Sadly, after climbing out of the river, my daughter’s knee injury kicked up and she had decided to hang in the shade. Thus, she missed the ledge and would have loved it.
Into the open sage, yucca and juniper trail we walked, with the heat beating a warm 90 degrees. Back at the car after about 4 miles of hiking, we found that Lyn had left additional stickers. He came over to say his good byes and recommended we should go to the nearby Pictograph Cave State Park just a few miles away.
Pictographs in Caves
It was only about 10 am, so the state park seemed like a good idea. Five minutes later, we arrived. An admission fee of $6 got us into all of Montana’s State Parks for the day. The parking lot swarmed with locals out with families. Finding the concrete path to the pictographs, we sauntered up the path to the first piece of Native American art. Tough to see, but with good interpretative signs, we took a break in the shade and then continued along the trail. The 1-mile path stopped at 4-5 spots.
Although we enjoyed the park, the pictographs’ light presence was unimpressive and hard to see even though the park did its best to tell the historical and cultural story.
Lunch beckoned. Charging the Tesla also beckoned. Lucky for us, we found a supercharger in Billings that sat next to a water park. The thought of jumping in some slides and splashing coolness sparked our energy: unfortunately we arrived at the water park to find it was inside and catered to smaller kids. Disappointed, we grabbed some lunch at the Montana Club while the car charged.
Billings or Bust?
We completed our two-day stay in Billings. Sadly, the hike, although enjoyable, was not a hike I’d recommend going out of your way. If you’re in Billings, absolutely, enjoy a quick jaunt to a fun view. But I wouldn’t recommend a 10-hour drive to do this hike. After all, Billings is in the shadow of Yellowstone National Park, where you’ll find some of the world’s best hiking.
The next day, we journeyed our way to our Wyoming hike, which might be my favorite hike so far on this 50 Hikes 50 States Project.
What to Know about this Hike (click for interactive map)