For many people, a trip to Yellowstone National Park is a dream vacation. That is, until continuing rains and glacier melt combine to cause the most flooding that the area has seen in 500 years. So what do you do when your plans are washed away?
A lot of travelers are facing that question this year, and the good news is that Montana is a massive state with much to offer, even if its more popular destinations are closed or only open for limited use. Southeastern Montana, for example, not only has incredible landmarks including pictograph caves, the site of Custer’s Last Stand, and a canyon that you can boat through, but also a burger trail that provides numerous opportunities for visitors to chow down on some of the best sandwiches in a state renowned for its beef.
One of the most important things to note before taking on the Burger Trail—Southeast Montana, is that you’ll need to travel a ways between sites. You’re going to need to rent a car or bring your own vehicle unless you plan to stay in a more urban area, like Billings. The burger trail itself, with 24 stops, is more than 1,000 miles long; not quite walkable, though you might consider walking as a weight-loss option once you’ve overindulged in a few of these decadent dishes.
Over the course of four days, I hit a number of spots, including The Burger Dive in Billings, where I had one of the best burgers in my life. Their Juicy Lucy burger features molten American cheese buried inside the burger and is classic burger lover’s dream. The restaurant also boasts two World Food Championship burgers: the I’m Your Huckleberry Burger, covered with Huckleberry Hatch chili barbecue sauce, bacon, goat cheese and more, and the Date with Jim Beam and Coke Burger, featuring bourbon date and coke barbecue sauce, and smoked gouda and roasted garlic, among other unique toppings.
Other memorable meals include the Fried Green Tomato and Bacon Burger drizzled with a balsamic glaze at Roy Rodgers in Terry, MT, and the Broken Knuckle Burger at The Joseph in Forsyth, MT. Just a note of caution on this patty slathered with jalapeno cream cheese—your definition of ‘spicy’ may be quite different than that of a Montana local. I’m still cooling off.
There is a passport that you can follow, though as of yet, there are no prizes for eating at every place.
“People ask me what they get for completing the Burger Trail, and I tell them that they get fat!” laughed Kathy Galland, who owns the Prairie Unique Store in Terry, MT, along with her husband, Dale.
What makes the trail truly special is that it takes you to many of southeastern Montana’s smaller towns, where you’ll not only find food but make friends. Pretty much every place we visited, residents and business owners rolled out the red carpet, and were more than willing to chat about the area and all it had to offer. Dale Galland, for example, shared the story of how he and his wife started the boutique that carries made-in-Montana products, including everything from handmade soap to model airplanes. And they won’t let you leave without a piece of taffy in one hand and some homemade granola in the other.
The owners of the Kempton Hotel—the oldest continually operating hotel in the state—were kind enough to give us a tour of the inn built in 1902. Opened for 43,836 days at the time of this article (check the website for updates) the hotel includes hundreds of pieces of artwork, as well as a secret library behind a guestroom door.
You can’t take a trip to Montana without taking in the glory of its landscapes, either. As you travel around the state, it’s surprising to see just how much its features change, from rolling hills to desert-like badlands to a deep limestone canyon surrounding a stunning blue lake. A hike at Makoshika State Park, Montana’s largest state park at 11,563 acres, for example, provides views of outcroppings formed between 400 and 500 million years ago and the chance to explore an area known for its dinosaur fossils. Make sure to stop into the visitors’ center to check out the head of a young triceratops, which was unearthed in the park in 1990.
Speaking of rock formations, a visit to Pictograph Cave State Park outside Billings is a must if you’re curious about how prehistoric hunters lived years ago. While many of the images have faded due to time and erosion, it’s fascinating to hike up to the caves and see rock paintings made more than 2,000 years ago.
A different way to enjoy stunning views is from the water on a Bighorn River Tour with Shade Tree Outfitters. Based out of Fort Smith, MT, owners Tyler and Katie Steele love to show off Bighorn Lake—a place where you feel really small looking up at the coral and beige walls towering some 900 feet above you.
History buffs will also find a wealth of things to do in southeast Montana, from touring the Little Bighorn Battlefield, where Custer made his last stand, to the Range Riders Museum in Miles City, MT, which is treasure trove of items celebrating southeastern Montana’s history. And for art lovers, there’s The Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings as well as the truly unique Waterworks Art Museum in Miles City, where the venue—a water plant that served the city for more than 60 years—is as intriguing as the art on its walls.
There are many places to stay on a visit, from chain hotels to locally owned properties like the Miles City Hotel & Suites to the Northern Hotel, known for its historic luxury. You can also treat yourself to a stay in a private cabin at Big Horn Valley Ranch, where you can learn (or practice) fly-fishing year-round in the on-site pond. Stocked with carp and rainbow trout, and pond offers stunning panoramic views of the nearby Big Horn and Pryor mountains.
While the hope is that Yellowstone Park will be able to fully reopen in the not-too-distant future, there are so many other reasons to visit Montana, other than its most famous site. To learn about more exciting things to do in southeast Montana, check out www.visitmt.com.
And read about all of the indulgent burger options at https://southeastmontana.com/burgertrail.