Whenever I mention that I am from Montana, people comment on how beautiful the mountains are, how nice Glacier National Park is, or how much they love Yellowstone. The truth is that Montana is more than half plains, with the dividing line of the Rocky Mountains running through the state from north to south.
When I tell people I lived on the plains, they want to offer their condolences. But that’s not at all necessary. The terrain goes from lush riverbeds to austere, windswept plateaus, with a sandstone wall called the Rimrocks -- or Rims for short -- in between. Over the last million years, the Yellowstone River has carved its way through this sandstone, creating the nooks, crannies, and cliffsides of the Rims and a fertile valley that settlers populated.
Billings is the largest city along the Yellowstone River and is called Montana’s Trailhead, a starting point for discovery. From easy to challenging, here are nine great trails in Billings to explore.
1. Shiloh Conservation Area
The Shiloh Conservation Area on the edge of Billings, off Shiloh Road, was developed to reduce the chance of flooding and runoff of pollutants into the Yellowstone River. The 66-acre park serves to protect the river and offers walkers and bicyclists paved, ADA-accessible trails.
Placards along the trails identify the birds and wildlife you’ll see. The area is home to a number of different species, from wetland birds to raptors. Depending on the season, you may see ospreys, plovers, and red-winged blackbirds. A bald eagle often sits atop a large cottonwood tree on the north side of the park.
The trails are steps away from the parking lot. The longest loop covers 1.85 miles, with trails that cut across the wetlands making shorter but equally enjoyable walks. The park has benches and a shelter at a fishing pond stocked with rainbow trout and largemouth bass. Other than the shelter, the park has very little shade. Dogs on leashes are welcome. The park has no restrooms.
2. Lake Elmo State Park
The Lake Elmo State Park allows visitors to bike and walk in the middle of the Heights neighborhood in Billings. In addition to biking or walking, the park invites visitors to enjoy the lake by swimming, kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, or fishing -- provided you have a license. This peaceful lake does not allow motorized boating. A fenced dog park is available for dogs to romp off-leash.
The 1.4-mile paved trail is ADA accessible and circumnavigates Lake Elmo, with plenty of benches along the way for resting or people-watching. The park has several restrooms. Several parking lots allow easy access to the trails.
3. Chief Black Otter Trail In Swords Park
The Chief Black Otter Trail in Swords Park skirts the Rimrocks above Billings, providing sweeping views across the valley. The trail is named for a Crow chief who is buried in the area. Parking lots are at either end of the trail. The parking lot and trailhead at the eastern end are located near Boothill Cemetery. The parking lot at the trail’s western entrance is, unfortunately, poorly marked. The entrance is 1.3 miles east of the Billings Logan International Airport along Highway 3, and it’s marked by a sign that reads Scenic Drive.
In addition to Boothill Cemetery -- a cemetery for the residents of Coulson, the area’s original settlement -- the trail gives walkers and bicyclists views of Yellowstone Valley as it gains 465 feet in elevation at the top of Kelly Mountain. The mountain is named for Luther S. “Yellowstone” Kelly, an explorer and scout who is buried there. The interpretive site has placards and rustic seating.
The 2.8-mile path (one way) is paved but in poor condition in places. It is dog friendly and has vault toilets. There is very little shade.
4. Two Moon Park
Two Moon Park is named for a Cheyenne chief and is located off Bench Boulevard in the Heights neighborhood of Billings. Parking is steps away from the trailhead. Looped trails follow the Yellowstone River and then climb to meander through tall grass and cottonwood stands. Summer brings migratory birds, including herons, plus the chance to jump on a rope swing and into a swimming hole. The Weeping Wall Trail is a must-see, since the wall is a haven for birds in the summer and freezes into a shimmering ice curtain in the winter.
The longest loop is 5 miles, with smaller loops within to tailor your walk. The trail is easy but narrow and unpaved, suitable for walking or mountain biking. Bicyclists must yield to people walking their dogs. The trail is quite muddy in the spring. Benches and restrooms are located at the entrance.
5. John H. Dover Memorial Park
The John H. Dover Memorial Park sits along the Yellowstone River 4 miles north of Two Moon Park. An easy 2-mile loop trail begins at the parking lot. The unpaved trail has suspension bridges, varied terrain, and a few pieces of old farm equipment that make for interesting photographs. The farm machinery dates to the homesteading days of the Dover family. The area is also good for bird-watching, and you may see deer and antelope.
The entrance has benches, picnic tables, and restrooms. A planned park expansion will include a dog park, but currently, dogs are not allowed in the park. It’s best visited between May and October.
6. Norm Schoenthal Island
The Norm Schoenthal Island is my favorite river park in Billings. A footbridge from the parking lot leads to the park’s longest trail, an unpaved 1.7-mile loop. Marked trails with mileage give walkers and bicyclists shorter options. With its abundant waterfowl, the island is ideal for bird-watching. Herons and egrets spend summers on the island, while bald eagles stay year-round. Deer, moose, and black bears wander through. Cottonwood and aspen trees make for a beautiful autumn stroll.
Benches are strategically placed at the most scenic spots overlooking the Yellowstone River. From them, you’ll also see swans and pelicans in the early summer. You can walk dogs off leash. The portable restroom in the parking lot is the only restroom in the park.
Pro Tip: The Montana Audubon Center is adjacent to the island and has short trails that highlight area birds.
7. Four Dances Recreation Area
Off Coburn Road on a plateau several hundred feet above the river, the Four Dances Recreation Area overlooks both the Yellowstone River and Billings. Unpaved trails begin at the parking lot. A 0.5-mile road leads to a cabin where author and artist Will James lived during the early 1930s. Halfway to the cabin, a bench affords panoramic views.
Another trail, beginning at the parking lot, is a moderately difficult, unpaved 2.6-mile loop that begins on a plateau full of fragrant sagebrush, drops 590 feet to the river, and climbs steeply through a stand of ponderosa pines back to the parking lot. Dogs on leashes are welcome, but bicycles are not. Restrooms are located in the parking lot.
8. Zimmerman Park
The Zimmerman Park Mountain Bike Trail is the highest-ranked mountain bike trail in Billings. It’s also popular with hikers and dog walkers. The trailhead begins at the parking lot off Highway 3, 5 miles west of the Chief Black Otter Trail. The beauty of this trail lies in the otherworldly sandstone formations and views of the mountain ranges to the south and west -- the snow-capped Absaroka-Beartooth, Bighorn, and Pryor Mountains.
This is a 3.2-mile, unpaved trail with 365 feet of elevation change. There are plenty of opportunities for off-trail climbing and scrambling up and down boulders to find the perfect spot to view the sunset. The park is dog friendly. However, it does not have benches or restrooms.
9. Phipps Park
Located on the west side of Billings, the sign for Phipps Park is easy to miss. Driving west on Molt Road, the parking lot entrance is just after the first railroad bridge. The trailhead begins at the parking lot.
The first mile of the 2.5-mile main loop trail is challenging, with a steep grade up 430 feet to the top of the Rims. Once on top, you’re rewarded with views across the valley to the same majestic mountains you could see from Zimmerman Park. Seeing the sunset from the plateau is worth every strained muscle and drop of sweat.
This hiking trail is also geared toward mountain biking. The park can be busy with disc golfers and off-leash dogs. For that reason, the loop trail on top of the Rims is unofficially one way, counterclockwise.
The trail is listed as moderate but feels strenuous to me. There are no benches or restrooms in the park.
What To Know Before You Go
The Spoke Shop rents mountain bikes if you’re visiting the area and didn’t bring your bike.
Wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water. Norm Schoenthal Island is the only trail with lots of shade. Use mosquito repellent for trails along the river.
Watch for rattlesnakes on trails along the Rimrocks. If you plan to walk your dog on these trails, ask your veterinarian about a rattlesnake bite vaccine.
Looking for other great Montana hikes? Find them here.