We've traveled enough, at this point, that I'm pretty comfortable declaring this place the BEST small town in Montana. We've gone through via airplane, multiple road trips, and lots of hiking and fishing expeditions.
Driving into Red Lodge initially felt like visiting my childhood home – an island across from Seattle that serves as a wildly popular tourist destination four months out of the year. At first glance, I expected this small town in Montana to be similar: obviously driven by its wildly-popular summer music festival, epic rodeo and pig racing which brings hordes into the area from May through September.
We dug a little deeper, though, parking our RV on the outskirts of town and really taking our time to immerse ourselves in the region during winter. I noticed lots of “NOs” on the hotel vacancy signs. Tons of people on the snowy slopes. A steady flow of folks browsing the shops (thankfully keeping a kind distance) and a considerable line at restaurants that were totally worth the wait.
Red Lodge, Montana is a 60-mile drive from Billings, Montana or Cody, Wyoming – making it an easy getaway from those popular spots. It also serves as the gateway to Beartooth Highway, which is said to be the most beautiful roadway in America. We'll definitely be back to explore it when it opens back up for the summer season! Beartooth Highway also acts as the road to the Northeast Entrance Station for Yellowstone National Park, making this the very best approach to that epic geological wonder.
It's inevitable, I suppose, that people discover such incredible spots and start to explore them year-round. With the world going increasingly-digital and steadily flocking inward from the pricey coasts, small towns such as this are experiencing a surge. A surge that – frankly – I think I was simply oblivious to until recently. For a long time I fancied myself some sort of unique road warrior, uncovering hidden gems. Suddenly (or in a way that simply feels sudden to me) that isn't the case.
That national movement has MASSIVE upsides, though. In the case of Red Lodge, there are well-established businesses with incredible offerings and unparalleled customer service. Fun events are supported by a solid community that's not going anywhere anytime soon. We didn't encounter the scrappy, hit-or-miss, “not convinced that they want outsiders here” vibe that we so often find in small towns in Montana. Instead, there's a polished-yet-comfortable, welcoming, collective host that makes visitors eager to go back time and time again.
What to See in the Best Small Town in Montana
Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary
Our family has been to a LOT of wildlife sanctuaries, and this one ranks up at the top for two reasons. First, their rescue-focused approach is refreshing. Second, their animals are truly unique and fascinating. The opportunity to see their small cats up-close and to learn the stories of the other inhabitants was thoroughly engaging to our entire family. Third, our guide was just the coolest dude you could ever meet: he authored the Who Pooped in the Park series which is a MUST-READ for adventurer kids like ours.
Season and hours vary based on time of year and… uh… state of the world. As with any attraction nowadays, check on their website or call directly before you show up.
Carbon County Museum
After learning about Red Lodge's unique positioning and relationship with Yellowstone at-large, the Carbon County Museum hammers local history home. By the time we'd finished walking through the displays, I felt like I truly knew this area's early inhabitants. A visual feast here showcases a bygone era with hands-on pioneer experiences and detail-rich tales of the first families in the region.
Downstairs, our kids loved the chance to play miner with larger-than-life replicas. Nate and I were thoroughly sobered by the story of the mine accident that nearly decimated the entire population of the town and threatened to wipe the place off the map altogether. I could go on, but I'd rather leave some details for you to discover on your own.
Shopping in Red Lodge
This is where I get downright giddy! Shops galore! If you're the type who loves to wander up-and-down a main street, ducking in and out of art displays, handmade gifts for sale, antiques and travel tchotchkes, this is the spot for you. Don't miss the picnic-ready charcuterie selections at Babcock & Miles, the adorable old-timey candy baskets at Montana Candy Emporium, and you can also grab a fun souvenir in the form of an antique pick, a custom metal creation, or amazing artwork. Sky's the limit with shopping here.
Lions Club Park
This is where the entire community gathers to play at the playground, shoot some hoops, toss horseshoes or a volleyball and – during the winter months – ice skate! There's a large rink that's often hopping with hockey players, and a smaller rink that offers stability racks for tots. My boys didn't have skates, but they still had a blast scooting along in their snow shoes.
Ski Red Lodge Mountain
You won't find snobby skiers or lengthy lift lines here – just fresh powder and an easy-breezy slope experience. They have some advanced treks for folks who are more experienced with snow sports, but our young family really enjoyed the laid-back, uncrowded vibe. The convenience of adventures like this – which are so location-dependent and tend to be quickly capitalized on – is a rare draw that makes this one of the best small towns in Montana.
Wild Bill Lake
The little loop around this lake is perfect all-year-round for families who want to stretch their legs without venturing too far into the unknown. It's stocked with rainbow and brook trout, so pack your Velveeta and a pole if you're in the mood to catch lunch when the lake isn't frozen over.
Beartooth Scenic Byway
We already covered this a bit in the intro, but it's worth calling out again. This jaw-dropping wonder isn't open year-round: season depends on weather, so check before you embark on the lengthy drive. Other seasonal activities both along the byway and in-town include tons of hikes, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, flyfishing and more.
What to Eat in Red Lodge, Montana
Marli's restaurant is located in the beautiful Pollard hotel, which is a sight in itself. A lot of times the restaurants in such scenic spots feel like something of an afterthought, but not here. Craft cocktails and decadent desserts are served alongside artfully-arranged cheese boards and steaks cooked to perfection. The vibe is trendy-upscale, but the prices are absolutely reasonable for date night.
Classic Mexican-American dishes are served up with mega-sized margaritas in an environment that's comfortable and casual. We landed here on a Friday night and quickly came to realize that this is the spot where the entire town comes to see and be seen. The familiar camaraderie was as welcome as the chips and salsa after a long, busy, hunger-inducing day.
While Bogart's is the must-try spot for a Friday or Saturday kickback, Mas Taco is the place you swing into mid-day when you've got a taco craving that demands counter service, STAT! We each tried five different tacos (served street style, on fresh corn tortillas) and our entire group agreed that al pastor was some of the best we've had. High praise, coming from a former San Diego family!
Other good options include Natalis – which features an awesomely-cozy outside patio warmed with upper heaters, Red Lodge Pizza, Cafe Regis for breakfast, Prindy's for dinner and The Wild Table. We spent several days in Red Lodge and ate so much and honestly could have still kept on exploring for a solid week. Next trip, I want to try Prerogative Kitchen, which donates to local nonprofits and serves from a regional-based, rotating chalkboard menu.
Visitors' Center Tips
Also worth noting before we sign off, this is one town where it totally pays off to drop into the visitor center. They have tons and tons of informative information, with pamphlets available in the entryway mudroom that's open 24/7. In front of the visitor center, you can also see the cabin of John “Liver-Eating” Johnston. While his cannibal persona may have been a farce, he was still a pretty interesting person – who also happened to serve as Red Lodge's first constable!
Got any other tips for touring the area? Do you agree with us that Red Lodge is the best small town in Montana?