A Ride of Passage: The Red Lodge Experience

July 2020 | photos and article by holly netz

The weather is a balmy 78 degrees, with the sunroof open and my bare feet on the dashboard, my husband and I crank some classic ‘90s country music and speed up the two-lane highway to the town of Red Lodge -- and the base of the Beartooth Mountains. Although “speed” might be overstating things as little communities dot the highway along the way, dictating sporadic drops in the speed limit to 25 or 35. With such beauty surrounding us, I find it hard to keep track when those drops happen, as the stunning views command my attention. I've always called this the "shimmer season." Everything has burst into a lush green, and the wide-open spaces allow the sun to bring an almost golden shimmer to everything surrounding us.  

The "Red Lodge Summer Trip" is a rite (or ride, rather) of passage for residents of Billings and the surrounding areas. Though tourists flock to the small community by the thousands, the town seems to absorb them quietly, retaining its quaintness and authenticity. Red Lodge marks the starting point for a beautiful trip across the Beartooth Range via hairpin turns, and gorgeous drop-offs. The highest point of the drive reaches a breathtaking 10,900 ft. As you ascend the mountain and cross to the Wyoming side, you spot the must-see Beartooth Pass Lookout Point and the "Top of the World Store." No, they do not have wi-fi (do NOT ask!), and the restrooms are campground-style, but if you don't stop, you are missing out. The end of the pass delivers you to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park and Cooke City. It's hard to believe as you enter the park that you will see more beautiful landscapes than you passed arriving there. 

Red Lodge is a town that, years ago, was known for having a saloon on every corner. While there remains no shortage of authentic saloons, many art galleries, gift shops with works by local artisans, and amazing restaurants have popped up and make for a wonderful afternoon of strolling the small-town sidewalks. The candy store, Montana Candy Emporium, is a well-known must-stop, and the whole town seems to envelop you with friendliness and a Montana spirit.  

Beyond being a tourist town, Red Lodge is the source of endless summertime outdoor adventures. Some of the most beautiful camping spots in the state lie at the base of the Beartooths. Hiking trails are copious, and even with so many people in the area, you can still feel alone and one with nature. Families drive up for the day just to fish or picnic. Overnight backpacking opportunities are unmatched, and many families rent cabins for weekends or an entire week as a getaway. 

Rodeo has a strong legacy in the town as well. Even if you aren't a "rodeo person," you'll want to go to at least one in your life, and the "Home of Champions" rodeo is the one to experience. First started in 1929 by a group of local riders, the area is home to generations of famed riders. The old wooden grandstands were erected soon after the onset, and remain intact, giving the grounds a real sense of authenticity. Traditionally held over July 2-4, the 91st Home of the Champions Rodeo has been rescheduled to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

So after a long summer day, we find ourselves satiated with great food, genuine conversation with locals, candy, small treasures found in the shops, oh— and gorgeous scenery—we sadly decide it’s time to call it a day. We head back to Billings as the sun begins its journey towards the horizon. Thanks Red Lodge...until we meet again! 

10 places Not to Miss on Your Red Lodge "Ride" of Passage

by Stephanie Toews 

  1. Wild Bill Lake- A great place for budding fishermen and families. Take the leisurely .5-mile loop around the lake that is stocked with rainbow trout multiple times a year, offers picnic areas, and ample parking.  
  2. Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary- The perfect spot to get up close and personal with native, non-releasable animals. Guided tours are available, check out yellowstonewildlifesanctuary.org for the most up-to-date information, hours, and regulations. 615 2nd Street East, yellowstonewildlifesanctuary.org 
  3. Carbon County Historical Society and Museum- Established in 1959 by Alice Greenough to house the collection of her world-renowned rodeo family. The museum houses the Greenough and Linderman collections, the Waples family gun and projectile point collection, an interactive coal and hard rock mine exhibit, the Carbon County archives, and more. 224 North Broadway, Carboncountyhistory.com 
  4. Sam’s Tap Room & Kitchen- Attached to the Red Lodge Ales Brewing Co., you’ll find a relaxing place to enjoy a pint on the patio and grab a bite to eat in the casual atmosphere. 1445 Broadway Ave N , redlodgeales.com 
  5. Red Lodge Antique Mall & Gun Room- Take a step back in time with a nostalgic shopping experience. Featuring antique dealers from Montana and Wyoming, and a gun room filled with over 100 military and western firearms, there’s something for every traveler's taste. 101 Broadway Ave S . Redlodgeantiquemall.com 
  6. Heist Art + Sundries- This eclectic shop is filled with local, regional, and national contemporary art. A must-stop shop on your Broadway stroll, you’re sure to find unique gifts and souvenirs in the historic Bank of Red Lodge building across the street from the Pollard Hotel- 1 North Broadway Ave, find them on Facebook or Instagram. 
  7. The historic Roman Theater- First opened in 1917, it has operated continuously as a movie theater ever since. Check out their website for the current showings and show times. 120 Broadway Ave S, romantheater100.com 
  8. Bear Creek Pig Races- Located just 7 miles East of Red Lodge on Highway 308, the Pig Races run June 4th through Labor Day, Thursday-Sunday. Call 406.446.3481 for reservations to dine at the Saloon before placing bets on which pig will go hog wild. Fun for the whole family! Redlodge.com/bearcreek 
  9. The historic Pollard Hotel- Red Lodge’s first brick building, built in 1893 (formerly the Stafford Hotel) was constructed between the train passenger depot and the booming town. Each guestroom is uniquely designed with vintage handcrafted furnishings for the perfect place to lay your head after a day of exploring beautiful Red Lodge, Montana. Not to forget the Dining Room at the Pollard and Pub at the Pollard for delicious breakfast, lunch, and dinner eats in a beautiful setting. 2 Broadway Ave N, 406.446.0001, thepollardhotel.com
  10. Montana Candy Emporium- Everyone will feel like a kid in a candy store at this nostalgic shop. Saltwater taffy in barrels sold by the pound, homemade fudge and chocolates, and vintage looking signs and gifts make this one of our top ten. 7 Broadway Ave S 

Originally printed in the July 2020 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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