At an elevation of 5,555′, Red Lodge is set against some of Montana’s highest mountain peaks. According to tradition, a band of Crow Indians left the main triage and moved west into the foothills of the Beartooth Range many years ago. They painted their council tepee with red-clay, and this old-time artistry resulted in the name Red Lodge.
Although it’s a destination town as well as a home base for lots year-round activities, Red Lodge retains a laid back atmosphere, and we really liked that. It’s also a gateway to Yellowstone National Park by way of beautiful Beartooth Scenic Highway, which we had driven just a few days previously. It’s a quaint historic western town with a bustling main street surrounded by unspoiled beauty.
We always try to patronize small town businesses. Here we bought scones at Wild Table and beer at Red Lodge Ales Brewing Co. (although we weren’t crazy about their beers), grabbed a few things at the natural foods store and got some hiking items at another small shop.
We learned that our friends Dave and Faye were not too far from Red Lodge, and we were happy to meet up with them for beer and pizza, and lots of exciting discussion about their upcoming Canada/Alaska adventure. We’re so envious!
We had fickle weather while here, thunderstorms and hail several afternoons and a storm that shut down the Beartooth Scenic Byway for a couple of days. Fortunately we had already completed that drive.
On one of those bad weather afternoons, a wind microburst shook Betsy as we heard large tree branches breaking all around us. Betsy got some scratches on one side, but we felt very fortunate one of those large branches didn’t fall on the roof and cause major damage.
Several of our neighbors came over and we all pitched in to cut up the branches with chain saws and move them into large piles. It was really a mess that took park personnel a couple of days to clean up.
Our favorite entertainment here involved cute little piglets seven miles south of Red Lodge. For one evening we became small-time gamblers, doling out $10 to bet on “racing” pigs. Turns out the Bear Creek Saloon hosts these races, and also serves one of the best steak dinners we’ve had in quite a while. After “pigging out” ourselves, we were excited to learn more about the races.
We learned that after a lengthy legal battle their Pig Racing was eventually made legal in House Bill 433 in 1993. We’re glad, because we had a blast and got a lot of laughs – although our little piggy didn’t win. The races are dubbed Bear Creek Downs, with proceeds funding local scholarships. Good stuff, and be sure not to miss this attraction if it’s happening when you’re here.
The piglets are all between 5–6 weeks old and are “retired” at 10–12 weeks old. They’re well-fed and taken care of, and they actually seem to enjoy the race and the attention of everyone urging them on.
Next we were culturally entertained. We learned about a recently-opened music and art center founded by philanthropists and artists Cathy and Peter Halstead. We’re not art exhibit types, but the location was intriguing and the price was right – FREE! So we drove 40 miles on beautiful Hwy 78, which was by itself worth the trip.
The Tippet Rise Art Center is set on 11,500 acres, containing a working cattle and sheep ranch. With the Beartooth Mountains rising from the west and golden prairies all around, it’s a nice backdrop for the unusual exhibits here.
Since the artwork is distributed throughout the vast and hilly landscape, the guided van tour took over 2 hours to complete. Although we didn’t “get” the meaning of most of the exhibits, we enjoyed learning how they were created and constructed.
Our guide imparted that just as sculpture and architecture are designed to provoke surprisingly intimate connections with a vast terrain, the simplicity and small scale of the Olivier Barn’s music hall is designed to enfold listeners in the vastness of the musical encounter. Whatever…
We were packed into very small vans for the tour, and it was difficult getting in and out of them repeatedly. I realize it was FREE, but just saying that it might be better to pay a few bucks and get more comfortable transportation with some kind of PA so we could actually hear the driver.
And finally, hitting the trails – yeah!
Having been off the hiking trails for a month per doctors orders, I finally eased back into some treks here. There are many trails near Red Lodge and along the Beartooth Scenic Highway, and for our first outing we chose Parkside Recreational Trail, an easy 3.8-mile gentle and mostly open terrain hike that led us to Greenough Lake.
Since I didn’t feel any pain after that easy jaunt, we went out for a longer trek on the Lake Fort Trail. We followed it along the creek on a moderate uphill grade in the forest. Since this was an out and back trail we turned around after 3 miles and stopped for lunch along the creek.
While heading back to the car I heard a loud noise and turned to find a young American Dipper demanding food from its hardworking mama. It was fascinating to watch mama bird bobbing up and down the creek, getting food and stuffing it into the noisy young one’s mouth. It made my day!
Our last hike here was on the Face of the Mountain Trail. At 5.6 miles it was a little shorter than the previous day’s hike, but more difficult with a 1,700′ elevation gain all the way up.
After driving a 3-mile dirt road that was chewed up badly in some spots (our trusty CRV pulled through again), we came to the trailhead on the right.
The first 1.25 miles of the ascent passed through private land consisting of sagebrush, but we were already beginning to get some nice views on the way up.
The remainder of the hike was on public lands through a mix of sagebrush and forested sections.
We really enjoyed the views of Red Lodge and beyond from atop the ridge on this cloudy but beautiful day. Although the trail continued through the forest and up the mountain for several more miles, we completed our goal of reaching the ridge and started back. It was a good moderate hike, and the views from the top were worth the effort.
The meadows and hillsides were adorned with all kinds of vibrant wildflowers set against thick sage brush.
There were many more trails to explore, but it was time to move on.
Next Up: Great Falls, Montana