Red Lodge is a small city located in south, central Montana with a population of approximately 2,200. It was established in the late 1800’s and relied on coal mining until the Great Depression. Upon many mines closing, residents turned to bootlegging, selling its “syrup” as far away as San Francisco and Chicago.
The city was linked to Yellowstone National Park after the Beartooth Highway opened in 1936. This access to the park coupled with the largest coal mining disaster in Montana in 1943, steered the Red Lodge economy toward the outdoors and tourism.
Over time, it’s lovely downtown has been redeveloped, and the red brick buildings donning American flags feature a variety of boutiques, restaurants and hotels. Despite the recent Yellowstone floods which heavily affected the area, Red Lodge is a great little city to visit with many things to do.
Things to Do in Red Lodge
Make first stop in Red Lodge at the Visitor’s Center, located on the north edge of town. There are always useful flyers and they can suggest good locals restaurants and other information.
Where to Eat in Red Lodge
According to the Visitors Center, locals enjoy at beer at Natali’s Front Bar and eat breakfast at Café Regis. Café Regis is off the beaten path, thus out of the way of throngs of tourists. Café Regis serves breakfast and lunch, with breakfast available all day until it closes at 2pm. The omelets don’t disappoint.
Red Lodge includes some very nice restaurants for dinner too! You can’t go wrong with the bacon wrapped dates from Black Canyon Bistro. PREROGATIvE KITCHEN and Piccola Cucina Ox Pasture are also popular choices. Piccola Cucina specializes in Sicilian cuisine and has three locations in New York and one in Spain! Marli’s, int he famous Pollard Hotel also ranks as a favorite.
Where to Stay in Red Lodge
The Pollard Hotel, formerly known as the Spofford Hotel, was Red Lodge’s first brick building, constructed in 1893 for $20,000.
When Thomas Pollard purchased the hotel in 1902, he added on 25 guest rooms, an ornate lobby, a bar with card and billiard tables, and even a bowling alley. Up until World War I and the Great Depression, the Pollard offered a free midnight lunch served on a silver platter.
Many famous people frequented the Pollard including the copper kings, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill, and Liver Eatin’ Johnson, an Indian Scout that lived near Red Lodge. The Pollard was situated directly across from the Red Lodge Bank which was subject to a foiled bank robbery attempt by the Sundance Kid!
Camping in Red Lodge
With Red Lodge being so conveniently located next to Custer Gallatin National Forest, many people come to camp and explore the outdoors. There are several fee-based first come, first served campgrounds as well as some free places. Some free camping with internet include the parking lot at the top of the ski hill, Rotary Park on the edge of the river in town, and Palisades Campground at the end of a dirt road in the forest. Another poplar spot is at the West Fork Trailhead at the beginning of Beartooth Highway, but there is no cell service.
Additionally, there are some nearby Harvest Hosts locations. One is the Sentinel Ranch Alpacas. They have about 250 alpacas and will let you feed and pet them while telling you all about the animals. Their store, which sells a variety of products, is on Main Street. Chances are, if you are alergic to wool, you might not be allergic to alpaca because they don’t have the same oils.
Things to Do in Red Lodge
Stop at Smith Mine
Fourteen miles away, in Belfry, is the Wild Bison Ranch. It is worth the short drive for a few reasons. First, their bison jerky is spectacular! And they sell farm fresh eggs!! Additionally, the drive from Red Lodge takes you past the Smith Mine Historic District. Thirty-nine corrugated metal structures mark the site of the worst mining disaster in Montana history.
During the war, the Smith Mine produced 500,000 tons of coal annually. Unfortunately the highly gaseous mine lacked good ventilation and safety equipment, and the 1943 explosion killed 74 of 77 men working that day. While the #3 mine where the explosion occurred was closed, the Montana Coal and Iron Company continued operating until 1953. The mine remains as a memorial to those killed and the accident led to better safety regulations on the state and national level.
Watch the Pig Races
Just past the Smith Mine is the tiny town of Bear Creek, complete with a weekend flea market and the Bear Creek Saloon & Steakhouse. The establishment serves award winning steaks and runs pig races. While these are a few nice places to visit outside of town. Don’t miss the charm of Broadway Ave. in Red Lodge
Take a Historic Walking Tour
There is so much history in Red Lodge that you must take a historical walking tour around the picturesque streets. Be sure to pick up a brochure in the Visitor Center and follow the historic trail. Some of the buildings are marked with plaques, including the foiled bank robbery.
Browse the Farmers Market
After a walk through town, browse the Farmers Market. The Red Lodge Farmers Market is held every Saturday morning from the end of June to mid-September at Lions Park. The market features local produce and meats along with crafts.
Admire the Art
The Market is located next to the Carbon County Arts Guild & Depot Gallery. So when you are finished shopping, stop by Depot Gallery. The Arts Guild hosts a variety of events including workshops, exhibits, and even a monthly art walk. The art walk takes place the second Saturday of the month from 3-8pm.
Go for a Hike
If you’d rather hike the hills than stroll the streets, there are plenty of options. The hike to Lower Basin Lake flush with yellow lily pads is particularly nice because the beautiful lakes provide a big bang for moderate effort. Other easy hikes in Custer National Forest include Wild Bill Lake Loop and Broadwater Lake via Lake Fork.
Along the same trail as Broadwater Lake are Lost Lake and September Morn Lake, both beautiful. Unfortunately, the bridge across the river is still washed out by the flood, so the hike to these lakes are 12 and 17 miles, respectively from the Broadwater Lake Trailhead shown on AllTrails. The last1.5 miles to September Morn is particularly steep. Watch for bears and moose on this trail. They are particularly active.
Another beautiful lake is Timberline Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. This is a 9.8 mile hike of which disappointingly 6 miles travels through a sun-exposed burn area. It’s really too bad because the lake is beautiful!
Rent a Slingshot
If walking and hiking are not your thing, consider renting a three-wheel slingshot for a ½ day, full day or even a week. You can tool around in the sporty, open-air three-wheel vehicle if you know how to drive stick shift. Take the Slingshot along Beartooth Highway!
Drive the Beartooth Highway
The Beartooth Highway is known as one of America’s most beautiful drives. The 68 mile-long, engineering marvel, winds past granite peaks and cobalt lakes as it gains 5,000 feet to Beartooth Pass at nearly 11,000 feet. It is open seasonally due to snow.
Keep an eye out for wildlife (especially mountain goats), the state line, the 45th parallel, the ski lift at Beartooth Basin, the Bear’s Tooth for which the mountain range is named, and many hiking trails and campgrounds. You may even stay at the Top of the World Resort.
Visit Yellowstone National Park
The Beartooth Highway connects Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest a side trip. Since I have visited Yellowstone a few times, I didn’t take the drive past the turn off to Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, but if you haven’t been to Yellowstone, you should definitely visit America’s first national park known for its wildlife and hydrothermal and geological features.
Check out the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary
If you don’t have time for the drive, but you want to see a wolf or a bear among other wildlife, you may stop in the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary which cares for animals that cannot be released into the wild.
With tall, chain link fences, the facility is nothing to write home about, especially for photographers, but it was fun to see the wolves play in the water tank and the bears eat their fruity breakfast.
Overall Red Lodge really affords visitors a lot of options which is probably why its population balloons in the summertime. I felt like Red Lodge was quite busy while I visited, but the locals said due to the flood it was still quiet! Go support them, as Red Lodge is open for business! ETB