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T H E 2 9 GROUP G G R R O U P TRAVEL LE ADER T H E T H E L O C A L L O O K For many people, Montana exemplifies the essence of the rugged outdoors and the Wild West, and travelers often begin their Montana journeys in Billings, which is Montana's largest city and offers air service from several major national carriers. The landscape of the area immediately surrounding the city is an impres- sive sight to many first-time visitors. "Montana is one of those bucket-list desti- nations — Big Sky Country," Tyson said. "You can see for miles. Billings is situated where the mountains meet the plains." It's a short trip from the airport to the center of town, a regional hub of shopping, dining and entertainment. The city has 55 hotels and hun- dreds of restaurants, along with a wide variety of local shops where visitors can purchase anything from custom-fitted, handmade hats to beautiful artwork created in the area. The city's geographic surroundings also offer some outdoor highlights. "Our entire city is sheltered by unique, beauti- ful sandstone cliffs," Tyson said. "We are situated in between these rim rocks and the Yellowstone River. We have the Marathon Loop trail system that runs approximately 26 miles from the river to the rim rocks." Tyson said groups visiting town often enjoy watching the sun set over the rim rocks, and some enjoy the experience so much that they return to the spot to experience the sunset again the following night. N E A R B Y N AT U R E Among Billings' greatest assets is its proxim- ity to some of the most impressive natural and historic sites in Montana. Groups can reach the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park from Billings in a little over an hour. But they should also take advantage of some of the other National Park Service (NPS) sites and scenic stops located throughout the region. "About an hour's drive south of Billings, we have major U.S. history with the Battle of Little Bighorn and Bighorn National Monument," Tyson said. "And 90 minutes south of us is Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. It's one of the most spectacular and undiscovered NPS entities. It's breathtaking, with 200-foot cliffs." Pompeii's Pilar National Monument, site of the only physical evidence of Lewis and Clark's journey across the West, sits about 30 miles east of Billings. Many of the most popular scenic sites in southeast Montana are connected by Beartooth Highway, a 68-mile-long National Scenic Byway that winds through the area. "Charles Kuralt called it America's most beautiful road, and USA Today Travel rates it as a top scenic byway year after year," Tyson said. W O N D E R S O F T H E W E S T Big skies and rugged scenery have given rise to a rich Western heritage in southeast Montana, and a few museums in Billings give visitors a look into that element of the city's ethos. A great starting point for groups is the Yellowstone County Museum, which is housed in a historic log cabin and has numerous exhibits related to the area's Western roots, railroad history and local art. "If you go downstairs, there is an old horse- drawn buggy," Tyson said. "You see a number of old saddles that are intricately carved and detailed. There's a display on the Native American cul- ture, which is very important to your region. You see tepees, moccasins and hand-beaded leatherwork." That story continues at the Western Heritage Center, where Montana's Western culture is exam- ined from both a historical and a contemporary perspective. "There is a man there named Kevin Kooistra who is our community historian," Tyson said. "He can tell you about everything from the brothels of the railroad days to the sandstone cliffs that sur- round us. The exhibits you see in there really take a look at what Montana is all about and what the West is today." During the summer, Kooistra also hosts a downtown walking tour called Hoof-It With a Historian, which features information about his- toric buildings around town and the landscape surrounding the city. Finally, art lovers will want to stop at the Yellowstone Art Museum. "It's one of the quintessential art museums of the West," Tyson said. "They have everything from nationally known Western artists to some great artists in our community, as well as top exhibitions from places like New York and Los Angeles." HIKING IN THE BEARTOOTH MOUNTAINS HIKING IN THE BEARTOOTH MOUNTAINS