Situated in south-central Montana, Red Lodge is an unknown gem waiting to be uncovered. The small town packs a big punch when it comes to amenities, shopping, events, restaurants, and more. All these aspects combine to give it a personality worthy of a big city.
The area around Red Lodge was once home to the Crow Indians, who stayed in the area each summer to worship, rest, and hunt. The permanent town as it’s known today was established in 1884. The Rocky Fork Coal Company opened the area’s first mine nearby in 1887, drawing scores of European immigrants to work in the mine. That brought on a boom for Red Lodge—downtown became a lively collection of 20 saloons.
The Great Depression ended much of the mining activity here, but local entrepreneurs turned to another lucrative industry—bootleg liquor. Sold as “cough syrup,” the town’s major export kept “patients” happy from the Midwest to California. Tourism and recreation also rose to prominence, and by the mid-20th century, those industries, along with ranching, replaced coal mining as the major sources of income.
Today, with a population of just over 2,000 people, Red Lodge has a great community feel. You won’t find big box stores and chains in this town at the edge of the Beartooth Mountains. Instead, visitors will find world class outdoor recreation, a slew of small businesses, and a historic downtown loaded with genuine warmth and hospitality.
Downtown is extremely walkable and safe. The quaint collection of buildings holds independently owned shops, restaurants, and saloons—making it the quintessential western town.
The outdoors is the main draw here. Red Lodge is surrounded by a million acres of outdoor recreation areas. In winter, Red Lodge Mountain delivers plenty of powder without the crowds or long lift lines. The ski area usually opens around Thanksgiving each year and runs through mid-April.
In summer, the Beartooth Highway leading to Yellowstone National Park is the main draw. It’s often rated as one of the most scenic drives in the country, and is especially attractive for motorcyclists. But there are plenty of other activities nearby: climbing, fishing, camping, hunting, rafting, biking, and horseback riding are all just a few steps from town.
Red Lodge is often looked at as a pass-through for visitors heading to Yellowstone. But the enchanting town tends to romance all who come through. And they end up wanting to stay.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.