1. Where to Stay
Wake up to French toast and omelettes on the banks of the Clark Fork River, which runs through the heart of Missoula, at Goldsmith’s Bed and Breakfast (from $124). Dating back to 1911, the house’s seven rooms feature down-home country touches like hand-stitched quilts and antique light fixtures, a welcome alternative to the bland box hotels in town.
Experience Victorian grandeur at the Gibson Mansion Bed & Breakfast (from $125), where the 1903 home’s stained-glass windows, parquet floors, cast-iron fireplace, and oak staircase have all been kept in mint condition. Despite the property’s vintage look, there are modern amenities like WiFi and gym passes available, but be sure to spend a few hours lazing in the secluded garden filled with flowers and migratory birds and enclosed by a 40-foot-tall poplar hedge.
Get a taste of true Western living at the Resort at Paws Up (from $885 for two adults, all-inclusive), a fully operational cattle ranch that sits on 37,000 acres of beautiful Big Sky land 45 minutes outside of Missoula. The price includes three meals a day, transportation to and from the airport, and, for some packages, an overwhelming list of outdoor activities to choose from, including fishing, mushroom-foraging, and archery. The most important choice you’ll need to make, however, is between staying in one of the well-appointed timber homes and one of the luxury tents that come with a personal butler.
2. Where to Eat
Start your day strong with a hearty breakfast of buckwheat waffles ($7.65) at the Catalyst, a downtown café that caters to the college crowd with gluten-free and vegetarian options. You can also stop by for lunch (served until 3 p.m.) for its most popular dish: a zesty, tomato-lime tortilla soup (from $4.95) topped with cilantro and cheese.
Order a pie or two at Biga Pizza, where they bake their own bread every morning and most of the restaurant’s ingredients come from within a 100-mile radius of Missoula. Figs, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin are among the creative toppings, but you’re here for the cult favorite: flathead cherry pizza, which pairs the local fruit with housemade sausage, smoked Gouda, and garlic oil.
Taste the best ingredients western Montana has to offer (heirloom tomatoes, wild mushrooms, naturally raised lamb) at Scotty’s Table, housed in the historic Art Deco Wilma Theatre. The lunch menu is dominated by sandwiches, so book a table for dinner to order standout plates like hanger steak served with chorizo bread pudding and pan-seared kale ($28) and cioppino topped with a saffron aioli ($26).
3. What to Do
Spot the giant M emblazoned on the side of Mount Sentinel, and then follow the trail that winds up its side in the early morning before the college kids wake up. The trail is less than a mile, but it’s steep, which is why there are plenty of benches along the way. But once you’re at the top, you’ll be rewarded with a vista that includes the entire Missoula Valley, Rattlesnake Wilderness area, and the town below.
Practice your back casting on one of the three rivers that converge in Missoula: the Clark Fork, the Bitterroot, and the Black Foot, the latter of which became famous in the film A River Runs Through It. No matter what your skill level is, you’re best off hiring a guide from Grizzly Hackle (from $465 for two people, including lunch) to take you out and find the best spots to head depending on the time of year. Most fishing in the area is subject to catch-and-release laws, so don’t expect to keep your prize, no matter how impressive.
Get wet on a whitewater-rafting adventure with 10,000 Waves, with trips from scenic floats ($70 per person for a half day; full day with lunch $85 per person) to overnight full-throttle paddles through raging rapids ($295 per person, two days). Either way, you’ll be navigating the waters where Lewis & Clark once charted. If you prefer to stay dry, see their trails on horseback with the equestrian outfitters at Dunrovin Ranch. Their stables are filled with Tennessee walking horses, whose steady stride makes for a very smooth ride along the Bitterroot ($110 per person).
4. Insider’s Tip
Missoula was once home to a large logging industry, but these days it exists fifteen minutes south in the Bitterroot Valley. Take a trip down Highway 93 to see a variety of Lincoln Log–esque homes that reflect the local business. If you’re interested in wooden crafts, however, you won’t find any retail shops here. Instead, find local woodworkers at the People’s Market in Missoula every Saturday.
5. Oddball Day
Hop in a car to explore some of the sights that lie outside the city limits. First grab a cup of organic, small-batch brew from Black Coffee Roasting, then head north for about an hour until you reach the National Bison Range. There you’ll take a scenic drive through the reserve, which was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in order to conserve the dwindling population of the gentle giants in 1908. You can also spot Rocky Mountain elk, various species of deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, and birds along the way. There are several routes to take, the most impressive of which is the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, a nineteen-mile loop where you can stop and explore two walking trails. Make your way south and stop in Ravalli at the Bison Inn Cafe (27330 U.S. Hwy 93; 406-745-4268), a diner that serves bison burgers and fish from the nearby lake. Cut back through Missoula and then head 30 miles east to Montana’s oldest ghost town, Garnet, which today looks more like the set of any country Western than a place where people once lived. The town was once a robust center for mining, first for red ruby garnet and later gold, but the death of the industry and a 1912 fire led to the town’s eventual desertion. After exploring the well-preserved dwellings, head back to Missoula for the evening and throw back a craft brew at one of the many breweries, including Kettlehouse Brewing Company, Tamarack Brewing Company, Draught Works, Bayern, or Big Sky—the maker of the award-winning Moose Drool beer. Then head to dinner at Flathead Lake’s gastropub, where you’ll find their house brews as well as burgers, pastas, and housemade pierogies, whose stuffing varies from day to day. After dinner, be sure to stop by Big Dipper Ice Cream for dessert, especially in the summer months, when they collaborate with Kettlehouse for some unique scoops of cold-smoke ice cream and other treats.
Make It Missoula has many blogs written by locals that cover all aspects of the city.
Find comprehensive listings of hotels, restaurants, and activities at Destination Missoula.
Glacier County’s official site offers ideas for side trips and other sights outside of Missoula.
Find out everything you need to know about the area’s trails and hiking systems at the Missoulian.