What to Do in Missoula, Montana: Travel Guide for an Outdoor Escape
Lying at the tip-top of the USA is the mountainous landscape of Montana. In the western half you’ll find Missoula, the second largest city in Montana offering a unique mix of all Montana has to offer. Downtown Missoula provides a hip, urban center with great food and nightlife while the mountains offer an escape for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds.
This travel guide will show you everything to do in Missoula – you might be surprised just how much there is to explore. It’s more than just mountains y’all!
Missoula is known as the “Garden City” with lush hillsides and a river running through the city. It's the perfect location to explore the outdoors, go hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains, chow down at some delightful restaurants and coffee shops, or enjoy some retail therapy.
When you envision Montana you often think of unpopulated Western landscapes mixed with the jagged Rocky Mountains. But Missoula sets itself apart. With a university, a great food scene, and easy access to the river, Missoula feels like everything you need in Montana rolled into one.
Montana is one of the greatest states for outdoor exploration in America, with more than 147,000 square miles to roam. Montana's landscape is glacial-carved terrain, wildflower-filled meadows, rolling hills, and snow-fed streams and rivers. Missoula and the Bitteroot Valley are the perfect place to explore what Montana has to offer. With the mountains and valleys, bears and bison, waterfalls, and Old Western charm you'll find so much to do.
I'm going to share exactly what to see, do, eat, and where to stay in Missoula and the surrounding area.
Where to Stay
Residence Inn is located in downtown Missoula, which is where you'll want to be for dining, coffee shops, and access to everything in town.
The Residence Inn is a modern, but comfortable setting with a generous breakfast. There's also a restaurant inside the hotel as well as a few shops. Rooms are spacious, clean, and offer views of the mountains.
Great coffee shops, restaurants, trails, breweries, and kayaking tours on the river are within walking distance of the Residence Inn.
What to Do in Missoula
Missoula lies in the western half of Montana and is the ideal destination to enjoy a fall vacation. Offering plenty of outdoor activities and a vibrant community, as well as excellent restaurants, fantastic coffee shops, and hiking. With the backdrop of mountains, dense forests and stunning views, the “River City” is the perfect outdoor escape and everything you need for your next vacation.
Missoula has 400 acres of parkland, 22 miles of trails, and nearly 5,000 acres of open space conservation within close proximity. You can even do the Missoula Scramble up to the “M” on the side of a mountain, for an amazing view of downtown.
Here are my top picks for what to do in Missoula:
Travelers' Rest State Park – This is where Lewis and Clark came to rest twice! It's the only archaeologically verified place they stayed! They must have gazed on the beautiful Bitterroot mountains and decided to stop here awhile as they made their way to the Lolo Pass. Lewis named it “Travelers' Rest” because it was a vast network of travel routes that radiated across western North America.
The museum here explains more and has artifacts and insights about Lewis & Clark as well as Native Americans and animals in the area. Make sure to walk the State Park and the Bitterroot Trail for some beautiful views over the river.
Maclay Flat Nature Trail – This is an easy drive and hike from downtown Missoula. It's a beautiful area located right by the water. This 1.8 mile loop is scenic and also great for fall color!
The Lolo area – This is a great place to explore the Bitterroot Valley and has lots of great restaurants as well as natural beauty.
Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge – This is a bird watcher's paradise! We saw tundra swans, eagles, and even some white-tail deer. I recommend getting here just before sunset for some great photo opportunities. You can drive the area or go on a walk.
Fort Owen State Park – This is the site of Montana's first Catholic church. In 1850 John Owen, a licensed trader with United States Army, purchased Saint Mary’s mission and converted it to a trading post. The fort was later turned into a ranch that has been excavated and turned into this beautiful state park.
St. Mary's Mission – This is truly where Montana began as this is the first permanent pioneer settlement. In 1841 Father DeSmet established this church and surrounding structures. Here, the chapel, a log cabin and pharmacy contain the furnishings handmade by Father Ravalli. For $8 per person you can take an hour-long guided tour that gives history of the area and step back through the American frontier.
Daly Mansion – This was definitely one of the most surprising things to find in Montana! Marcus Daly came to America as an immigrant and gained wealth in copper which he displayed throughout his home. This summer residence was remodeled many times and now is featured in the Georgian revival style. Not only is the house beautiful and elaborate, the stories behind the people who lived here are even better. Call ahead for a tour!
Bike the river – This is a fun, easy activity to do when the weather is nice. This is a great way to see Missoula and pass by some of the most historic sites. I also recommend stopping along your route at the Boone and Crockett Club, a small wildlife museum explaining the history of the conservation club started by Theodore Roosevelt.
Pattee Canyon Recreation Area – This was one of my favorite areas to go hiking! Beautiful, scenic, and lots of trails for all different skill levels!
Missoula's Farmer's Market – Check out local produce (like some very funky mushrooms), herbs, spices, baked goods, and florals. Located at the end of Higgins Avenue right by the train, this market has been going on since 1972.
Go Shopping – There are plenty of great shops in the downtown area. You'll find intriguing art galleries, clothing boutiques, and more. Some options are: Butterfly Herbs, Fact & Fiction, Showroom Missoula, The Artists’ Shop, Trailhead, Betty’s Divine and Noteworthy Press.
Missoula Art Museum – This contemporary art museum offers exhibitions from national artists and traveling exhibits. It's small, quiet and easy to explore in about an hour.
Mount Sentinel “Scramble” – The hike up Mount Sentinel isn't for everyone, but it does offer some incredible views of Missoula. It's a steep hike up the mountain to the the infamous Missoula “M.” You can see the concrete “M” from below that's maintained by Missoula University students.
The Rattlesnake Recreation area – This is an excellent place for your outdoor adventure in Missoula, with over 100 miles of trails to explore.
Where to Eat
Top Hat – A great place to stop for lunch or dinner. The food is hearty and inventive. It's also a good place to get a drink and enjoy live music during happy hour. The live music continues at night and they also have a patio for when the weather is nice, like it was when we visited.
Montana Brewing Company – A great spot to grab a beer and some food after exploring town. The Bitterroot IPA is brewed with hops grown on site. It's also one of the more popular spots with locals.
Lolo Steakhouse – This, to me, is a must in Montana. It's a large log cabin with steaks sizzling on the grill, right before your eyes. Michael had the steak and I had the pork. I recommend swapping out the potato for a sweet potato – it's like a dessert! You'll find lots of great cocktails and shareable starters.
Higher Ground Brewery – Great stop for pizza and beer. This is a casual and quick place to get a good meal.
Black Coffee Roasting Company – Located in what looks like a former airline hanger, you'll find the perfect local coffee joint. They have excellent espresso, pour overs and baked goods. I recommend stopping in early on the weekend as they sell out of pastries quickly! All their syrups and pastries are made in house.
Hob Nob – This place reminds me of Luke's from “Gilmore Girls.” It's got the perfect down-home vibe, is right by the river, and has even better sourdough pancakes!
Pangea – This is a fun place to grab dinner and drinks. The menu is international with tacos, burgers, flatbreads and more.
Veera Donuts – If you're looking for funky, creative donuts then look no further than Veera. Of course, they have the classics too, but I loved the fall maple flavored old-fashioned.
Dobi's Teriyaki – Another quick and easy restaurant located right next to a bar. Featuring a small menu, you really can't go wrong with teriyaki. Order a drink while you wait and head to the patio to eat outside.
Break Espresso – This coffee shop is large with plenty of tables to relax with friends, get some studying done (there were plenty of students in the cafe), or have a large slice of pie. We did the latter and were not disappointed.
Mary's Mountain Cookies – The best cookies. All I have to say is… We went 3 times y'all!!!
Lolo Peak Brewery – I recommend the fried pretzel bites and the pork chicharrones! Great atmosphere and service.
Lolo Creek Distillery – Sit on the patio and enjoy the beautiful view! Great cocktails with a twist on the classics. It's also conveniently located on the grounds of the aforementioned Lolo Steakhouse.
How much time do you need in Missoula? I recommend at least 3 days to explore Missoula and the surrounding area. We spent 4 and a half days here and I think that was the perfect amount to explore!
How to get around Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley? In order to get to hiking trails and explore areas like Hamilton and many of the state parks, I recommend renting a car.
Missoula Itinerary At a Glance:
Fly or drive in to Missoula
Stay at the Residence Inn Downtown
Lunch at Top Hat
Hike MaClay Flat
Mary Mountain Cookies for Dessert
Breakfast at the Hotel
Coffee at Black Coffee Roasting
Traveler's Rest State Park
Lolo Peak Brewery for Lunch
Lolo Creek Distillery for Drinks
Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge
Lolo Creek Steakhouse for Dinner
Breakfast at Veera Donuts
Head to Stevensville and Hamilton
Fort Owen State Monument
St. Mary's Mission
Daly Mansion Tour
Lunch at Higher Ground Brewery
Drive back to Missoula
Missoula Farmer's Market
Big Dipper Ice Cream for dessert
Breakfast at Hob Nob
Missoula Museum of Art
Lunch at Burns Street Bistro
Pattee Canyon Recreation Area
Shopping in Downtown
Dinner at Dobi
Break Espresso for dessert
Whether you're visiting Missoula after a stop in Yellowstone or Glacier National Park, or you want to explore the area on it's own, you'll find a well-balanced town full of beauty, history, and culture.