In Missoula, Montana you can wander where Lewis and Clark once roamed, find where miners sought gold fortunes, and understand the historical context of this region through tours and museums. In addition, you can explore a brand new urban sprawl of delicious cuisine, craft breweries, and the arts. Missoula is the ideal blend of historical and modern, burgeoning the gap between a beautiful, mountainous landscape for outdoor enthusiasts and a hip, buzzing city.
In this article I'm sharing my Missoula, Montana bucket list – with tips on what to see and do. There's so much history here that helps us understand how Missoula, and the West came to be!
Missoula is an easy plane ride. We flew directly from Dallas and rented a car to explore the surrounding area. The city is known for its vibrant arts scene, foodie cafés and restaurants, a growing craft beer industry, and (bonus points) for being extremely friendly. It's also characterized by lovely architecture and a river running through town that is stunning in any season.
Missoula is the perfect road trip stop on your USA adventure. I spent five days in Missoula which was enough time to explore nearby areas like Lolo and the Bitterroot Valley, enjoy tours of several historic places, pop into restaurants, cafes, and shops, and attend the local farmer's market. Though Missoula is Montana's second-largest city, it has a small-town feel about it.
I think what makes a place even more meaningful, is the history that surrounds it. Missoula certainly has its fair share. But in addition, there's a vibrant scene of arts and culture as well as food and nightlife. The first inhabitants of the Missoula region were from the Salish tribe. They called the area “Nemissoolatakoo,” from which “Missoula” is derived. The term translates roughly to “river of ambush/surprise,” reflecting on-going fighting in the region.
Here is my Missoula, Montana bucket list with 15 things you must do:
1. Hike to the “M!” You can see the University of Montana's “M” nearly everywhere in Missoula. Since 1908 the “M” on the west face of Mount Sentinel has been a Missoula landmark. Forestry Club members created a zigzag trail up the mountain (I can attest, it is steep!), and students carried up stones to shape the symbol of the University of Montana. The hike up offers great views of downtown Missoula.
2. Get a scoop or two at Big Dipper Ice Cream Ice. Ice cream lovers rejoice! Big Dipper has wacky flavors made with local ingredients. I went for classic huckleberry (a fruit of the area) that had chunks of dark chocolate. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sweet Peak's Ice Cream shop as well which offers delicious milkshakes in every flavor.
3. Order a funky donut at Veera's. There's donuts and then there's Veera's donuts. With flavors like lavender, Bavarian cream, and lemon poppy seed it's a sensation for the senses. Since it was fall, I ordered the melt-in-your-mouth maple with pumpkin seeds on top!
4. Lolo is a cute town about an hour away from Missoula. It's a great destination if you love all things outdoors. It also has a great brewery, distillery, and the Lolo Steakhouse is a must. Make sure to head to Travelers' Rest State Park– the campsite where the Corps of Discovery rested on their journey! Plenty of great information about Lewis and Clark in the museum.
5. Explore the Arts scene. Missoula is the arts capital of Montana and it shows. There are many art galleries and museums dedicated to arts of all kinds. I really enjoyed the Missoula Art Museum or just strolling around town and stepping into different art galleries.
6. Hike Maclay Flat Nature Trail. This is a lovely hike through the woods and over to Rattlesnake Creek. Maclay is a short, easy trail suitable for almost all skill levels.
7. Walk through History at Garnet Ghost Town. These hushed woods once echoed the rumble of wagons chock full of gold ore! The town that once served as a late-1800's mining settlement is restored and open for tours. This is Montana's most intact ghost town. It symbolizes an important era in Montana’s hard rock mining history.
8. Go on an adventurous hike! I've mentioned Maclay Flat and hiking the “M” but if you're up for an adventure or want to get deeper into the woods for some epic scenery, I recommend hiking Pattee Canyon or the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. The views are epic and the hikes are for all skill levels in the area.
9. Enjoy the wildlife at Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is the perfect place to enjoy a drive or walk, and see some of Montana's wildlife.
10. Stevensville is an easy drive from Missoula and offers things to see and do along your way. Check out Fort Owen State Park —it has many historic buildings and helps to explain how Montana came to be. Also, drop in the historical St. Mary's Mission—the first permanent pioneer settlement in Montana.
11. Get cozy in a cafe. There are plenty of great cafes in Missoula. Since it's home to the University, you'll find college students getting a caffeine buzz at a local shop. I recommend Black Coffee Roasters, Break Espresso, Le Petite Outre, the Catalyst, or Hob Nob (don't skip the sourdough pancakes here!).
12. Hamilton, the largest city in the Bitterroot Valley, is also home to a busy arts scene with numerous galleries and businesses selling work by local artists. Other activities include fly-fishing on one of Western Montana's most beautiful rivers—the Bitterroot River—or hiking the popular Blodgett Canyon Overlook Trail for stunning views into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I also recommend fueling up on pizza and beer at Higherground Brewing Co.
13. Take a Tour of Daly Mansion. This is a beautiful mansion originally built by Anaconda Copper Mining Company executive – Marcus Daly – and his wife Mary. Now it's open year-round for tours and special events like weddings, receptions, and banquets. There's some really interesting history here!
14. Walk the grounds of the University of Montana. Started in 1895, this public university has about 10,000 undergraduates, giving Missoula a youthful vibe.
15. Indulge in the Missoula food scene. Whether you want to enjoy fine dining, devour a steak, drink craft beer, or enjoy local produce at the Farmer's Market, there's something for everyone. I recommend Top Hat, Burns Street Bistro, El Camino, 1889, Gild Brewing, Draughtworks Brewing, Dobi Teriyaki, and Saketome.
I was struck by the history and culture in Missoula and surrounding area. From the time of Lewis and Clark, the founding of Missoula, the University, coupled with the surrounding natural beauty, it's no wonder that Missoula should be on your bucket list!