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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue. This version was fact-checked and updated (where possible) with current information for the 2017 edition of 5280 Traveler.
The first time I drove through Montana, the country’s fourth-largest state, on a Denver-to-Canada road trip, I immediately felt at home. The broad-shouldered peaks and wide-open skies around the town of Missoula, in particular, were familiar enough, but there was something else in the summer air, something I couldn’t quite identify. Maybe it was the rushing rivers slicing through lush valleys; the cowboy boots walking around at highway rest areas; or the possibility of seeing grizzly bears, moose, and wolves around every bend in the road. Or maybe it was something a friend who went to college here told me: “Montana is like Colorado, but without all the people.”
That heady combination of expansive landscapes, spectacular mountains, and the sense that it was mine alone drew me back to Missoula years later, this time for keeps. My adopted hometown—population 71,022—sits at the confluence of five idyllic valleys ringed by five distinct mountain ranges. Trails meander into the hinterlands in every direction. But, much like Denver, Missoula has become more than a place to catch some shut-eye before tomorrow’s epic outdoor adventure. The compact town center hosts eclectic eateries, compelling art galleries, a solid live music scene, and more excellent beer than a town this size has a right to claim.
I’ll always love Colorado, but Montana’s mystique is difficult to ignore. It’s bigger, it’s wilder, and there’s more room to breathe. At the risk of relinquishing a bit of the solitude, I encourage Centennial Staters to consider a summertime weekend of northern exposure. Just don’t be surprised if Missoula casts its spell on you too.
Following the Clark Fork River west on I-90 will take you through steeply pitched Hellgate Canyon before spitting you out within sight of Missoula, a leafy spot of civilization hugged between swelling mountains and the Bitterroot River. Your first stop should be Montgomery Distillery, where you can toast your arrival with a cocktail made with Missoula’s favorite small-batch spirits. Should the bartenders be pouring anything starring Sudden Wisdom Rye, the distillery’s signature spicy whiskey, order it. Otherwise, sip one of the menu’s many unique concoctions, like the Damiana Dare Me (herb-infused vodka, honey syrup, citrus juice, and lemon bitters) or the Rocky Mountain Flip (gin, Douglas fir and juniper syrup, egg white, and cardamom). Now that you’re appropriately loosened up, mosey around the corner to Biga Pizza for dinner. A giant brick oven dominates the casual restaurant, where thin-crust pies range from the traditional to the downright bizarre, such as the fennel marmalade, local bacon, and Gouda option.
Cap off your first evening in Big Sky Country with a twist on an iconic Missoula experience: hiking the short but steep trail to the giant white “M” branded on the west flank of Mt. Sentinel. The 0.75-mile (one way) M Trail switchbacks up from near the University of Montana’s football stadium. The path swells with hikers on sunny afternoons, but by moonlight you’ll have the view of the twinkling town all to yourself. Though dusk lingers well past 9 p.m. at this latitude, it’s smart to pack a headlamp for the way down. When sleep begins to sound like a good idea, hike back toward town to riverside Goldsmith’s Bed and Breakfast. The 1911 building—formerly the university president’s mansion, then a fraternity house—is now a charming seven-room inn featuring Victorian-style furniture, a wide porch that overlooks the water, and delicious breakfasts that are never the same two days in a row.
Warm summer Saturdays are a precious commodity in a town that spends much of the rest of the year under moody Northwestern skies, so you must choose wisely how best to spend them. Should you fly-fish the Blackfoot River? Trail run at Pattee Canyon? Hike to a glittering lake in one of the Bitterroot Valley drainages? These are all worthy options if you have time; however, don’t miss the opportunity to experience two quintessential Missoula offerings—mountain biking and tubing—in a one-two punch.
But first, breakfast. There’s only one place to be on a Saturday morning in this town: the cluster of artisanal and farmers’ markets, where college professors, river rats, tattooed hipsters, and bluegrass fingerpickers rub elbows among a bounty of Montana-produced veggies, meats, crafts, honey, jam, flowers, and baked goods. Start at Clark Fork Market under the Higgins Bridge and grab an espresso and pastry from one of the dozens and dozens of food vendors; then stroll over to adjoining Caras Park to watch kayakers playing in the Brennan’s Wave white-water feature. Next, head a few blocks north—just off of Higgins Avenue—to browse arts and crafts at the Missoula People’s Market plus more fresh fruits and veggies at the nearby Missoula Farmer’s Market. Once you’ve stocked up on your favorite picnic fixin’s for lunch, you’ll be ready to ride.
Missoula is a mountain biker’s heaven: There are more than 150 miles of single-track and dirt roads, many starting within a 15-minute spin of downtown. Rides range from mellow fire-road rambles to quad-ripping climbs followed by screaming descents. For a classic half-day sampler, rent a bike at Missoula Bicycle Works and then beeline it to Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, 5.5 miles away. This 28,000-acre protected area delivers the quickest civilization-to-wilderness transition around, with a web of Rattlesnake Creek–adjacent trails that wind under craggy cliffs and roll through shady evergreen forests. Newbies can pedal up and down the main Rattlesnake Corridor for a flattish 18-mile round-trip ride; if you really want to burn off your breakfast, several loop options that careen up and down the surrounding foothills branch off from the main track.
After a few hours in the saddle, you’ll be hot and tired. Follow up your fat-tire ride with a fat-tube finale: lazing away the afternoon with a float on the Clark Fork. Rent an inner tube for $7 per day from 10,000 Waves Raft & Kayak Adventures, then put in at East Missoula’s Sha-Ron fishing access site. You’ll bob 3.6 river miles past the university campus and through downtown to the takeout at McCormick Park. Walking paths lining both sides of the river make it easy to session the downtown section a few times.
As much as Missoulians love their outdoor fun, they’re equally proud of the culture and nightlife on tap after a day in the sun. Freshen up back at Goldsmith’s, and then hit the scene downtown and on the nearby Hip Strip, a funky district just south and across the river. Much like Colorado, this is beer country: Sample the goods at one of Missoula’s 10 craft breweries (and don’t delay—state law requires most to stop pouring pints at 8 p.m.). You can’t go wrong with any of the options, but Draught Works is a must-visit for its sun-drenched patio, live music, and That’s What She Said Cream Ale. KettleHouse Brewing Company should also be on your short list. This brewery has two taproom locations, but locals prefer the Southside iteration on the Hip Strip for its Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, a rich, hard-to-find brew that Montana expats frequently drive hours to quaff—and then take home in growlers.
Finding a way to close out the perfect Saturday means picking up a copy of the Missoula Independent to see who’s playing at the Wilma or the Top Hat Lounge, two newly restored concert venues that host everything from punk acts to thoughtful singer-songwriters. Or wander a couple of blocks south to the Roxy Theater, Missoula’s art house, to catch the latest indie flick. Still standing? You’ll find the finest dive-bar scene in town at Charlie B’s, a dimly lit, unsigned watering hole on Higgins (look for the discreet “CB” on the door) that serves tasty Cajun food until 11 p.m. and drinks until 2 a.m.
You’ve earned a leisurely start to the day, so sleep in a bit before making your way to the West Side neighborhood’s Burns St. Bistro for its creative weekend brunch. Dishes change seasonally, but you might find spicy Japanese breakfast stew or pork chile verde on the menu, plus a full suite of espresso drinks. Then, because this is a fantastic trail town, treat yourself to a late-morning hike on Mt. Jumbo. This rounded foothill, which forms the north side of Hellgate Canyon, offers numerous trekking options, from the 0.7-mile (one way) climb to the white hillside “L” (Loyola Sacred Heart High School’s version of Mt. Sentinel’s “M”) to trails looping up and around the 4,767-foot summit. If you have time, link the L Trail to the Backbone Trail to the top, which affords another lofty perspective of Missoula, then swing back across the south flank on an unmarked but well-trodden trail for a roughly five-mile loop.
Wind the weekend down with one more happy hour, this time at Plonk Wine. Make for the chic downtown bar’s rooftop deck to sip a refreshing summer cocktail al fresco. Then wrap up a warm afternoon like every other sweet-toothed Missoulian will: with a house-made waffle cone at Big Dipper Ice Cream. The retro-style ice cream stand’s scoops of Mexican chocolate, cardamom, and maple walnut draw locals like bears to a huckleberry patch. But after 36 hours of uncrowded fun, for once you won’t mind the line.
IF YOU GO
Getting There: United Airlines offers nonstop two-hour flights between DIA and Missoula International Airport; otherwise, it’s a scenic 13-hour drive from Denver.
Lodging: Summer rates start at $134 per night at Goldsmith’s Bed and Breakfast. 803 E. Front St., 406-728-1585
When To Visit: Summer brings maximum access to Missoula’s outdoor activities, but the other seasons are well worth a visit too. Come during the fall to see tamarack foliage (also called larch, this deciduous conifer boasts needles that turn gold in September and October); visit in winter for cross-country skiing; and take a trip in spring to hike and mountain bike among abundant wildflowers.