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Missoula, Montana

Sitting at the confluence of three rivers, and tucked perfectly within the Northern Rockies is the town of Missoula, Montana. Once a small, peaceful community, Missoula came to fame thanks to the 1976 Norman Maclean novella, and the 1992 film, “A River Runs Through It.”

This book and movie put Missoula on the map, and today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Montana.

Missoula may not be the perfect destination for every tourist, but if you love outdoor recreational activities like hiking, fly-fishing, mountain biking or skiing, Missoula is the perfect spot for your next adventure.

Established in 1860 as the Hellgate Trading Post, Missoula got its start by European settlers who started coming to the area around 1853. The city moved from the Hellgate Trading Post area to about 5 miles east where the name was changed to Missoula Mills.

The mills provided essential supplies to settlers traveling west through Montana, and when Fort Missoula was established in 1877, the economy of the area was stabilized, and the community began to grow.

The largest boom in growth and development occurred around the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad to the area. With the railroad came a new industry to the area that allowed the population to thrive. The lumber industry supported the local economy for nearly 100 year. The lumber mills closed in 2009, but Missoula continues to be a vibrant and bustling city.

Today, Missoula thrives on its tourism industry along with being home to the University of Montana and numerous other businesses.

Main Attractions in Missoula

lewis and clark trail
Image: Road Travel America

Being that Missoula is an outdoor recreation mecca, many of the must-do activities in the area really revolve around getting outdoors and doing stuff. However, there are some great things to see and do in Missoula that you just shouldn’t pass by.

Downtown and Hip Strip

Missoula has 9 different historical neighborhoods, so if you like history and great architecture, then you’ll love exploring. However, the historic downtown and the Hip Strip are two of the most interesting of these historic districts, and they’re within walking distance of each other. Both areas are full of the art and culture that the city is known for.

In the Downtown area, you’ll find some of the best restaurants in Montana, along with art galleries and boutique shopping. The Hip Strip is just across the river from Downtown and it is a completely different type of neighborhood.

The historic buildings in the Hip Strip are filled with unique boutique stores, restaurants, and some of the best nightlife in Missoula. If you want a break from your outdoor activities and want to enjoy a bit of window shopping, this is the place to go.

Lewis and Clark Trail

The Missoula area saw the Discover Corps twice during their journey to the Pacific Ocean. Just south of the city is Traveler’s Rest State Park. Here, you’ll find a portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail, maintained for current-day adventurers to hike.

This was one of the most difficult parts of the Expedition’s journey, so taking the trail gives a good idea of the challenges that Lewis and Clark faced on their journey.

Traveler’s Rest State Park also has interpretive trails and picnic tables around the areas where the Expedition camped in September of 1805 and June 1806. Also, check out the Lolo hot springs while you’re here. They’re a great place to rest and enjoy a little bit of relaxation.

Fort Missoula

Established in 1877 to protect settlers in the area, Fort Missoula remains intact today as a museum and interpretive center. The Fort has 20 preserved historical buildings for visitors to see and explore. About half of the buildings are original from the fort, while others were brought to the Fort for preservation.

Caras Park

Considered to be Missoula’s town square, if you want to enjoy a local festival or a bit of free music or entertainment during the summer months, Caras Park is the place to go.

This large open area in the downtown area hosts many events has playgrounds and picnic tables, and is home to the Carousel for Missoula and Dragon Hollow. The Carousel is one of the few hand-carved carousels in the country made after the Great Depression. It is a beautiful sight to see, and one not to be missed when visiting Missoula

Recreation Activities in Missoula, MT

whitewater rafting

Missoula is really about outdoor recreation. So, if you want a vacation filled with great ways to get out and enjoy nature, you’ll find endless options in and around Missoula.

Hiking

In and around Missoula there are tons of hiking trails for you to explore. You’ll find ample hiking opportunities within Lolo National Forest, Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, and Travelers Rest State Park. However, you don’t have to drive out of town to get a great hike. One of the best hikes in the Missoula area is the “M” Trail. When you come to Missoula, you’ll likely notice the large letter “M” on the side of Mount Sentinel.

The M-Trail takes you to this “M” and beyond. The trail starts at the University of Montana campus and takes you up steep switchback for about three-quarters of a mile to the M. From here you can continue up Mount Sentinel where you’ll be able to enjoy great views of Missoula, Hellgate Canyon, the water lines of Glacial Lake Missoula and other area sites.

The M-trail connects to a variety of other trails that will allow you to adventure further.

Biking

If you want to experience Missoula like a local, skip the car and rent a bike. The city is one of the most bikeable cities in the west, boasting over 20 miles of developed biking and walking trails. As you explore the town, you’ll likely notice there are more bikes than cars.

If you’d rather try something a bit more adventurous, Missoula has plenty of opportunities for mountain biking. Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is a favorite spot for locals to mountain bike. It’s a short five-mile ride from downtown to the main Rattlesnake trailhead.

The main trail is a service road that has a nice climb but isn’t too technical. If you want something more technical, check out the Sawmill Gulch trail. It is a great single-track trail that is easy to follow and is just challenging enough.

Kayaking/Whitewater Rafting

With three different rivers around and through Missoula, you’ve got plenty of opportunity for getting your toes wet. In the springtime, whitewater rafting is amazing and you’ll find plenty of whitewater outfitters in town that will provide you with everything you need for a great adventure, including a skilled guide.

For a family-friendly adventure, check out Alberton Gorge. The class III rapids are fun and frolicking, but not too intense. For the more adventurous, check out the Lochsa River. This river has 25 sections of class IV rapids. A heart-pounding adventure for sure!

If whitewater isn’t your style, there are plenty of relaxing floats in and around town to enjoy. Outfitters in town can give you great suggestions for places where you can kayak, canoe, or even rent a tube and float one of the three local rivers.

Fishing

You can’t visit the city without trying your hand at fly fishing. Fly-fishing puts Missoula on the map, and with three blue-ribbon rivers, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place to try out fly-fishing or hone your skills than the Missoula area.

Local fly shops can tell you where the best spots to fish are, and help you pick the perfect flies for the season. Or, hire a guide to take you to the best spots and learn the techniques of fly-fishing which is almost like meditation, but in the water. If you’d rather lake fish, There are six state parks in the area that have lakes perfect for fishing.

Whether you’re lake fishing or fly fishing, do make sure you check out the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks website for information on fishing rules and regulations, and to buy your Montana fishing license.

Accommodations

We love staying in the city because it has some really nice options for lodging. There really is an option for everyone here. Whether you like to stay in a chain hotel or would rather try a vacation home or bed and breakfast, there are great options to choose from.

Special Events

There are plenty of reasons to visit, but one of our favorite things about the city is the variety of events and festivals that occur in town each year.

Activities Near Missoula

Recreation Activities

National Parks and Forests

State Parks

City and County Parks

Museums

Performing Arts

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