Missoula, Montana, sits almost precisely in the middle of nowhere. There may be an international airport and an interstate highway cutting across the north edge of town, but in every direction, untracked mountain wilds fan out for hundreds of miles. If that sounds like a recipe for roughing it, this college town surprises with a lively arts and music scene, outdoor recreation of every type and a mild (for Montana) climate that explains its “Garden City” nickname.
Missoula offers a look at western Montana in between its two famous national parks. It has a rich history as a progressive outpost and a role as muse for those following in the fly-fishing footsteps of its most famous son, “A River Runs Through It” author Norman Maclean. Not to mention that this “hub of five valleys,” as it’s also known, claims plenty of jaw-dropping scenery.
And if Missoula’s hippie vibe still peeks out from behind downtown festivals and campus gatherings, its New West credentials are on display in local distilleries serving craft cocktails, on bar stools as likely to be topped by web developers as cowboys and in the laid-back residents who may not own a single suit but have more than one pair of wedding-appropriate jeans. Here’s how to make the most of a summer’s day in Missoula.
Wake up at the Hideaway Report-recommended Resort at Paws Up as the sun burns mist from the lush Greenough Valley. Head for Missoula — “only 30 minutes from Montana” according to a long-running statewide joke and, yes, 30 minutes away — which falls along a stretch of the Blackfoot River that Maclean immortalized in his novella, and watch for rising trout on the water and bighorn sheep seeking salt licks on the rocky cutouts along the road.
You’ll enter Missoula through the memorably named Hellgate Canyon, with a giant “L” and “M” over each shoulder. The first is for Loyola High, the second for the University of Montana, whose presence looms large and which boasts a striking campus just under its huge initial. The ambitious can hike 13 switchbacks to the “M” for the best view in the valley on the state’s most popular trail. (Count on an hour for the round trip, and be sure to wear sneakers and bring a camera.)
Grab a cup of joe at Black Coffee Roasting on the way into downtown from the local roaster’s funky Quonset hut headquarters (525 E. Spruce) and head for the main drag, Higgins Avenue. On Saturdays, robust farmers markets bracket the core of downtown (Clark Fork Market; Missoula Farmers Market), but upscale diner-style breakfast fare can be had seven days a week at Catalyst Cafe (111 N. Higgins Ave.).
Take a walk along the Riverfront Trail, just a block away, through downtown’s Caras Park. Home to countless events throughout the year, this open-air park along the Clark Fork River features a stunning hand-carved carousel that attracts kids and parents alike. Made with more than 100,000 volunteer hours and spearheaded by a local cabinetmaker, A Carousel for Missoula (101 Carousel Dr.) is a local treasure. Just beyond, you might glimpse surfers — 500 miles from the nearest ocean — carving turns on Brennan’s Wave, a manmade whitewater park originally designed for kayakers but now more popular with the fast-growing and fun-to-watch river-surfing scene.
Between downtown and the university exists a city planner’s nightmare, a neighborhood known as the Slant Streets for its inexplicable 45-degree offset from the rest of Missoula’s grid. But in this off-kilter section of town you’ll find beautiful historic homes and Caffé Dolce (500 Brooks St.), a cavernous but elegant Italian eatery just a few (crooked) blocks from the edge of campus. Consider the short-rib ragu, but save room for gelato and a few sips from the extensive wine list.
Missoula takes its arts seriously, and downtown is packed with galleries, a pair of independent bookstores hosting regular readings and public art around every corner. Head to Radius Gallery (114 E. Main St.) for rotating contemporary exhibits across multiple mediums, the Dana Gallery (246 N. Higgins Ave.) for more classically Western art — think wall-size landscapes, Native American artists and plenty of cowboy scenes — and finish up at the Missoula Art Museum (335 N. Pattee St.) and the adjacent Missoula Art Park. With eight halls indoors and a large sculpture garden outside, exhibits rotate frequently but lean toward Western themes and regional artists. The outdoor sculptures change each summer to save them from the snow.
If you’re a fly fisherman, be sure to visit downtown’s Grizzly Hackle, which overlooks the Clark Fork River. Besides a well-curated mix of equipment and flies, its staff offers plenty of insight into area rivers and streams. From spring runoff to late-season heat, river conditions vary considerably through the summer, but in this trout mecca, fish are usually biting somewhere.
Montana ranks second in the U.S. in number of breweries per capita, and Missoula is the epicenter of craft beers in the state. With 10 breweries in town, there’s something for everyone, but the atmosphere and mix of brews at Draught Works (915 Toole Ave.) can’t be beat. During the summer, reach for Draught Works’ Blood Orange Gose, a complex and refreshing sour-style ale. Though beer is the main event, a rotating cast of food trucks offers interesting pairing options, and the brewery features live music a few nights each week, plus housemade root beer for the under-21 crowd.
Prefer a cocktail? Montgomery Distillery (129 Front St.) uses traditional methods and local ingredients to brew gin, vodka, aquavit, rye and single-malt whiskeys. The Sudden Wisdom Rye is tasty, but it’s the Whyte Laydie Gin, with its Rocky Mountain juniper and unexpected ingredients like yarrow and elderflower, that steals the show. A classic gin and tonic highlights its complexity, but the Go Gingerly, an upmarket twist on gin and juice, served in the distillery’s saloon-inspired cocktail bar, is perfect in any season.
If a sweet pick-me-up is more your speed, grab a cone downtown on either side of the river at Sweet Peaks or Big Dipper and stop in at the shops and boutiques on Front Street, known as the “Hip Strip.”
For a summertime dinner, finding a perfect patio can be just as important as finding the perfect plate. Get the best of both at Plonk (322 N. Higgins Ave.), where a rooftop patio offers the feel of a secret garden and views of Mount Jumbo fading to umber as the sun drops. The immense Ploughman’s Board offers a chance to pair the perfect bottle of wine from the triple-digit-deep list.
If the up-to-16 hours of daylight have your retinas in need of rest, the intimate Pearl Cafe (231 E. Front St.) offers a cozy atmosphere and what many locals claim as their favorite entrées in town. This is cattle country, and the two filets on chef Pearl Cash’s menu are classic Montana, pure and simple.
Stars don’t come out until nearly midnight in midsummer, but the time should pass quickly with a little help from a sugar rush courtesy of the “S’moreologists” back at The Resort at Paws Up. Far from the standard Hershey-bar dessert you remember, the lodge’s gourmet variations incorporate ingredients like cookies, in place of graham crackers, and bacon filling. (And getting that perfect crust on a marshmallow without lighting it on fire is still every bit as satisfying as you remember.)
Finally, throw back a well-deserved nightcap. Just plan to keep your head up for a while to enjoy the view — the stars burn a little brighter in Big Sky Country.