Sitting in a picturesque valley surrounded by 6 million acres of undeveloped land, Missoula, Montana, is a haven for outdoors lovers. However, tourists may just as likely take in a play or sip coffee in a bookshop as hike through a mountain pasture when visiting this rapidly-growing University of Montana college town 200 miles east of Spokane.
Trekkers looking to stretch their legs in “Big Sky Country” find that this region is a hiker’s paradise. One of the best-known trails and top attractions around Missoula is Mt. Sentinel. Outdoor enthusiasts placed the first stone “M” on the mountainside in 1908. The “M trail,” which is less than a mile long, covers an elevation change of 620 feet. Hikers should be prepared to breathe hard when ascending its switchbacks. Though not as steep as the “M,” the Hellgate Canyon Trail is more than two miles long, gaining 1,600 feet in elevation. Views of the Clark Fork River are well worth the hike. Two-wheel trekkers head up bike-friendly Mo Z Trail.
When it’s time to swap country for city, travelers head into downtown Missoula. Theatre fans visiting Missoula are pleasantly surprised at the range of live theatre in the city. The Montana Repertory Theatre partners with the University of Montana in productions of traditional favorites, such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” as well as touring shows, like Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” Travelers with kids in tow frequent the Missoula Children’s Theatre to watch “The Hobbit” or “Alice in Wonderland.”
Missoula shopping doesn’t disappoint either. One of the top attractions for eco-conscious consumers is the Fair Trade Store, which opens the doors to clothing and jewelry from artisans around the world. The non-profit Jeannette Rankin Peace Center operates this store to provide an “environmentally sustainable alternative” to current global trade practices. Trekkers seek out Pipestone Mountaineering for that perfect base layer, and bookworms head for the cozy refuge of Fact and Faction for a comfy chair and a good read.
Dining choices in Missoula are diverse; whether you’re looking for a drive-in dive or a swanky warehouse eatery, Missoula obliges. On the drive-in side, Hoagieville is the place for the namesake sandwich and fun carhop service. High-brow crowds visiting Missoula should reserve a table at the Pearl Café and Bakery, which prepares fine entrees featuring filet mignon, duckling and truffle flan.
When it’s time to unwind with a cold brew, travelers hole up in bars like the Iron Horse Brew Pub and Charlie B’s. If beer from the source is in order, breweries like the Kettlehouse Brewing Company and Big Sky Brewing offer craft beers and quirky interiors.
Then when the Big Sky day is done, Missoula lodging covers the gamut from lodges to chains as well as a luxury resort, although the luxury resort should be explained. The Resort at Paws Up is a “glamping” destination, featuring hot tubs, king-size beds and a butler. But for visitors merely in need of a comfortable place to crash, the C’mon Inn near Snowbowl may be just the ticket.