My boyfriend works for a software company based in Missoula, in northwestern Montana. I tag along on his work trips as often as possible and on every trip its relative dearth of tourists perplexes me. With a population of about 70,000, Missoula is Montana’s second-largest city. It is an easy day’s drive from both Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. A river flows through the center of downtown and is lined with a robust system of trails. Downtown is stuffed with historic, crenelated brick buildings. Restaurants serve seasonal menus that highlight local produce. There’s even Lewis and Clark history; members of the 1804-1806 expedition were the first Europeans to visit the area. (The Salish had already been wintering in the Bitterroot Valley for hundreds of years.)
“Missoula is a really, really small big city,” says Todd Frank, who moved here in 1981 when it was still a mill town and today owns the gear shop Trail Head. “There’s great dining, culture and social consciousness and anything you want to do outdoors — hiking, mountain biking, fishing, white water, backcountry skiing — is within an hour or two, and it is world-class. It’s heaven.” Since I can’t live in Missoula, I’ll just visit as often as possible, waiting for the trip when I discover the rest of the world has found my secret mountain getaway.
Go, See, Do
Every spring, the International Wildlife Film Festival, which was founded in Missoula in 1977 and today is the longest-running wildlife film festival in the world, takes over the historical Roxy Theater. The rest of the year, the Roxy shows foreign, independent and classic films to audiences who are there as much to see movies like “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” as they are to eat hot, buttery popcorn served in giant aluminum bowls. Catch concerts at the Wilma, a theater built in downtown in 1921 in the elaborately ornamented Sullivanesque style and renovated in 2015, or the KettleHouse Amphitheater, an outdoor venue adjacent to the KettleHouse craft brewery and on the banks of the Blackfoot River.
University of Montana forestry students cut the first switchbacks for a trail up Mount Sentinel at the eastern side of the school’s campus in the early 1900s. (The university opened in 1895.) In 1909, students gave Sentinel hikers an easier destination than the peak’s 5,158-foot summit: a giant “M” only 620 feet and three-quarters of a mile from the valley floor. Originally made from whitewashed rocks, today the M — 120 feet long and 100 feet wide — is concrete. Hiking the 13 switchbacks to it is a workout, but if you want more expansive views of the five valleys surrounding Missoula, continue another mile and 1,300 vertical feet to Mount Sentinel’s summit. Just across Interstate 90 from Sentinel is Mount Jumbo. The trail to its summit is similar in distance and vertical feet to that of Sentinel, but instead of an “M” it is decorated with an “L” (for Loyola Sacred Heart High School) and it’s less busy. Find two miles of flat hiking trails in the Rattlesnake Greenway, an urban oasis home to about 100 species of birds.
The West is a mecca for fly-fishermen. “It’s the place you want to make a pilgrimage to,” says Chris Dombrowski, who has guided fly-fishermen in Montana for 21 seasons. “Within the West, I don’t think you can beat Missoula.” Especially if you go with a guide. “Within an hour’s drive we have something like 52 different floats on four separate rivers, and if you peel out to 70 miles, that number doubles,” says Dombrowski, who, when not guiding, writes poetry and nonfiction. (A review in the Wall Street Journal compared his 2016 nonfiction book, “Body of Water: A Sage, A Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish,” to the writing of Gary Snyder and John McPhee). “The diversity of our watershed is completely unmatched in the West, and we have way fewer boats and fishing pressure up here than the rest of the Western meccas. I get a little grouchy if I see two or three other boats at the put-in.” For close-to-town fishing, guides bring clients to the Kona Bridge Fishing Access Site, where they launch a drift boat into the Clark Fork River and there is also wade fishing. “It’s known for its picky but big rainbow and cutthroat trout,” Dombrowski says.
Walking into the ready room at the Missoula Smokejumper Visitor Center, home to 50 of about 400 highly trained firefighters across the country who parachute from low-flying planes to fight wildland fires in rugged and remote areas, feels like you’re invading the smoke jumpers’ privacy. Dog-eared photos of kids and pets are tucked into the edges of lockers and battle-scarred helmets. Harnesses and heat- and flame-resistant flight suits hang everywhere. But the ready room is an official stop on a free, hour-long tour of the center, which is the oldest (and largest) of the nine smokejumper bases in the country. While it humanizes these seeming superheroes — on the tour you learn that the physical requirements of the job include walking three miles in under 90 minutes ... while carrying 110 pounds — other stops are more surprising. The biggest room is dedicated to repacking parachutes and there is a sewing room. (Smoke jumpers make and maintain all of their jumpsuits, harnesses and gear bags.) The tour ends outside, next to the planes from which these men and women jump.
Because Charlie Baumgartner wouldn’t talk to a reporter, I’m not sure how the tiny cafe in the back of the bar he’s owned since 1980, Charlie B’s, came to be called the Dinosaur Cafe and serve Cajun and Creole food. I do know that, after getting over my hesitation of being a single woman walking into an almost windowless, unmarked bar that is open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., I had the Dinosaur’s “gumbolaya,” a combo of jambalaya and gumbo, three times in four days. I also came to see why Charlie B’s, with black and white portraits of grizzled regulars covering its walls and actual grizzled regulars sitting in high-backed pleather bar stools chatting, arguing and reading the Missoulan daily newspaper, shooting pool and watching one of several flat-screen TVs, was named “Best Bar in Montana” by the Daily Meal. Think “Cheers,” but with ranchers, loggers, former miners and railroad workers, cowboys and writers. Order a sour beer, Prosecco or Aperol spritz at your own peril.
Don’t worry if you show up toward the end of the weekend brunch at Scotty’s Table and the bistro is out of Shakshuka (poached eggs in a sauce of caramelized onions, roasted peppers, tomatoes, cumin, paprika and chili flakes, topped with local feta and cilantro) and cerdo con mole (confit pork shoulder served with a seared polenta cake, mole and two over-easy eggs). Order a burger and an espresso, settle into one of the tables on the shaded patio and listen to the music playing at the Carousel for Missoula in adjacent Caras Park; it’s from the largest band organ in continuous use in the United States. If you like the espresso, made with beans from Drum Coffee, visit the roastery’s cafe, where baristas excel at cortados and a Faema espresso machine shares counter space with a turntable. Drum was founded by John Wicks, drummer of the band Fitz and the Tantrums, and his wife, Jenna.
You could spend your entire trip visiting Missoula’s many craft breweries, or hit the Dram Shop, which has beers from almost of them on tap.. While it’s got beer covered, the Dram Shop is B.Y.O.F. (bring your own food). Order a burger to go from Wally & Buck, which recently opened a storefront nearby after several years as one of Missoula’s most popular food trucks. One of Missoula’s best fine-dining restaurants, Pearl Cafe, founded by Pearl Cash, who grew up in the Bitterroot Valley on a subsistence farm where her mom made everything from scratch and cooked on a wood-burning stove, is adjacent to the Dram Shop. Cash created a limited menu of small bites and favorites from her restaurant’s French-inspired menu that can be delivered to the bar.
I’ve made trips to Missoula just to hang out at Break Espresso, a cavernous cafe with worn oak floors, fast WiFi, classic pastries and layer bars, substantial wood tables and chairs, bankers’ lamps, solid baristas (although sometimes moody) and a clientele as diverse as its pie selection. The pie selection includes about a dozen flavors. For less eccentricity and fancier pastries, such as almond kouign-amanns, hazelnut lunettes and scones, hit Le Petit Outre.
Missoula native Allison Reaves left the city to study and work in apparel design in Corvallis and Portland, Ore., for seven years. She returned home in 2016 and immediately started working on a business plan for a boutique — the General Public opened in April — that sold ethicallymade clothing and accessories designed by small manufacturers (including herself). “Missoula hasn’t had anything like this store before,” says Reaves, whose quirky-cool clothing line inspired by work wear shares its name with the boutique. “I don’t think a store like this could have survived before. But I think we’re ready now.”
Locals come to Butterfly Herbs for hard-to-find bulk spices. Visitors come to check out the pressed tin ceiling that dates to 1897 and to buy gifts for friends back home: Butterfly, which had Missoula’s first commercial espresso machine when it opened in 1972, today has the city’s largest selection of loose-leaf tea blends from local Montana Tea & Spice Trading. (Montana Tea & Spice was founded by the same man who founded Butterfly Herbs, the late Bruce Lee, who created hundreds of tea blends.) The Evening in Missoula blend includes chamomile, peppermint, rosehips, raspberry leaf, lemongrass and spearmint. Butterfly manager Debby Barberio, who has worked here since 1976, says Montana Gold makes the best iced tea. A cafe in the back serves dozens of flavors of tea, but order a chai milkshake instead; it’s made from Butterfly’s own chai and local Big Dipper cardamom ice cream.
You’ll likely find yourself in downtown’s Trail Head because you need bug spray, a warmer layer for an evening walk on the nearby Ron’s River Trail or a bathing suit to float along the Clark Fork River. You’ll probably leave with whatever it was you needed — the 10,000-square-foot store is dedicated to everything outdoors — as well as recommendations of other nearby outdoor adventures to have. Trail Head’s employees, about half of who grew up in Missoula, make the most of the surrounding landscape and happily share their knowledge about trails and paddles. (No angler worth his or her fly shares their favorite fishing spots.) Thanks to an employee here, I knew to hike Mount Sentinel in the morning. “It’s west-facing and can be brutally hot in the afternoon,” I was told.
If you’ve wondered if destination retail still exists in the age of Internet shopping, a visit to Rockin’ Rudy’s shouts “Yes!” by sending you into sensory overload as soon as you walk through its front door. The 15,000-square-foot store’s sense of place and purpose come from its hundreds of Montana-made products — my first stop is always the locally made jewelry — and the state’s largest selection of new and used vinyl and CDs. (The store was founded, in 1982, as a record shop.) Rockin’ Rudy’s branded merchandise includes T-shirts, stickers and patches with a graphic of a Bigfoot walking a unicorn on a lead rope. Additional personality comes from shop cats Jolene and Johnny Cash, strays from nearby Hamilton adopted through Missoula County Animal Control. Jolene and Johnny, both domestic longhairs, are only the third and fourth felines to hold the position of shop cat. Preceding them were Bubba, 1991-2011, and Saul, 2012-2018. When Saul died suddenly in November 2018, the outpouring of grief on social media almost broke the local Internet.
Even if you’re not into fly-fishing, you’ll appreciate the Dry Fly Apartments for their downtown location, proximity to the Clark Fork River and riverfront trails and parks and the 120-year-old exposed interior brick walls. If you are an angler, staying here is a no-brainer: The five two-bedroom apartments are above the Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop, which has been voted Missoula’s best fly shop numerous times and is so confident in its guides that it offers a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. Public spaces in the apartment building feature oil paintings of fish by Derek DeYoung, who is the artist behind Montana’s “wild trout” license plates. Apartments have fish posters and photos, but don’t overwhelm with a fish theme. Shelves above each bed are made from rough-cut and original two-by-fours repurposed when these apartments were remodeled last winter and spring.
Although the developers of the newly opened, 175-suite Marriott Residence Inn Missoula Downtown weren’t able to restore and remodel the National Historic Landmark Missoula Mercantile Building, they built new on the site where it formerly stood. They honored the past of the merc and Missoulawith prints of historic photos sourced from the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library and new black-and-white photos of artifacts retrieved from the merc before it was demolished. Across from the lobby elevators, a diamond-shaped sculpture, “Prose and Connotations” by Jack Boyd, pays homage to Montana writers. Look closely at the books that were used in the artwork and you’ll find that the most prominently displayed ones are by writers including Thomas McGuane and Norman Maclean.
Garden City Brewery opened in the Northside, one of Missoula’s oldest neighborhoods, in 1895 and kept locals happy until it closed in 1965. The neighborhood was without a brewery until 2009, when KettleHouse Brewing Co. opened a production facility and tasting room here. Now breweries, and even a cidery, are renovating the area’s abandoned warehouses and factories faster than you can say “Propinquity Reconciliatory Robust Porter,” one of the beers brewed by community activism-minded Imagine Nation Brewing Company. Draught Works, voted Missoula’s “Best Brewery” and “Best Brew” two years running in the Missoulan’s annual Best of Missoula survey, transformed a Northside warehouse. A former tannery and tire shop on the bank of the Clark Fork River became the production facility and tasting room for Western Cider, which produces ciders using apples grown in the Pacific Northwest and its own orchards in Stevensville, and has a riverside patio shaded by 50 young apple trees.
The Clark Fork River cuts right through the center of Missoula, and the section between Ben Hughes Park and the Orange Street Bridge is the site of the city’s biggest traffic jams. Every day between June and September, hundreds of people float this part of the Clark Fork. The watercraft of choice? Everything from normal tire tubes to air mattresses made to look like a giant slice of pizza and inner tubes shaped like unicorns. Anything goes, so long as you’ve got enough control to paddle clear of any wading fly-fisherman working a riffle along the riverbank and of the kayakers and surfers playing in Brennan’s Wave. This man-made standing white-water feature is named in honor of a local professional kayaker who died while paddling a river in Chile. Both sides of the river have paved pathways, collectively called the Riverfront Trails you can use to walk back to where you started; this trail system is worth exploring on its own, too.