Sometimes called the “hub of five valleys”, the picturesque town of Missoula, in the western half of Montana, might just be the perfect place to spend a summer adventuring. Home to just over 75,000 people, the “River City” has almost every type of outdoor activity, as well as a thriving community, good restaurants, great coffee shops, and even a university.
Founded in 1860 as Hellgate Trading Post (which might be one of the best names ever) the town eventually moved farther upriver and became Missoula Mills - which later got shortened to just Missoula. The town quickly began to grow thanks to it being an important supplier to the Mullen Road (the first wagon road to cross the Rocky Mountains) and settlers, a fort, a stop on the Northern Pacific Railway, and in 1893, the choice location for the state’s first university - the University of Montana.
Today, the town has 400 acres of parkland, 22 miles of trails, and nearly 5,000 acres of open space conservation land just within the towns close vicinity. Nearby there are 3 different national forests (Lolo, Flathead, and Kootenai), multiple mountains reaching 4,000+ feet in elevation, and a handful of rivers (hello prime fly-fishing). There is even a National Bison Range, which was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and today holds 250-300 bison.
So obviously Missoula is a prime location for any and all adventures, no matter the time of year. With so much to offer, it was tough narrowing it down to just a couple highlights. But here are a few of the best things to do in and around the beautiful Montana town.
For the best view: the M and Mount Sentinel
A 3.1 mile out and back trail that is quite popular for locals (especially runners), this hike takes you up a set of switchbacks before reaching the famous “M.” After reaching the landmark (and taking in the views of the valley and university below) you can keep hiking another mile up to the top of Mount Sentinel. There you will be able to not only see the valley below, but also Hellgate Canyon, Mount Jumbo, the Rattlesnake National Recreation and Wilderness Area, and even the Bitterroot Mountains. You have a couple of options for the descent, including simply retracing your steps, taking the Crazy Canyon Trail into Pattee Canyon, or following the Hellgate Canyon Trail to Crazy Canyon Trail and then on to the Kim Williams Trail.
For a beautiful long haul: Rattlesnake Trail
Coming in at just under 34 miles total, this trail takes you along the Rattlesnake Creek and through various Rocky Mountain biomes. While this is a popular trail for hiking and backpacking, it is also open to mountain bikers. And thanks to it being an old logging road, the trail is actually quite wide and has a gentle grade - at least for the first 9 miles. There are also a number of side trails spitting off Rattlesnake Trail, making it a kind of “choose your own adventure.”
Tip: this trail doesn’t have a ton of shade so make sure to bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water, no matter how long you plan to go.
For a nice workout: Pattee Canyon Trail
Another awesome trail, and one that will definitely get your heart rate up. This 10.3 mile out and back route gains just under 3,000 feet in elevation, allowing you to have some great views near the top. It is also a superb area to see wildflowers, especially in late spring. Many people use the trail for hiking and trail running (like we said, it will get your heart rate up).
You might expect a small(ish) town out in the mountains of Montana to not have a great selection of food. Well, you would be entirely wrong. Turns out, Missoula has lots of awesome food options to choose from. Here are a few of the best options.
Pre-Hike Fill-Up: Tagliare Delicatessen
Home of some of the best meats and cheeses around, this unassuming deli might just have the best sandwich in all of Missoula (maybe Montana?). Grab one of their unique and tasty sandwiches before hitting the trails (or for when you are starving afterward). Some of the yummiest options are the Pixie (goat cheese, pickled beets, carrots, arugula, and mustard vinaigrette), the Misfit (turkey, hot sopressata, garlic aioli, fig walnut chutney, swiss, pepperoncinis, spinach) and the Journey (smoked salmon, caper cream cheese, onion, and arugula).
Fast, But Make it Healthy: Five on Black
It can be tough finding a place that is delicious, fast, healthy, and cheap. Luckily, Five on Black checks all the boxes. With their easy to customize menu (pick your base, meat, vegetables, sides, and toppings) you can really create whatever you are feeling, all with a nice Brazilian flavor. This is a great spot to stop if you are gearing up for a long drive (like we were when passing through) or planning a nice picnic in the park.
A Hidden (Food) Gem: The Greek Pastry Shop aka #1 Gyros
Who would have thought you could find maybe the best gyro around in a small Montana town? Either way, the Greek Pastry Shop is a must-stop if you are craving anything remotely Greek. Order an original gyro and be ready to be transported to some beautiful Greek village along the Meditteranean.
Perfect Lazy Morning Brunch: The Catalyst Cafe
In our opinion, you can’t have a bad day if you start with a delicious meal of huevos rancheros. And at The Catalyst Cafe, they sure know how to make some awesome, mouth-watering huevos rancheros. Other delicious options include chilaquiles and “The Heap” aka a skillet with tons of veggies, eggs, and cheese. Another great thing (okay two) about The Catalyst Cafe is their vegan chorizo and coffee options (they originally started as a coffee cart back in 1991.
Learn more about Missoula’s food offerings here.
Speaking of Coffee…
Awesome coffee, homemade baked goods, and a great atmosphere perfect for getting work done, Break Espresso might just be the best place to spend a day getting things accomplished.
Both a unique coffee shop and a coffee roaster, this place truly has you covered in the caffeine area. All of their coffee is organic, fair trade, and ethically produced. Plus, each is individually roasted to highlight their own unique characteristics. If that doesn’t make you want to stop in for a cup then we don’t know what will.
With a nice cozy, neighborhood coffee shop feel, Drum Coffee is the perfect place to meet up with friends for a cup of joe and some light fare (and great conversation). Sit outside, breathe in the Montana air and just relax (or rev up with their delicious espresso drinks). One thing to note is the Wifi is not free (but with good friends, who cares…).
Here is a nice list of other great coffee shops in and around Missoula.
Missoula might not be the first place to come to mind when thinking of an outdoor getaway. Honestly, until we drove through on our road trip West, Missoula was just a dot on a map and a place way out in the wilds of Montana. But after checking the town out, and seeing all the amazing things it has to offer (both naturally and culturally), we now consider it a place we could totally see ourselves living in later on.
So if you are anywhere within Missoula’s vicinity, or are just looking for a place to spend a couple of days (or weeks) back in nature, we HIGHLY recommend checking Missoula out. Just make sure to bring some good hiking boots, your mountain bike, a fly fishing rod, and of course, an adventurous spirit!