Missoula, Montana. Photo via Shutterstock.

Best Things To Do In Missoula

BY Jeremiah David Jenkins | November 30, 2023

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in Missoula, Montana?”

A small college town in Big Sky Country, Missoula is beloved by fly fishers, skiers, ranchers, conservationists and hippies for its easygoing pace and generous access to wilderness. In winter, snowcaps cover the two nearest mountains, Jumbo and Sentinel, which in summer are bright with sage and bitterroot flowers. The city’s location in a valley at the foot of the Rocky Mountains might draw the obvious comparisons to Boise or Boulder, but Missoula (affectionately known as Zootown to locals) still has the magic of a well-kept secret, delighting anyone who’s ever spent a week, a night or even driven through. Steinbeck said, “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.” Come to Missoula to see what he meant.

YOU’RE HERE TO SKI

Snow covered Montana mountains.
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Snow covered Montana mountains. Photo via Shutterstock.

Montana Snowbowl

MontanaSnowbowl Ski Area, Missoula, MT, USA

Western Montana is famous for its backcountry skiing — and all the ski-porn film festivals that go with it — but Snowbowl is the premier resort for those old-fashioned shredders that like their runs groomed. Four chairlifts service nearly 40 runs, ranging from bunny hills to steep verticals. The unpaved access road can get hairy after a big snow, and the base lodge is nothing fancy, but the powder is as fresh as it gets.

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WATCH A GRIZZLIES GAME

Washington-Grizzly Stadium
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Washington-Grizzly Stadium

Washington-Grizzly Stadium

Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Campus Drive, Missoula, MT, USA

The University of Montana’s historic campus serves as a hub for the city’s vibrant culture. The university is a D1 school, so its football team, the Grizzlies, attracts big crowds and impassioned rivalries. Home games are notoriously raucous, so much so that you can hear fans roaring from the top of nearby Mt. Sentinel.

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TAKE IN THE VIEWS

Driving through Montana can be slow going, but not because of traffic. It’s just too darn tempting to pull over every 20 miles to take a picture. In Missoula, you’ll find postcard-worthy views everywhere you turn — here are just a few to look out for.

The M in Missoula.
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The M in Missoula.

The M

Missoula, MT 59803, USA

Perhaps Missoula’s most recognizable feature, the M is a white concrete letter erected near the top of Mt. Sentinel by UM students in 1968. Today, it’s a gathering place and a landmark, visible from almost anywhere in the city. Hiking to the M is a steep but short trek, just under a mile long, up a series of tight switchbacks.

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Glacier National Park
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Beautiful landscape photography of Glacier National Park in Montana USA. Photo via Shutterstock.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park Headquarters, 64 Grinnell Drive, West Glacier, MT 59936, USA

This one’s technically two and a half hours from town, but it’s a stunning drive the whole way to the park. Turquoise waters and panoramic cirques give Yellowstone and Yosemite a run for their money. During peak season, you’ll need an advanced reservation to see the park’s most popular destinations, like Going-to-the-Sun Road and Many Glacier Valley, so plan your trip early.

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Lewis and Clark Trail

Lewis and Clark Trail, Missoula, MT 59801, USA

Lewis and Clark trekked through what is now Missoula on both legs of their journey, stopping at Lolo Hot Springs each time to camp and bathe along the way. Today, much of the original Lewis and Clark Trail follows highways and interstates, but sections of the 200-mile passage from Missoula to Lewiston, Idaho are still preserved. In fact, Traveler’s Rest State Park has the only physical evidence of Lewis and Clark’s journey: a mercury-tainted latrine.

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The Rattlesnake Wilderness
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The Rattlesnake Wilderness

The Rattlesnake Wilderness

Rattlesnake Dr, Missoula, MT 59802, USA

Don’t let the name scare you away. The most intimidating part of the Rattlesnake Wilderness isn’t the snakes, it’s the steep, nine-mile climb to Stuart Peak. The view from the top, which overlooks several alpine lakes, makes it all worthwhile.

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Ewan Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, Arlee, MT. Photo via Shutterstock.
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Ewan Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, Arlee, MT. Photo via Shutterstock.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

34574 White Coyote Rd, Arlee, MT 59821, USA

This one also makes the list of our favorite roadside attractions, and it’s only 30 minutes north of town. Founded by a Tibetan Buddhist master in 2000 and finally completed in 2016, it lives up to the promise of its name. The large, rambling grounds in the Jocko Valley are free to enter and have rows upon rows of miniature Buddha arranged into a dharma wheel.

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GRAB A BEER, CATCH A SHOW

Some of Missoula’s best-loved breweries do double-duty as event spaces, so it’s easy getting everything you want in one place.

Draught Works
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Draught Works

Draught Works

915 Toole Ave, Missoula, MT 59802, USA

A beer-loving town like Missoula has a lot of breweries to choose from, but Draught Works is a top stop, even based on location alone. This repurposed warehouse in the heart of downtown has an airy, industrial feel, with high ceilings, exposed rafters and lots of brick. Unique, seasonal brews like their Cherry Porter and Jalapeño Blonde Ale don’t disappoint, either.

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KettleHouse Amphitheater
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KettleHouse Amphitheater

KettleHouse Amphitheater

605 Cold Smoke Ave, Bonner-West Riverside, MT 59823, USA

Once a competitor in the downtown microbrewing market, KettleHouse saw Missoula’s need for a great outdoor venue and jumped on it. Capacity at the amphitheater east of the gorgeous Hellgate Canyon tops out at just over 4,000. Headliners at the venue have included Jason Mraz, Reggie Watts, Youth Lagoon and Andrew Bird.

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International Wildlife Film Festival
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International Wildlife Film Festival

International Wildlife Film Festival

718 S Higgins Ave, Missoula, Montana 59801, USA

For a small mountain town, having an “international” anything is a big deal. Of course, it helps that the IWFF was also the first of its kind, creating a major platform for wildlife filmmakers the world over. The festival is held in late April, but the wildlife in Montana is visible year-round.

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GO WITH THE RIVER FLOW

Or should we say rivers. Three rivers converge in the Missoula Valley: the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot Rivers. Not bad for the sixth-driest state in the country.

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Surf Brennan’s Wave

101 Carousel Dr, Missoula, MT 59802, USA

If you follow the Clark Fork River as it winds through town, you’ll notice something strange at one particular length of rapids: surfers in wetsuits seeming to defy the current. Even in winter, these river surfers brave the snow to ride Brennan’s Wave, a feature constructed in the rapids to honor a native Missoulian kayaker who died in Chile in 2001. Brennan’s Wave grew so popular that in 2010 Missoula hosted the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championships there.

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fly fisherman on the Ruby river, Montana

Fly Fish Like Norman Maclean

Blackfoot River, Montana, USA

“The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.” So goes the famous quote by Norman Maclean in his beloved book, “A River Runs Through It,” set in and around Missoula. If watching Brad Pitt fly fishing in the movie adaptation makes you want to try your hand at the sport, the Blackfoot River is the place to go. Just beware: Brad Pitt makes everything look easy.

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WHERE TO STAY

The Wren
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The Wren

The Wren

201 E Main St, Missoula, MT 59802, USA

You’ll find The Wren on our list of best new hotels in 2022, and so far its reputation has only gotten stronger. In a city with plenty of chain hotels, this boutique alternative stands out for its bright, colorful decor and sunny outdoor courtyard. If you need a little extra motivation to roll out of its comfy beds, The Wren partnered with local Black Coffee Roasting Co. to set up a café in the lobby. It’s also one of the only dog-friendly hotels in town.

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Goldsmith’s Riverfront Inn
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Goldsmith’s Riverfront Inn

Goldsmith’s Riverfront Inn

803 E Front St, Missoula, MT 59802, USA

Built in 1911, this gem of local history was once home to the president of the University of Montana, before being converted into a six-bedroom bed and breakfast in 1989. No two rooms are alike here, though they’re all equipped with private bathrooms and modern amenities. On the ground floor, the wraparound porch has stunning views of the river and the lights on the Van Buren St. footbridge — a shortcut to the quaint row of shops and restaurants on the beloved “hip strip.”

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