Teetering on the border between Montana and Idaho, on Interstate 90, the Garden City (so called because of its abundance of greenery) is the heart of the Northern Rockies and the crossroads of all kinds of cultures. Before you pack, you might want to get some help planning. The Missoula Area Convention & Visitors Bureau is a good place to start (825 East Front Street, 800-526-3465;
When the Northern Pacific Railroad first laid its rails through Missoula, in 1883, a half-dozen Victorian-style hotels came with it, and most of them remain today as apartments, offices, and antiques shops. But even though you can’t find the soda fountains or seventy-five-cent rooms that are still advertised in fading paint on the sides of some of those old hotels, you can find plenty of evocative places to stay. The Foxglove Cottage (2331 Gilbert Avenue, 406-543-2927), up Rattlesnake Canyon north of downtown, is a century-old house known for its colorful summertime garden. With only three rooms, space is a precious commodity there, and rates fluctuate from $65 in the ski season to $95 in the summer. If you’d prefer to doze to the sound of Montana’s famously lush waters, there’s Goldsmith’s Inn (809 East Front Street, 406-721-6732), a sturdy work of red-brick railroad-era architecture perched right on the banks of Missoula’s Clark Fork River. Double rooms are $79-$109 in the winter, $95-$129 in fly-fishing season. You might also try the Gracenote Garden (1558 South Sixth Street West, 406-543-3480), a building dating from the late 1800s in the old Southside neighborhood. No nickel meals, but with rooms running from $70 to $90 year-round, it remains one of the city’s more affordable historic inns.
Of course there are name-brand hotels as well, the biggest of which offer convenient downtown locations. The Holiday Inn Parkside (200 South Pattee Street, 406-721-8550) has a $99 rate from June through September; it’s $89 the rest of the year; the Double-Tree (100 Madison Street, 406-728-3100) can run from $79 in winter to $129 in summer. Both sit by the Clark Fork River and afford views of the century-old campus of the University of Montana.
Whether Missoula has a cuisine that it can claim as its own is a subject of debate. Some Missoulians might tell you that there are only three food groups necessary for human life: beef, beer, and ranch dressing. But even if it’s not known for specific dishes, the town certainly has more than its share of local flavor. Flanking the railroad tracks on the northern edge of downtown, the Depot (406-728-7007) suits many tastes with both fine dining and family fare, as well as a cozy and affordable lounge. For a more intimate meal, duck into Red Bird (406-549-2906), nested in an alley behind downtown’s Catalyst coffee shop. Red Bird’s rotating menus, specialty dishes, and attentive service can make for a memorable evening, as can the newly opened Marianne’s (406-728-8549). On the ground level of the historic Wilma Building, Marianne’s offers light and innovative meals in a riverfront park setting.
One favorite less formal hangout is the Missoula Club (406-728-3740) on Main Street, where philosophers and lackwits alike spend time under fluorescent lights eating peanuts by the papercupful and chewing on the club’s famous burgers, fried up on the griddle behind the bar. A few blocks away on Higgins Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, the Dinosaur Cafe (406-549-2940) is also a mandatory stop. Tucked in back of Charlie B’s bar, the Dinosaur is renowned for Cajun and Creole dishes like gumbo, étouffée, and perhaps the best fried-catfish sandwich in the Western world. Finally, no tour of Missoula’s eateries would be complete without a stop at the Oxford (406-549-0117), the Platonic form of a bar and café, where local characters tip pitchers, play poker (gambling is legal in Montana), and shovel in forkfuls of brains and eggs, probably the closest thing Missoula has to a signature dish.
Once you’ve gotten yourself fed and sheltered, it’s time to take in some history, which in this town is easy. Few modern cities in the West are as manifestly historic as Missoula. The best place to start is the Riverfront Trail, a loop path that sidles along both banks of the Clark Fork River and can easily be completed in an hour. Nine historic markers lead you through eons of the region’s past, from the arrival of the Salish Indians to the visit of Lewis and Clark and the first white settlement in 1860 (the work of a trader named C. P. Higgins). You’ll get some lessons in natural and architectural history as well.
The most definitive stop for those exploring the city’s past is the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula (406-728-3476). Situated in the old quartermaster’s warehouse at the former Army fort in the southwestern part of town (take the Reserve Street exit from I-90 and drive south until you see the signs), the museum covers many chapters of the city’s history, from its role as an Army outpost in the 1870s to its service as headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and its days as an internment camp during World War II. The facility encompasses thirty-two acres, including thirteen historic buildings that range from log cabins to one of the last remaining internment-camp barracks. The two-dollar admission price will get you nearly a century and a half of history.
Missoula enjoys a well-earned reputation as one of the live-music centers of the Northwest. Comparisons have been made, in fact, between Missoula and such hot spots as Austin, Texas, and Memphis, Tennessee, but unlike those cities, which center their entertainment on one or two streets, Missoula spreads around its cultural wealth. Still, the city’s tightly packed center district makes it easy to catch a number of shows all within walking distance of one another, from punk to country.
The Ritz (406-721-6731), on Ryman Street, is often crowded and alwavs entertaining, staeine shows by rock, blues. and cover bands in a historic atmosphere. While on Ryman, stop by the Rhino (406-721-6061) just a few doors to the south, which offers an astounding fifty beers on tap. Just one block from the river on Front Street, meanwhile, the Top Hat (406-728-9865) features all sorts of acts from rock to folk, as well as free weekly lessons in swing dancing. And another block away, on Main Street, the dark and dank Jay’s Upstairs (406-728-9915) serves as Missoula’s punk-rock headquarters, showcasing bands from around the world.
In summer the long days and warm weather set the stage for a whole string of concerts under the sleek white pavilion of Caras Park, on the river, where the Bravo Concert Series brings a wide variety of national acts to Missoula from July to September. The park also is host to Out to Lunch every summer Wednesday, when noontime crowds converge to sample food vendors’ goods and take in free outdoor concerts.
A love for the outdoors is one thing every visitor to Missoula should bring, for few cities cater so generously to the needs of the nature lover. To begin with, just a few miles northeast of town you’ll find the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. In summer, tramp its hiking trails; in winter, many of those trails double as tracks for cross-country skiing.
At the southern end of town you can access the Pattee Canyon National Recreation Area. If you take Higgins Avenue south from downtown about two miles, you’ll see Pattee Canyon Drive, which leads to even more, even longer, and often even more challenging trails. And as in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area, many of the Pattee trails also make awesome cross-country routes during the snowy months.
Two world-class ski areas flank the city. Just eleven miles to the north of town, Snow Bowl (406-549-9777) has been attracting skiers to its slopes for thirty-five years. (While you’re there, stop by the lodge bar and try one of its famous bloody marys.) A short drive to the east of town, the newer Marshall Mountain (406-258-6000) makes space for downhillers, snowboarders, and cross-country skiers alike. Both areas are only a few minutes from the heart of Missoula and can easily be reached by I-90.
Finally, there are Missoula’s two most popular outdoor sports, which go with its two most prominent features. Along the city’s eastern edge, a pair of rounded grassy mountains sit separated by the Clark Fork River: Mount Jumbo to the north of the waters, Mount Sentinel to the south. In long-standing tradition, each mount is emblazoned with a school letter, Mount Jumbo bearing a big whitewashed L for the Loyola Catholic High School, Mount Sentinel, a monolithic M first put there by the University of Montana junior class in 1909. On any sunny Sunday you’ll meet dozens of Missoulians hoofing up to (or wheezing down from) their letter of choice. The trailheads are easy enough to spot, and both trips will take you about thirty minutes each way. It’s worth the effort. From the high vantage of either mountain, you can look out over the Missoula Valley, size it up, and then decide what you want to make of it when you get back down.