This Montana Mountain Town Is an Outdoorsy Paradise

Missoula—AKA Zootown—might be Big Sky Country's best-kept secret.

mountain biking, missoula, montana
Come for the brews, stay for the views. | Photo courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism
Come for the brews, stay for the views. | Photo courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism

“Anymore,” as locals here tend to start proclamatory sentences, “Missoula isn’t what it used to be.” Once a stopover town for visitors en route to Glacier National Park or Yellowstone, Montana’s second-largest city—often called Zootown, after the name’s pronunciation and its citizens’ high energy—has grown into much more than a base for epic hikes (though it’s still great for that, too).

Nestled in a valley of golden hills, you'll find 19th-century architecture, hype-worthy craft breweries, ranch-fueled eateries, and everything from flapper-era theaters to dive bars perfect for boogying until the wee hours. In the summer, you can even parachute out of a low-flying plane straight down into the city (where else can you do that!?). Drive just outside of town, and you’re treated to pure, gaping wilderness, with well-kept trails scaling gargantuan mountains, fly fishing rivers with few visitors to compete with, and soothing hot springs set under the wide-open sky.

Montana’s unofficial slogan is “the last best place,” and that feels especially fitting in Missoula, a town that tends to fly under the radar. But perhaps not for long—like many progressive small cities in otherwise conservative states, Missoula keeps drawing in city folk from across the country who will undoubtedly change the cultural and literal landscape. So come quick, while it stays its lovable, zoo-y self. Here’s a rundown of what to see and do when you go.

craft beer, missoula, montana
Missoula breweries: Come early, leave happy. | Bayern Brewing

Guzzle local beer in an old warehouse

Defunct factories in this old sawmill town have been transformed into buzzing microbreweries, where it can feel like every local is sipping a craft IPA or stout there alongside you. Both Kettlehouse and Draught Works are favorites, but don’t sleep on Bayern—the oldest brewery in the state—which bucks fleeting trends in favor of classic German lagers made in-house by Bavaria-born owner and brewer Jürgen Knöller. But we must warn you: Missoula has a weird rule about breweries that orders them to close at 8 pm (!) and you can only order three drinks at each stop.

So if the clock strikes 8:01 pm and you’re still thirsty, head over to Charlie B’s, named one of the bars to drink at before you die and sporting wall-to-wall black and white portraits of its regulars. Union—which, as its name suggests, is a hangout for union laborers—is another great dive bar that transforms into a full-on dance party on the weekends.

plonk restaurant, missoula, montana
Plonk's wine list is everything. | Plonk Missoula

Feast your way through the exciting dining scene

Ask a local and they’ll tell you that the food in Missoula hasn’t always been so great—and you’ll still find average burritos and bland burgers aplenty. But that’s starting to change in a big way. Take Cambie (now with two locations). It isn’t just satisfied with being an excellent cafe with frothy espressos, quality breakfast (the pain du matin is so flaky and delicious), and tasty lunch—it’s also a tap house with charcuterie boards and upscale pub grub.

Plonk (which has a branch in Bozeman that’s also worth raving about) is an eclectic wine bar with ranch-to-table food and more than generous portions. Also getting a lot of hype right now is The Camino, where some of Mexico’s best eats (think Quesadillas stuffed with gooey queso Oaxaqueño, Shrimp Aguachile, and Cochinita Pibil) arrive stateside in snazzy digs. Ready for dessert? You can’t leave Missoula without grabbing a dipped cone from Big Dipper.

mountains in missoula, montana
Yes, you could spot a yeti here. And by yeti, I mean mountain goat. | Visit Missoula!

Stretch your legs on a scenic hike

Yes, Missoula is just two and a half hours from Glacier National Park’s western entrance, and you should most definitely go there when you visit. Traversing Going-to-the-Sun road is as breathtaking as they say, and you might see a yeti (mountain goat) walking down a trail, as this writer did.

But you don’t really have to leave Missoula and its surrounding areas for hikes that stand up to those anywhere else in the state. In town, you’ve got the quintessential Missoula hike up Mount Sentinel to the University of Montana’s big white ‘M’ (as recently seen on the Netflix show Maid). Or, you can go to the Loyola Sacred Heart High School’s ‘L’ up Mount Jumbo before going on a self-guided tour of Missoula’s public art.

Just an hour north of downtown, the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area offers 33.9 miles of trails with views of the awe-inspiring Mission Mountains (part of the Rocky Mountain chain). Less than two hours south, you’ve got the Bitterroot Mountains, which look like they’ve been sliced by a gigantic axe to reveal canyon after canyon. In the winter, trade in your hiking boots for skis and snowboards and head for the hills of the Snowbowl, stashed just 20 minutes from downtown, or Blacktail Mountain, where you can sneak peeks at Glacier while you ride.

fly fishing, missoula, montana
Cast away all your bad vibes. | Courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism

Get out on the water

Missoula is heaven for fly fishing, with four rivers nearby that teem with trout; Rock Creek in Lolo National Forest arguably has the most. You can also fly fish right on the Clark Fork River that cuts through town—but if you visit between June and September, be sure to stick to fish and avoid reeling in a tipsy person on an inflatable tube. In summer, Clark Fork becomes a de facto lazy river. Need gear? There are plenty of places in Missoula that’ll get you sorted, including Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop. And if you’re tired from snagging so many fish, Lolo Hot Springs offers highly affordable ($7) soaks.

montana grizzlies mascot, missoula
Are you not entertained? | Montana Grizzlies

Check out edge-of-your-seat attractions

Wonderfully preserved, century-old venue The Wilma is the go-to place in Missoula for live music, while theater kids should drop in for a show at the half-century-old Montana Repertory Theatre. If movies are more your jam, the 1930s-built Roxy Theater hosts film festivals and independent movies.

Otherwise, keep busy with a football game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Wednesday night trivia at the Stave & Hoop speakeasy, and live jazz with a Bloody Caesar (a take on the Bloody Mary from just over the Canadian border in Alberta) at The Old Post.

Blue Mountain Bed and Breakfast, missoula
Rise and shine. | Blue Mountain Bed and Breakfast

Where to stay in Missoula

Missoula isn’t big, so you can stay pretty much anywhere and be within reasonable walking or Uber distance of where you need to go. An affordable family-friendly option is C’mon Inn, which has a pool, five hot tubs, and a spectacular name.

If you just want to get away from it all, Blue Mountain Bed and Breakfast is a lovely cabin with all wood everything just south of the city where there’s little else but golden hills and deer. For the height of luxury, The Ranch at Rock Creek is a five-star all-inclusive resort located an hour and a half south, where you can live out your most baller Montana cowboy fantasies. 

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Joel Balsam is a Canadian freelance journalist and guidebook author who writes for Lonely Planet, National Geographic, TIME, BBC Travel, and more. His home base is Montreal, but he can often be found tasting his way through a packed market somewhere.