How to maximize a getaway to Montana’s city on the river
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
MISSOULA – In the western part of Montana, where the lofty lodgepole pines bow to the ponderosas and three rushing rivers spill into conjoined valleys, a man with waist-length hair plucks at the strings of a bass on a curbside. The throbbing notes reverberate down the busy street, checkerboarded with both historic and brand-new buildings. Several people whiz by on bikes and others clink glasses on buzzing outdoor patios. This is a summer day in downtown Missoula.
After growing up in Big Sky, Missoula was the first place I lived long-term. I quickly learned how hard it is to describe the city of Missoula in the context of Montana, yet at the same time how impossible it is to talk about the city apart from its host state. In many ways, Missoula is somewhat of Montana’s black sheep: not only is it an intensely liberal pocket in a notoriously red state, but it also embodies more of an urban culture than most of its rural surroundings.
On the other hand, Missoula’s identity is deeply intertwined with the stunning northwestern landscape it is nestled within, and though it’s one of Montana’s largest cities with a population of about 80,000, chance encounters with friends and neighbors are about as predictable as microbreweries on every block. Within a few months of my residency, I came to understand that socially, Missoula doesn’t feel all that disparate from my hometown of 3,000.
The city is widely known for its vibrant and sonorous culture; a hub for music and art in a region that forever was skipped over by flashy headliners (Missoula marquis were advertising big names long before Bozeman’s Rialto hosted G-Love or Steve Martin’s band agreed to play in Big Sky). And still, at rowdy events like August’s annual River City Roots Festival downtown, people still don scratches on their calves from a day of pedaling through the region’s many trails, and sandal tans from a float down the Blackfoot River.
Missoula is the epitomal intersection of a lifestyle rooted in both the outdoors and the city.
While Missoula is a great place to live, it also makes for one hell of a weekend. Here’s a handful of ways to spend a 48-hour trip in Montana’s Garden City.
If there were ever a place to do a brew tour, Missoula is it. Of Montana’s more than 40 breweries, many have Missoula addresses. Whether you’re taking the Thirst Gear, a 15-passenger bike-like brew crawler, or traveling between taps on foot, tasting the malty flavor of the city is a recommended way to spend at least an afternoon in Missoula. It’s hard to choose only a few, but an enjoyable route that takes you through the eclectic Hip Strip, downtown and the beloved North Side is a good place to start. Start your tour at GILD, a three-story brewery that has a taproom floor, lounge floor and a level of vintage arcade games. Make your away across the Clark Fork River on the Higgins Street bridge to the Cranky Sam Public House, a taproom and brewery with a social patio and unique history. Take note of the 1930s mural inside, which was uncovered during the building’s renovations. End your journey at Draught Works and sip one of their flagships or something new on another great patio. Food trucks like Missoula’s Empanada Joint are often parked here, so save room for something good.
If you’re lucky enough to hit Missoula on the first Friday of the month, you’ll have the option to enjoy First Friday, a favorite Missoula tradition. In the evening, downtown art galleries and businesses open their doors to passersby and offer music, drinks and good conversation. First Friday is perhaps one of the greatest expressions of Missoula’s culture; it is welcoming, energetic and full of art.
The city of Missoula has in many ways been shaped by the rivers that run through it. During the hot summer months, when the runoff subsides to slower waters, floating the river is a popular way to spend a Saturday. If you’re looking for a relaxing booze cruise, start at the Sha-Ron put-in in East Missoula and enjoy a quick 3.6-mile float into town. If you’re looking for a full-day venture with a little more excitement, take your raft to the Blackfoot or Lochsa rivers, but take note of sections that require more skill and experience. If you’re a surfer or kayaker, check out Brennan’s Wave next to Caras Park and show off your tricks to the gawkers from the park’s balcony. Whatever your poison, Trailhead, a local gear shop, is a great place to pick up float routes and tips as well as any necessary equipment.
Catch a Show
In a world where COVID-19 precautions are winding down, the many music venues in Missoula are beginning to reintroduce fans to live shows. From the smaller and historic Wilma downtown to KettleHouse Amphitheater along the Blackfoot River, the venues are often as enjoyable as the acts. Many people, especially from within Montana, plan a Missoula visit around when their favorite artists are performing—just make sure to buy your tickets far in advance. Some summer shows, like two of three Brandi Carlisle performances, are already sold out.
Take a Hike
Missoula trails are unique from others in southwest Montana. A different climate and location along the Continental Divide provide for unique vegetation like massive Cedar trees and even some patches of rainforest in the southwestern part of the Bitterroot Mountains. If you’re sticking around town, Waterworks is a great place to find a network of shorter trails that overlook the city, and the popular trails up Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel lead to classic Missoula vistas.
Missoula and the surrounding region are blessed with rich agricultural land thanks to the many rivers that bleed fertility into the flanking soils. This part of the area’s identity is presented in its best form at the Clark Fork Market near the river downtown on Saturdays. Stands offering international cuisine, flower arrangements and other artisan products are intermixed with the colorful produce tables. Even if you’re just walking through, this is a stop worth making.