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Outdoors Guide to Missoula, Montana

by Jim Blanks
Missoula, Montana

Missoula, Montana - Stock photo from David Burton (@dburton) via Twenty20

If you are traveling through western Montana, Missoula offers a wonderful stopping point on your way to the many national parks and nearby wilderness areas. It is a beautiful college town featuring the joining of five valleys – Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Flathead, Frenchtown and Hellgate – and the confluence of two rivers – Bitterroot and Clark Fork.

For the outdoor enthusiast, there are few places better in the western United States, offering activities and locations that promise adventure, fun, and the renewal of your spirit. Here are three essential outdoor activities to make your next trip to Missoula memorable. Whether you prefer hiking, fishing, or winter sports, there is truly something for everyone in this city.

Hiking Trails

If you love outdoor photography or simply want spectacular views, you can never go wrong with a hike up Mount Sentinel. There are many excellent trails that will give you a scenic overlook of the entire valley, but two of the best are the Kim Williams Trail and the M Trail.

The Kim Williams Trail is ideal for casual nature walks or an outdoor excursion with your children. Built on the same path as a former railway, the trail hugs the Clark Fork river and takes you through the Hellgate Canyon natural area – a perfect trip for viewing wildlife, flowering plants, and other natural wonders. If you are feeling adventurous or want a more strenuous hike, you can pick up the Hellgate Canyon trail and wind your way to the top of Mount Sentinel – a 2-mile hike with roughly 1600 feet of elevation gain.

And for a real workout, by far the most popular hiking trail is a snaking uphill battle known as the M Trail. Although it is less than a mile in length, the M Trail gains over 600 feet of elevation, taking you to the first stopping point – a large concrete M and a beautiful panoramic view of The University of Montana.

You can call it a day there or keep climbing another mile (and another 1000 feet of elevation gain) to the top of Mount Sentinel.

Your reward? Tired legs, burning lungs, and the most spectacular view of Missoula, nearby Mt. Jumbo, and in the southern distance, the Bitterroot Mountains. We promise, the pictures you will bring home are worth the hike.

Fly Fishing

If you prefer your outdoor excursions on the water, Missoula has two excellent locations for avid fishermen. Just outside of Missoula, the Bitterroot River flows through gentle meadows and offers both beautiful natural views and excellent fishing.
Running heavy with cutthroat and rainbow trout, the Bitterroot offers calm wading areas as it approaches Missoula and several forks, meaning endless possibilities for exploring new areas and finding your favorite place to cast a fly.

If you want to stay local, the Clark Fork runs directly through the middle of the city – as described in the Norman Maclean novel, A River Runs Through It. You can access the riverfront from any number of street bridges traversing the city, and the water runs strong and clear throughout the spring and summer months.

It is no surprise that fly fishermen return year after year to these waters, knowing that the chance is always high for a big haul. Even if you are new to angling, there are few experiences more rewarding than wading into the cold water, listening to it run over the rocks and logs, and seeing the nearby Bitterroot and Sapphire mountain ranges wherever you turn.

Winter Sports

There are endless possibilities for winter sports in Missoula, but the closest and most popular remains Snowbowl. Offering a wide range of trails for new skiers, experienced winter sports athletes, and families with children, Snowbowl promises a day of fun in the beautiful mountains.

The full-service resort offers something for everyone, and their well-known “Snow School” provides daily lessons, training for children and first timers, and exclusive programs for university students. And if you need a break from a long day on the trail, take some time off at their beautiful lodge.

Although they are best known for their winter sports, Snowbowl also offers summer activities and has become a popular wedding location.

Traveling to Missoula

Popular as a base camp for travelers on their way to new locations, Missoula offers many outdoor activities for people who want to stay local. You will be amazed at the slower pace of life, the spectacular views, and the abundant wildlife that can be found in Missoula. Whether you are going for a day before you move on, or planning a longer stay, Missoula is worth exploring. You will come away with great memories and new stories to tell about the time you spent in what the author Bill Kittredge once deemed “The Last Best Place.”

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