10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Missoula
Founded in 1860 as a small trading post with the unenviable name of Hellgate, Missoula is in western Montana on the Clark Fork River. Its dramatic setting is due to its position where five mountain ranges converge, leading to it being dubbed the Hub of Five Valleys. The state's second largest city in terms of population, Missoula is a university town that offers a surprisingly diverse range of cultural attractions and entertainment. It also serves as an excellent base from which to explore some of Montana's most exciting scenery. Outdoor enthusiasts in particular are drawn for its many superb trails, both in the surrounding countryside and in the town itself, which includes some 400 acres of parks and 22 miles of hiking and biking trails. The city also boasts some 5,000 acres of conservation land, including Mount Jumbo with its large populations of deer and elk.
See also: Where to Stay in Missoula
1 The Elk Country Visitor Center
Run by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation - a group dedicated to protecting the ranges, calving grounds, and migration routes of the state's elk population - the Elk Country Visitor Center is a must-visit when in Missoula. Along with its many displays featuring the group's wildlife conservation efforts, it provides a chance to learn more about this native species through exhibits of mounted elk and other wildlife, along with excellent nature films and photos. Afterwards, take a hike along the property's wooded nature trail for a chance to spot white-tailed deer, bald eagles, turkeys, and owls (guided tours are also available).
Address: 5705 Grant Creek Road, Missoula
2 Editor's Pick The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula
On the site of historic Fort Missoula, established in 1877 at the behest of locals as protection from western Montana's Indians, the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula offers a fascinating look into the early years of townsfolk, settlers, and everyday soldiers. Exhibits unveil the history of the once dominant timber industry, modern day forest management, the building and operation of the fort and early settlements, along with six of the original 13 buildings. The site also offers fun educational programs and demonstrations of its tools and equipment, as well as guided tours.
Address: 3400 Captain Rawn Way, Missoula
3 A Carousel for Missoula
Created in 1995 by a handful of dedicated volunteers, this superb carousel features 38 hand-carved horses and other creatures, including the popular Lucky Red Ringer (a dragon) and two splendid chariot rides, suitable for riders of all ages. In the downtown core of Missoula, these newer animals - said to be some of the finest examples produced in the US - are perched on a base that was built in 1918, and housed in a specially made weather-proof structure that can be closed off in winter. A highlight of the experience is the huge carousel band organ (the largest in the US) with its 400 pipes. Also worth a visit if traveling with kids is Children's Museum Missoula, a fun tourist attraction where youngsters can explore the world around them with a number of hands-on educational activities and displays.
Address: 101 Carousel Drive, Missoula
4 Lolo National Forest
One of Montana's most important timber areas, the vast Lolo National Forest encompasses more than two million acres and is unique for its large open and grassy slopes. The forest includes four individual wilderness areas: the Scapegoat, Selway-Bitterroot, Welcome Creek, and Rattlesnake Wilderness, each an important habitat and home to diverse flora and fauna. Established in 1906, the forest boasts numerous recreational opportunities including fishing, hiking, skiing, and snowmobiling, as well as biking and trail riding. Along with its many excellent campsites, the forest has more than 700 miles of trails suitable for all levels, from gentle strolls to multi-day adventures, and a chance to hike the Lolo National Historic Trail, the same trail network used by the state's first non-native visitors. Other highlights include a chance to see massive western red cedars, some as big as eight feet in diameter and up to 200 feet tall, along with wildlife such as grizzly and black bears, elk, moose, and mountain goats. Of particular interest are the Ninemile Wildlands Training Center and the Ninemile Remount Depot near Frenchtown (just 20 minutes northeast of Missoula), and the Savenac Historic Tree Nursery near Haugan.
Address: 20325 Remount Road, Huson
5 The Art Museum of Missoula
Established in 1975, the Art Museum of Missoula features numerous works by artists who lived or worked in the western United States, with an emphasis on Montana artists. Despite this focus on exhibiting predominantly contemporary local work, the museum hosts numerous first-rate international and national exhibits, as well as educational programs and workshops. A highlight of the museum's permanent collection is the Contemporary American Indian Art Collection, including more than 100 important works by the state's indigenous population. Guided tours are available.
Address: 335 N. Pattee Street, Missoula
6 The Historic Wilma Theatre
Opened in 1921, the historic Wilma Theatre has long been one of Missoula's most important cultural venues. Built by leading citizen William Simons and dedicated to his wife, the opera singer Edna Wilma Simons, this eight-story facility was the city's first ever steel-framed high-rise and is notable as it also houses two cinemas, banquet and meeting facilities, and a restaurant. Well regarded for its sumptuous interior - it's decorated with rich Louis XIV gold trim, plush seating, and a large organ - the venue is also used for numerous festivals and annual events, including the popular International Wildlife Film Festival, literary events, and major concerts.
Address: 131 S. Higgins Avenue, Missoula
7 Mount Woody (Mount Sentinel)
Still often referred to by locals as Mount Woody, Mount Sentinel is a 1,958-foot-tall mountain that looks over the city from the east, near the University of Missoula, and is notable for the large letter "M" located half way up and placed there by students. Once part of a glacial lake that was reputedly bigger than lakes Erie and Ontario combined, the mountain shows evidence of the old waterline on its slopes. Mount Sentinel remains a popular hiking destination from the city and includes a variety of routes suited to all abilities, from the nature trails around its base to climbs to the peak, and offers many opportunities to spot wildlife including whitetail and mule deer, black bears, and even falcons.
8 St. Francis Xavier Church
One of the tallest churches in the state of Montana - and the tallest in the city of Missoula - St. Francis Xavier Church is a little more akin to a European church than a traditional North American religious edifice. While from the outside it resembles the style common to many US towns and cities, its splendid interior sets it apart. The highlight is undoubtedly the more than100-year old ceiling and wall paintings created by a local lay preacher, Joseph Carignano, who produced this superb artwork in his own time. The Jesuit church itself was built in 1892 and contains a number of other interesting features, in particular its lovely stained glass windows, a pipe organ, and a large church bell.
Address: 420 W. Pine Street, Missoula
9 Rattlesnake National Recreation Area
Another great area for walking and hiking is Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, just a four-mile drive north of Missoula. Part of the Lolo National Forest (and close to the Rattlesnake Wilderness conservation area), this important local recreation area was founded in 1980 and offers more than 73 miles of hiking and biking trails, along with horse trekking routes. The area is also popular among fishing enthusiasts, drawn for its many lakes and ponds, as well as clear mountain streams and rivers with abundant trout (state fishing licenses are required). It's also a popular area for outdoor enthusiasts come winter, in particular for cross country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts.
10 The Montana Snowbowl
For those looking for a little downhill action, the Montana Snowbowl, just a 12-mile drive northwest of Missoula, provides plenty of it. This alpine ski resort is particularly popular among seasoned snowboarders and skiers in search of longer runs such as the famous West Bowl. Despite only possessing two older main lifts and the basics in terms of après ski facilities (there's a chalet and hotel offering ski-in/ski-out facilities), hardcore skiers come from far and wide for the challenge, while in summer it's a popular destination for mountain bikers and hikers (the lifts remain open for these activities). And newbies aren't neglected, with a number of beginner options at the on-site ski school, as well as less challenging slope options.
Where to Stay in Missoula for Sightseeing
We recommend these highly rated hotels in Missoula, with easy access to the surrounding wilderness and downtown attractions:
- Holiday Inn Missoula Downtown: 3-star riverfront hotel, convenient location, comfortable beds, pillow menu, suites with kitchens.
- Best Western Plus Grant Creek Inn: mid-range pricing, indoor pool, hot tub and sauna, free hot breakfast.
- C'mon Inn: affordable western-style lodge, indoor waterfall, ping pong table, hot tubs.
- My Place Hotel-Missoula, MT: budget rates, kitchens, pillow-top mattresses, laundry facilities.