16 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Missoula
Author Brad Lane lived in Missoula between 2018 and 2021.
Missoula is a university city in Western Montana with major mountain appeal. It's at the junction of great trout rivers and several things to do surrounded by nature. Easy access to the outdoors is a defining tourist attraction of Missoula, including a wide array of activities like fly fishing, hiking, and winter sports. Much of this access occurs in Lolo National Forest, bordering all sides of the city.
Beyond the outdoors, Missoula has a distinct cultural appeal that's fun to experience. Alongside a vibrant downtown filled with historic architecture, the city offers several places to visit, like free museums, landmark carousels, and grandiose theaters. Missoula's history is also readily on display at places like the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
While every month of the year offers new adventures to explore, summer is arguably the best time to visit Missoula. Expect hot temperatures and extra daylight for adventures all over town this time of year. Summer is also the time when all of Missoula's best hiking trails open up all over the mountainsides.
Experience the allure of Montana with these top things to do in Missoula:
See also: Where to Stay in Missoula
1. Walk or Bike the Clark Fork Riverfront Trail
The Clark Fork River runs right through Missoula, and the city's paved Clark Fork River Trail spans both banks in either direction from downtown. This Riverfront Trail is the city's main pedestrian corridor and a great introduction to Missoula's natural beauty.
Users access the Riverfront Trail on either the north or south bank from downtown or the Hip Strip, with Higgins Street, Orange Street, and the Madison Street pedestrian bridge linking both sides. The trail connects to several other attractions along its route, including Caras Park, the Montana Natural History Center, and the University of Montana campus.
Users can also reach the base of Mount Sentinel and Ogren Park at Allegiance Field, home to the Missoula PaddleHeads minor league baseball team, on the opposite ends of the trail. Several river access points are also along the route, offering a spot for a quick dip in the summer.
Expect to pass other walkers, joggers, strollers, and bicyclists utilizing this popular path. And be sure to take some time to enjoy the scenic settings along the Riverfront Trail, which is made easy at places like the Clark Fork River Natural Area.
2. A Carousel for Missoula
A Carousel for Missoula is a popular family attraction consisting of hand-carved horses, chariots, and gargoyles. It's connected to Caras Park and the heart of downtown, easily accessible from the Clark Fork River Trail. This volunteer-driven carousel became a reality in 1995 and has been a magnet for kids and carousel enthusiasts ever since.
It's $1 per ride for children to ride the carousel, always with a chance at the golden brass ring. Adults often also enjoy a spin on this hand-carved contraption, with their admission bumped up to $2 a ride. The carousel is within a covered arena with sliding doors, ensuring comfortable rides throughout the year.
Next door to the carousel, the expansive Dragon Hollow Playground also attracts a lot of adolescent interest. It's an adventurous dream come true when it comes to playground equipment, as this massive structure stretches high into the sky. This massive and magical playground underwent recent renovations to ensure universal access.
3. Explore the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area
The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is a four-mile drive north of Missoula and part of the much larger Lolo National Forest. It offers a surplus of hiking and mountain biking trails, along with many equestrian routes.
The Rattlesnake Corridor Trail was once a functioning forest service road and is now the main hiking route. Several other trails stem from this wide and flat path, leading to areas like Spring Gulch and Sawmill Gulch. The Rattlesnake is also popular among fishing enthusiasts thanks to its many lakes, ponds, and clear mountain streams with abundant trout (a state fishing license is required).
The fun continues throughout winter when groomed and backcountry routes encourage all sorts of skiing and snowshoeing. Backpacking is also available in the adjacent Rattlesnake Wilderness bordering the Recreation Area to the north. This wilderness area offers off-the-grid adventures not too far from town.
The Rattlesnake is one of three designated National Recreation Areas bordering the city. And the other two, Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain National Recreation Areas, are also well worth exploring. These other outdoor playgrounds host similar activities like hiking, mountain biking, and forest exploring. Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain are also home to popular disc golf courses that receive a lot of traffic in summer.
4. Learn about Native Species at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) is one of many conservation groups headquartered in Missoula. The organization strives to protect habitats for elk and other wildlife through land protection and land management. The foundation provides many ways to get involved with the process and learn about the natural habitats that elk call home.
The Elk Country Visitor Center, run by the RMEF, is a great place to visit to engage with the foundation. It features immersive exhibits and information to discover Elk Country. The visitor center is open seven days a week between June and October, with more limited hours the rest of the year. It's located off Grant Creek Road, a five-mile drive northwest of downtown.
Along with its many displays featuring the group's wildlife conservation efforts, the visitor center provides a chance to learn more about this native species through exhibits of mounted elk and other wildlife. The visitor center also provides a robust collection of nature films and photos.
The foundation also sponsors all sorts of events in Missoula and across the west, including annual expos, elk camps, and a traveling Great Elk Tour.
Address: 5705 Grant Creek Road, Missoula, Montana
5. Hike the "M" Trail
Going for a hike is a staple experience of many Missoula visits. The city is literally surrounded by hundreds of acres to explore and more than a few mountains to climb. Some of the best hiking trails in Missoula range from easy after-work endeavors to all-day summit climbs. This wide range of hiking opportunities caters to beginners and seasoned experts alike.
The "M" Trail on Mount Sentinel is a must-do hike while visiting. Originally known as Mount Woody, Mount Sentinel overlooks the city from the east, with the University of Montana at its base.
It's less than a mile trek up to the large, concrete letter "M" located halfway up the mountain, but with 11 switchbacks and 600 feet of elevation gain, it's a challenging hike. But the views of the Missoula Valley are well worth the effort.
The "M" Trail is just the tip of hiking endeavors in Missoula. Those looking for more of a challenge can continue past the "M" for another mile to reach the summit of Mount Sentinel (elevation 5,157 feet).
Across the Clark Fork River from Mount Sentinel, Mount Jumbo offers a similar hiking appeal. Other popular in-town hiking areas include the North Hills, the Kim Williams Trail, and the Barmeyer Trail.
6. Tour the Smokejumper Visitor Center
Missoula is home to the largest smokejumper facility in the country. For those unfamiliar with the term, smokejumpers are the brave men and women who parachute out of planes into remote areas to fight wildfires. And the Smokejumper Visitor Center shines a light on this challenging profession with tours of the facility.
The Smokejumper Visitor Center is northwest of downtown on Broadway Street, near the Missoula International Airport. The Visitor Center offers free 45-minute tours every day between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. The site is a functioning smokejumping base, and visitors are allowed a sneak peek into the daily operations.
7. Enjoy the Nice Weather at Caras Park
Caras Park is the centerpiece outdoor space of the city, located along the Clark Fork Riverfront Trail. It's home to hundreds of events each year. The two large pavilions at the park are perfect for the crowds of people that gather for festive celebrations like symphony performances, Downtown Tonight gatherings, and the annual Pray for Snow Party in October.
Other downtown events, like the Clark Fork Market, stem from this inviting community space. And when the area isn't in use, it provides lovely public grounds for enjoying sunny weather and picnic lunches. Adjacent to the pavilions, visitors here also have a perfect vantage point to watch surfers tackling Brennan's Wave on the Clark Fork River.
Caras Park is also home to two popular weekly events that occur throughout June, July, and August. Missoula's Out to Lunch program occurs at midday on Wednesdays, centered around food trucks and live music in Caras Park. Downtown ToNight similarly occurs on Thursday evenings, offering a family-fun thing to do at night.
Address: 123 Carousel Drive, Missoula, Montana
8. Visit the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula
The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula was established in 1975 to preserve the frontier history of the city. The original fort was built in 1877 amid conflicts with the Indigenous Western Indian tribes of the region. Today, the museum campus encompasses 32 acres with over 20 historically significant structures still in place.
The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula offers a fascinating look into the early years of townsfolk, settlers, and everyday soldiers. Alongside self-guided tours of the property, including the chance to explore the inside of historic structures, the museum also features a dedicated exhibition space detailing Missoula's early days.
Fort Missoula also hosts a wide variety of weekly and annual events. The annual "Fourth of July at the Fort" festival and a large annual used-book sale are two of the most popular. Holiday candlelight tours also take place at the end of the year.
Address: 3400 Captain Rawn Way, Missoula, Montana
9. Catch a Show at the Historic Wilma Theater
Opened in 1921, the historic Wilma Theatre has long been one of Missoula's most important cultural venues. This eight-story facility was the city's first steel-framed high-rise, built by leading citizen William Simons and dedicated to his wife, the opera singer Edna Wilma Simons. Today, it's a beacon of downtown, located next to the Higgins Street Bridge and adjacent to Caras Park.
This historic theater is often ground zero for Missoula's biggest cultural events. Film festivals, literary celebrations, and some of the biggest names in music and entertainment all find a stage at the Wilma, alongside hundreds of residents and tourists that pack the historic theater. The extensive event calendar at The Wilma always has something going on, often with shows at night.
Address: 131 South Higgins Avenue, Missoula, Montana
10. Missoula Downtown and Hip Strip
Boutique shops, eye-catching art galleries, local eateries, and an abundance of music venues - downtown Missoula is filled with fun things to do every night of the week.
The Trailhead is a great local shop to find new outdoor gear, and the Top Hat Lounge regularly hosts family-friendly musical acts. At the beginning of each month, the city-wide First Friday event is akin to a massive block party, with art showings and live music offerings.
On the other side of the Higgins Avenue Bridge from downtown, Missoula's historic "Hip Strip" offers even more eclectic shops and restaurants to discover. One fun spot not to miss on the Hip Strip is the new Clyde Coffee location. This light-filled coffee shop on a street corner recently opened a new location, proving to be one of the most popular spots in town.
11. Missoula Art Museum
Established in 1975, the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) features numerous works by artists who lived or worked in the western United States, with a particular emphasis on Montana artists. The museum also hosts first-rate international and national touring exhibits alongside the local selection. And to ensure equal access to all the artworks, admission to MAM is always free.
A highlight of the museum's permanent collection is the Contemporary American Indian Art Collection, including more than 250 important works by prominent Indigenous artists. These pieces are on rotation throughout the year. Other highlights of MAM's permanent displays include a robust contemporary American folk-art collection.
Guided tours of the museum are available. As are other educational resources and workshops like art classes and kids' after-school programs. The museum also hosts events throughout the year, including family-friendly receptions during the city's monthly First Friday celebrations.
Address: 335 North Pattee Street, Missoula, Montana
12. 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 than the 100-year-old ceiling and wall paintings created by a local lay preacher, Joseph Carignano, who produced this superb artwork over the course of 18 months at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Jesuit church itself was built in 1892 and contains several other interesting features, including lovely stained-glass windows, a pipe organ, and a large church bell. Mass occurs every day of the week, and visitors are welcome to stop in for service or between services to respectfully tour the space.
Address: 420 W. Pine Street, Missoula
13. Go Fly Fishing
Thanks to the 1976 book A River Runs Through It and the subsequent 1992 film, Missoula is synonymous with fly fishing. But the city was at the junction of great trout rivers well before the book or movie came out. And as illustrated by author Norman Maclean, fly fishing has been a way of life in Missoula since the early days.
For first-time fly anglers, the best bet to enjoy the water is hiring the help of a local guide. Several outfits in Missoula offer half-day, full-day, and multi-day fishing trips. A few of the waters to cast a line include the Clark Fork River, Bitterroot River, Blackfoot River, and Rock Creek.
Read More: Best Places for Fly Fishing in Montana
14. Ski at Snowbowl
For those looking for a little downhill action, the Montana Snowbowl is a 12-mile drive northwest of Missoula and a local favorite winter sports destination. It's also one of Montana's best ski resorts. It's particularly popular among seasoned snowboarders and skiers in search of longer runs, such as the famous West Bowl.
With two lifts and a basic chalet and hotel, Snowbowl provides a more affordable option than some of the bigger resorts in Montana. The mountain also has a real community feel as a popular spot for locals. This becomes most apparent at the end of the day with après-ski activities.
Don't let the affordable rates fool you, though. Alongside proximity to Missoula, Snowbowl delivers a full and fun day on the slopes. The on-site ski school at Snowbowl also offers a great avenue for getting started in the sport.
Come summertime, the area takes on a whole new color and becomes a popular destination for mountain biking and hiking (the lifts remain open for these activities). The top of Snowbowl in the summer is also a popular disc golf destination.
Address: 1700 Snow Bowl Road, Missoula, Montana
15. Venture Deep into Lolo National Forest
The vast Lolo National Forest surrounds all sides of Missoula, encompassing more than two-million acres. Four designated wilderness areas are within the forest, including the Rattlesnake Wilderness, which is accessible from the city with a short drive or bike ride.
The forest boasts numerous recreational opportunities, including fishing, hiking, skiing, and snowmobiling, as well as biking and trail riding. And the forest serves as a home for many of the best camping opportunities close to Missoula.
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 grizzlies and black bears, elk, moose, and mountain goats.
Alongside excellent campsites, the forest has more than 700 miles of trails suitable for all levels. The closest hiking areas to Missoula within the forest are Rattlesnake, Blue Mountain, and Pattee Canyon National Recreation Areas. These three outdoor playgrounds are each a short drive from downtown.
16. Take a Day Trip from Missoula
One of Missoula's biggest appeals is its prime location within Western Montana. Adventure stems in every direction from Missoula, with excellent day and weekend trips only a short drive away. And many of Montana's best national forests are within this small driving radius.
South of Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley is an inviting corridor of big mountains and legendary fly fishing.
Charming towns like Hamilton, the largest in the Bitterroot Valley, offer a great day visit from Missoula in less than an hour drive. A few highlights here include thousands of acres of the Bitterroot National Forest and the Daly Mansion - built by Copper King Marcus Daly.
East of Missoula, along the Pintler Veterans' Memorial Scenic Highway, historic towns like Philipsburg and Anaconda also invite exploration within a 90-mile drive. These two towns grew from Montana's early mining history. Today, they offer a tourist-friendly peek into this past alongside modern attractions like hot springs resorts and golf courses.
The Flathead Valley, including the massive Flathead Lake, offers another worthwhile weekend destination north of Missoula. Towns and cities like Polson and Kalispell offer excellent home bases for exploring this adventurous region.
Where to Stay in Missoula for Sightseeing
- Missoula provides plenty of great hotels to choose from, many with stellar views of the surrounding mountains. The Best Western Plus Grant Creek Inn features modern rooms and suites, a plentiful breakfast buffet, and well-kept pool and sauna facilities.
- Another popular option in Missoula, near the Best Western, C'mon Inn is a western-themed hotel and a favorite for families and fun getaways. Featuring an intricately themed lobby area complete with handcrafted log balconies and an indoor waterfall, C'mon Inn also has friendly staff, comfortable rooms, and free breakfast.
- Closer to downtown and the University of Montana campus, Staybridge Suites features larger rooms at a great value, as well as a billiards room, basketball court, and notably delicious free breakfast.
- The Motel 6 Missoula is a great-value option just north of downtown. Featuring a friendly staff and modern rooms, the Motel 6 Missoula receives most of its repeat visits thanks to its comfortable beds and quiet accommodations.
- Another great budget option just south of here, the Super 8 by Wyndham on Reserve Street also offers great-value rates for well-kept facilities.
- Farther south into the city, not far from the Southgate Mall, the FairBridge Inn & Suites offers spacious suites and rooms for an unbeatable overnight price.
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