John Steinbeck once said, "I'm in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it's difficult to analyze love when you're in it."
As a native Montanan, I couldn't agree more with this crazy sort of love for the Big Sky Country. With a population of just a hair more than a million people in the entire state, it's a place where you can truly get away from it all. From towering mountains and peaceful lakes, to craft breweries and homemade Huckleberry treats, Montana is a great place to kick back and relax.
Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark made their camp beneath cottonwoods near what is now the town of Missoula. They called their camp Travelers' Rest and you can still visit where they stood, contemplating the rest of their journey to the Pacific Ocean.
However, if you visit Missoula in the summertime, you definitely don't have to rest if you're looking for outdoor adventures. There are four mountain ranges, five rivers, hundreds of miles of hiking trials, and endless campgrounds within an hour's drive of the small mountain town. But Missoula is also one of the most vibrant communities in Montana, with a college and thriving downtown full of breweries and local restaurants.
Pack your jeans and baseball hat, this is a casual town. Here are some recommendations if you can make the seven hour drive this summer.
Bike rentals. Unlike Seattle, Missoula is nestled between the mountains, in a nice, flat valley. You can pedal around the entire town without ever breaking a sweat! You can follow the trail along the Clark Fork River, making sure to check out the Grizzly bear statue along the way. Of course, if you're more adventurous, there are also plenty of trails for fantastic mountain biking.
Hike the "M." If you want to consider yourself a true Missoulian, you'll walk the three quarters of a mile up to the white "M" on the side of Mount Sentinel. After going up 620 feet, you'll get a great view of the entire Missoula Valley. The "M" has been a Missoula landmark since 1908, when Forestry Club members made the trail up the mountain, while students carried up stones to shape the symbol of the University of Montana.
Fly fishing lessons. Fly fishing float trips are some of the most beautiful and relaxing ways to spend a day in Montana. You don't have to be experienced to try and catch a trout during one of these guided trips, you'll be taught how to hold the rod and entice the tricky fish. You'll also be enjoying the waters that inspired A River Runs Through It, the Norman Maclean favorite.
FOOD AND DRINK
Big Dipper Ice Cream. Nothing's better than an ice cream cone after a long day in the Montana sun. Big Dipper Ice cream has been around for nearly 20 years and was recently chosen as one of America's Best by Food and Wine Magazine and USA Today. Located just a block from the river, grab a cone and enjoy a Missoula sunset. I recommend the cardamom, bubblegum, or huckleberry!
Visit a brewery. There are five amazing breweries within a few blocks of each other in downtown Missoula. My favorite is Kettle House Brewing Company, a place combining the best of both Montana and Washington. Beers made there are brewed with Montana barley and hops from the Yakima Valley!
Finn & Porter or the Depot Deck. The Depot's deck isn't really a deck, but it's what locals call it anyway. This is like the Missoula "Cheers" and you can chat up a local about some of their favorite happenings that weekend. If you want a real deck and an incomparable view of the Clark Fork River, try the deck at Finn and Porter. It fills up quickly, so get there early!
Saturday Farmers Market. If you're in town for the weekend, you should check out the Farmers Market that takes place by the downtown bridge over the Clark Fork River. Dozens of farmers and food trucks show up, as well as most of the town! It's a great place for people-watching and a handmade lunch.
Garnet Ghost Town. About 30 miles East of Missoula is the fantastically preserved Garnet Ghost Town. Garnet was named after the semi-precious ruby-colored stone found in the area, and the surrounding mountains were full of quartz, making miners quite happy. There was a school in Garnet, the crime rate was low, and there were plenty of rocking saloons and bawdy houses. Well-preserved and peaceful, it's well-worth the half hour drive.