HIKE ON THE 13 SWITCHBACKS TO THE "M" ON MOUNT SENTINEL for a quick overview of the natural and cultural sweep of Missoula: the University of Montana, the valley and the Clark Fork River. In 1908, students lugged stones up the mountain to form the first “M.” Today’s concrete letter remains a beloved reminder that this is a college town.
While many come to Missoula just for trout fishing—and outfitters like Front Street’s Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop will gladly set you up with gear, guides and advice—the university sets the tone for a city that’s also rich in arts and culture. Book junkies, for instance, will love indie bookstores like Fact & Fiction and The Book Exchange. Plus, the 30-year-strong Montana Book Festival attracts A-list writers like Jane Smiley and William Kittredge. The city’s lively music scene includes the 15-member String Orchestra of the Rockies and performances at venues like Top Hat Lounge. Art-lovers will want to visit the contemporary American Indian art collection at the Missoula Art Museum. The on-campus Montana Museum of Art and Culture houses nearly 11,000 treasures, including Salvador Dalí prints. Make time to enjoy Missoula’s natural appeal too.
The Clark Fork River runs through Missoula’s historic district—yes, a river really does run through it—and the Riverfront Trail makes pleasant strolling. Wander over to the whitewater kayaking park at Brennan’s Wave, then head into Caras Park to see the enchanting Carousel for Missoula. Carved by a local cabinetmaker with the help of volunteers, the carousel has 38 ponies, no two alike—plus 14 gargoyles.
Missoula’s brewing scene is thriving, and locally sourced spirits are having a moment. Try cherry vodka at The Montana Distillery, aquavit made from regionally grown wheat at Montgomery Distillery or a gingersnap whiskey sour at Rattlesnake Creek Distillers. Big Sky Brewing Company Taproom serves brews like a huckleberry blonde ale. For dinner, try The Pearl Café for French-inspired fare served on white tablecloths, or pop into fast-casual Five on Black to build your own Brazilian meal-in-a-bowl. At day’s end, relax on the wraparound porch at Goldsmith’s Inn Bed and Breakfast, a 1911 riverside mansion built for the University of Montana’s president.
ROAD TO RICHES When you’re ready to leave Missoula, head out to explore Montana’s ghost towns. Only 35 miles from Missoula, Garnet was populated by 1,000 gold-seekers in 1898, but the boom soon turned to bust. Getting to Garnet is an adventure—the Garnet Back Country Byway, made of dirt and gravel, twists and turns 12 miles and 2,000 feet up into the Garnet Mountains. Trace the ghosts of the town’s glory days as you walk self-guided trails past 30 well-preserved structures—cabins, a saloon, an old hotel.
Gold wasn’t the only ore in town. Silver was plentiful too. High on a hill along the Pintler Scenic Route lies Granite Ghost Town State Park, once one of the world’s richest silver districts. Walk among the remains of the miners’ union hall, superintendent’s house and other historic structures. Then drive down the winding grade into neighboring Philipsburg, its downtown graced with colorful gingerbread Victorians. Take a peek at the 1891 Opera House Theatre and swing by The Sweet Palace for 1,100 varieties of sugary pleasure.
HISTORY ON DISPLAY Make your way via MT-1 back to I-90 and the town of Deer Lodge, where you can view the shiny chrome on display at the Montana Auto Museum and peek through the bars at the Old Prison Museum. Then drive south about 1.5 hours to Dillon’s Beaverhead County Museum, where a mounted 1,200-pound Kodiak bear looms near the entrance and the historic train depot holds an astonishing display of stuffed and mounted Montana birds, from tiny hummingbirds to large snow geese. Spend the night in Dillon so you can sample artisan ales like rich, dark Pioneer Porter at Beaverhead Brewing Company, housed in a century-old brick building.
Start your next day at Bannack State Park, where you can explore 60 structures from gold-mining days: houses, an assay office, jail, gallows, hotel and more. Check for activities such as gold-panning, living-history demonstrations and guided hikes. Then drive an hour northwest just past Wisdom to recall the sobering events at Big Hole National Battlefield, where, in August 1877, U.S. troops attacked a Nez Perce camp. Guided tours and ranger talks shed light on the battle.
SMALL-TOWN CHARM Now head toward U.S. 93 and the Bitterroot Valley, a land of green hills and crystalline rivers. In the historic logging town of Darby, browse the 10-gallon hats at Double H Custom Hat Company or admire hand-tied flies at Bitterroot Fly Company. You can fish at nearby Lake Como—or swim, boat, hike and bike. In Hamilton, tour the 25-bedroom Daly Mansion, a testament to the mind-boggling wealth of copper magnate Marcus Daly.
Stevensville, the first permanent settlement in Montana, boasts several historic buildings, including St. Mary’s Mission, established in 1841. Its rustic exterior belies what’s inside—a chapel resembling a miniature Italian Renaissance cathedral, with a crucifix made from a shepherd’s crook. Your last stop is Lolo, home to Travelers’ Rest State Park, where Lewis and Clark camped on their sojourn to the Pacific. End your journey with a huckleberry cocktail at Lolo Creek Distillery or a dip in thermally heated water at Lolo Hot Springs.
Take a few days off the grid at The Ranch at Rock Creek in Philipsburg or Triple Creek Ranch near Darby for a luxury getaway with activities such as fly-fishing, horseback riding, sapphire panning and archery