While most Americans have no idea what’s inside the great state of Montana, I LOVE this state! It’s breathtakingly beautiful, home to my favorite National Park, Glacier National Park, and is filled with (mostly) independent minded people I enjoy interacting with. The state is varied and has several small interesting cities each with its unique charm; the closest to these to my home is Missoula, located on the western fringe of the Rockies and centered on the lovely Clark Fork River.
Missoula’s history reads like that of many western towns. Indians lived in the area for centuries. White settlers came in increasing numbers after a trading post was built about 150 years ago and especially when the Northern Pacific Railroad passed through the town in 1883. The population and economy continued to grow and focused mostly on agriculture, timber and trade. The University of Montana, home of the Grizzlies, opened in 1895 and is now a central feature of the city both in terms of employment and its influence on the local culture. The city today is a blend of cowboy, urban, the out-of-doors and the northwest.
The city is intimately tied to life in the outdoors. There are plenty of sporting opportunities available in the city and nearby wilderness including downhill and cross country skiing, hiking, rafting, kayaking and biking. And Montana is home to some of the best fly fishing in the country. But my purpose in this write-up is to focus on the small city of Missoula.
I think the best way to get to know a city is to walk through it and that’s pretty easy to do in Missoula. A good place to start is at the heart of the lovely University of Montana campus. Wander north and cross the Clark Fork River to enter the old part of town; you’ll find a hiking/cycling trail along the north bank that is well used in the summer (as is its twin on the south bank). It’s worth your time to walk along the river on a warm summer day and watch dozens of youths floating down the river on inner tubes and small rafts. There’s a whitewater park on the river (where kayakers try their hand at mastering the standing waves and rough water), a carousel (the fastest moving one I’ve ever seen!), play area for the kids, and an assortment of small restaurants and cafes on the adjoining streets. If you’re interested there are many small gift shops throughout the town.
There are several attractions in Missoula worth visiting. The most unique of these is the Smokejumper Visitor Center which I found to be fascinating! The center — which has no admission charge — highlights and pays tribute to those brave unsung heroes who at great risk to themselves jump from airplanes, often into thick forests, to fight wildfires (which for obvious reasons can cause tremendous economic devastation in the Western states). The main national training center for these specialized firefighters is in Missoula and the visitor center offers tours highlighting the history of the smokejumpers, their equipment and how it’s made and maintained, their constant state of vigil, and some of the strategies used to extinguish wild fires. The visitor center also has some interesting displays and videos about the smokejumpers and their colorful history. The grounds have a dormitory for the smoke-jumpers, a building that acts as a cache for firefighting in the wilderness (has prepared gear for 3000 firefighters), and a facility that researches wilderness fires and products used to extinguish them or aid the firefighters. As you tour the facility you’re likely to meet some of these brave men and women (10% of smokejumpers are female). Like those who serve in our military they are a quiet, often shy and understated bunch.
Also worth a visit is the Elk Country Visitor center, a branch of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a group which has done much to help conserve and revitalize the elk population throughout the country. The visitor center is in a beautiful log-cabin building, pleasant to visit, free, with nice exhibits and a pretty nature trail outside if you’d like a quick hike. It highlights the life cycle and natural environment of the elk (especially the local subspecies, the Rocky Mountain Elk) and displays some fabulous racks of elk antlers. I am not a hunter but many people in the elk foundation are and it is because of their concern and work that the elk population has recovered as well as it has. The organization has quietly and efficiently established 5,000,000 acres of preserved open range habitat for elk (and other creatures who share their ecosystem).
The historic Museum at Fort Missoula was established in 1975 to help preserve and interpret the history of western Montana. It features many exhibits such as some focusing on Montana’s important timber and rail transportation history. It has several pioneer home sites and some military exhibits. Admission is very modest (a few dollars) and the museum and its grounds are spacious and pleasant to visit.
We visited the downtown Missoula Saturday Market where we enjoyed looking at the many creative artisans’ products and picked up a few small gifts and some birdhouses for our yard. Nearby was the Missoula Art Museum which features a relatively small collection by local artists; there were some good pieces and there is no admission charge.
Food and drink are plentiful, varied and good. There are lots of local breweries, my favorite being the Big Sky Brewery which produces (amongst others) my favorite brown ale, Moose Drool . We had a tasty dinner at the Depot Bar and Restaurant but my favorite place to eat in Missoula is the Cracker Barrel restaurant just off exit 101. It may be incredibly bourgeois but I love the place. Cracker Barrel is a fine roadside chain found in many states that has terrific inexpensive food prepared in a southern style. I’m especially fond of their chicken ‘n dumplings and catfish and hush puppies, but breakfasts are also excellent — especially if you like grits, southern ham and biscuits and gravy.
We enjoy visiting Missoula at any time — best in the summer but its winter are mild and not the bitter cold you’ll find east of the Rockies. Give it a tumble sometime.
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