We once spent an entire summer in Missoula, Montana, and it keeps bringing us back!
Missoula, Montana is located in western Montana between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. It is tucked away among 5 different mountain ranges, all of which are accessible within a short drive from downtown. This beautiful town is the second largest city in Montana, behind Billings, Montana.
Missoula, Montana is also a DESTINATION. It’s perfect for a family vacation if you like seeing beautiful scenery, outdoor adventure, and food!
Here are our favorite things to do in Missoula!
Caras Park is the heart of Missoula. It’s located downtown, along the Clark Fork River.
Walk along the river, let the kids play on the playground, ride the carousel, eat lunch in the park, or just take a nap on the grass.
There’s a big city parking lot nearby, so make sure to spend some time here. Other things on this list can be done at or near Caras Park.
The Carousel for Missoula
One of the cool things about Montana is that many cities, like Great Falls, have carousels in the middle of town.
These carousels are created by the town to show off their local pride. And they are fun for kids and adults!
A Carousel for Missoula costs a few bucks to ride, and you can even try to grab the brass ring from the dragon’s mouth!
Each pony on the carousel is hand-crafted and has a story behind it. The whole project is a labor of love, made possible by hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours.
It’s also FAST! Don’t underestimate this cute little carousel; hang on to your hats on this ride!
Hike the M
There are many “Ms” on the mountains in Montana that you can hike to! Bozeman has an M (for Montana State). Butte has an M (for Montana Tech).
Missoula also has an M (for the University of Montana), located on Mount Sentinel!
Though a short 3/4 mile trail, hiking the M is not easy. It’s steep, has many switchbacks, and is not shaded.
But you’ll get great views of the entire city, including the Clark Fork River and the University of Montana.
Out to Lunch or Downtown ToNight
Every Wednesday from 12-2 pm the city has live music and multiple food trucks at Caras Park. This is called Out to Lunch.
Missoula leans more “artsy” than the rest of Montana. It prides itself on its music, restaurants, and arts scene.
This is a great way to feel the vibe of the city and get some good food.
Similarly, Downtown ToNight happens every Thursday evening in the summer. There’s more live music and food.
Montana winters are long and gray, so when summer rolls around, Montanans are ready to get out and party!
Watch Surfers…in Montana
From Caras Park, it’s just a short walk to an overlook of the river where you’re likely to see people surfing the Clark Fork River!
Brennan’s Wave is a manmade wave in the river that was constructed in memory of a world-class kayaker from Missoula who died in 2001.
You’ll see surfers, kayakers, rafters, and paddle boarders all along this stretch of river.
Of course, you can also rent your own rafting gear from one of many outfitters in town.
The famous movie A River Runs Through It was set in Missoula (though it was actually filmed mostly in Bozeman).
I’m not a fisherman, but there are many guides in Missoula happy to guide you on your adventure.
Bike along the river
Cheryl and I once brought our bikes with us on a visit to Missoula and had a ball just cruising along the river and riding through the downtown area.
Just hop on your bike at Caras Park and follow the trail, or check out the city map of trails before you go.
Travelers Rest State Park
Montana LOVES its Lewis & Clark sites, and it has many of them!
Lewis and Clark actually ventured through this area and stopped to rest up before they tackled the Rocky Mountains.
Travelers Rest State Park tells this story. You can even take a short walk to see where they actually camped (confirmed through archeological evidence).
This is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. You can see other sites in Helena, Great Falls, and other places in Montana.
I LOVE minor league baseball games because they are a great way to end a day of exploration. They also provide a wonderful peak at the local culture.
And in the Rockies, almost ALL the minor league stadiums provide the most scenic seats in the country.
The Missoula Paddleheads are second only to the Ogden Raptors in terms of most scenic ballparks I’ve ever been to. From here, you can see the M on Mount Sentinel.
Added bonus: with the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, baseballs fly out of the park in the Pioneer League at a higher rate than any other league in the country. So get ready for fireworks both figurative and literal!
The minor leagues are also famous for their ballpark food. The local delicacy in Missoula? Rocky Mountain Oysters, or bull testicles.
We actually at these Rocky Mountain Oysters in Missoula once.
Missoula LOVES its local college team, the University of Montana Grizzlies, or Grizz.
You’ll see Grizz shirts everywhere, and some people have even painted their houses with the colors of the team.
Though it’s a small college in a small conference, the passion for this team runs deep.
Not game day? You can still check out Washington-Grizzly Stadium or walk around the campus a bit.
One of our most memorable – and educational – stops in Missoula was the Smokejumpers museum.
Smokejumpers works or the Forest Service. Once a forest fire is identified, smokejumpers are called in to stop the fire before it grows out of control.
They perform the insane tasks of jumping out of an airplane, parachute landing in the middle of the forest, shoveling dirt on the fire to put it out, then hiking multiple miles to the nearest pick up spot – all while wearing a 100-pound backpack of gear.
They give tours multiple times per day. Don’t miss this experience!
Eat at Ciao Mambo
This Italian restaurant is hands-down our favorite place to eat in Missoula! It’s just a short drive (within walking distance across the bridge) of Caras Park.
The staff is professional and friendly, it’s a great place to take the whole family, and the food is awesome.
Don’t miss out on Ciao Mambo if you visit Missoula!
Get dessert at Big Dipper Ice Cream
Always a huge line, and always worth it! The Big Dipper is an iconic spot in Missoula, and for good reason.
Get a salted caramel shake, or just ask around for what to get. You really can’t go wrong!
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Though I’ve seen plenty of deer in Missoula (and even bears on the edge of town!), I haven’t see any elk.
Still, you can learn about elk at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which is dedicated to the conservation of the species.
You’ll see some massive bull elk busts and you can also make donations to their cause.
Fort Missoula was established in 1877 during the Indian Wars and was later used as a WWII internment camp for Italian POWs and some Japanese-Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor.
Today, they have many events you can attend. We took our kids here and it was fun for the whole family.
Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge
Just south of Missoula is an underrated little spot called the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, administered by the US Fish and Game.
We took a nice walk through the grasslands, where we got to play at the edge of the water with our kids. We saw plenty of birds with the Bitterroot Mountains in the background.
Talk to a local
Montanans are so friendly! Cheryl and I were surprised at how many Missoulians took the time to chat with us and find out about us.
They just didn’t seem to be in a hurry!
And they all seems so proud of their state and their city. They were always giving us recommendations for things to see and do.
So take a moment to talk to someone!
We have four kids, so we were delighted to see the emphasis they put on their playgrounds!
They have multiple playgrounds that look like large castles for the kids to explore.
One of these is located right next to the Carousel for Missoula, making for a great combo experience if you’ve got little ones.
There are so many things to do NEAR Missoula! Here are a few of our favorites.
The National Bison Range
The National Bison Range was established in the early 1900s as a refuge for bison when the species was just starting to bounce back from the Great Slaughter of the late 1800s. This is located just north of Missoula.
Philipsburg is a cute little town about 2 hours away from Missoula. It’s famous for its massive candy store, The Sweet Palace. Let the kids pan for gold at the Montana Gems of Philipsburg, or visit nearby Georgetown Lake.
Seeley Lake & Morrell Falls
One of our favorite hikes was the Morrell Falls hike near Seeley Lake. Seeley Lake is a big resort area and a beautful lake to visit and play.
Garnet Ghost Town
Garnet Ghost Town is one of the best-preserved ghost towns you’ll ever see.
We’ve seen many ghost towns in the west. Some are so run-down that they hardly deserve the name. Not Garnet, which is located in a really cool spot high in the mountains.
Big Hole National Battlefield
Big Hole is a national park site commemorating the battles between the US Army and the Nez Perce during the American Indian wars.
It’s about two hours away from Missoula, located in the beautiful countryside.
Just the drive alone is worth it; the history is a bonus!
Deer Lodge has two sites worth seeing.
Grant-Kohrs Ranch is a national park site dedicated to telling the story of the open-cattle range era in American history (the late 1800s). You’ll see longhorns, gorgeous horses, a blacksmith shop, and a mansion.
It also has the Old Montana Prison and Auto Museum, a combined museum with interesting history and collections.
Glacier and Yellowstone
Missoula is located over 5 hours away from Yellowstone and over 2 hours away from Glacier National Park.
Many people visiting these parks on a road trip will drive through or stop in Missoula.
If you’re visiting either or both of these parks we have tons of information to help you plan your trip.