Missoula Montana Sightseeing

  • Post last modified:January 14, 2022

Any link may be advertising for which I may get a commission if you buy, at no additional charge to you. See my Disclaimer.

The Old West meets a modern city! Missoula brings The Driveby Tourist’s trip to Montana and Idaho to an end. We left time at the end of the trip to do some Missoula Montana sightseeing and “wandering around”. Missoula became the second-largest city in Montana between 1990 and 2000. Much of the growth comes from tourism, education, and natural resources. So, off we go, running around Missoula!

Missoula Montana Sightseeing
Clark Fork River through downtown Missoula
(More about this later in the post!)

Missoula Montana Sightseeing – Things to do

Historic Missoula Downtown

Historic Missoula Montana
Historic Wilma Theater

The Wilma (opened in 1921) stands the test of time and still remains a live theater for a variety of events. Actually, the top floors are apartments. Equally important, they have been maintained over the years with modern updates along with the entertainment sections. I hope they have soundproofing so they can sleep through the music and entertainment on the lower levels!

The building still contains offices, three banquet rooms, a restaurant, a lounge, and the main 1,400 seat theater. The Wilma got its name from the builder, who dedicated it to his wife, light opera artist, Edna Wilma. And the Wilma continues to be updated. For example, a major remodeling in 2015 featured many upgrades including a state of the art sound and lighting systems. The theater is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wilma hosts a variety of entertainment including independent movies, spoken word events, stand-up comedy, live and local music, plays, and many other events. A great addition to Missoula Montana sightseeing. Here is a link to the theater’s website.

HIstoric Missoula Montana
Historic downtown Missoula

I missed making notes on this block! Wanted to get the cars to move for me, but that didn’t happen. I enjoyed the walk around downtown one morning. As typical in these western towns, lots of “old west” history here. Many of the buildings have been maintained over years or recently restored to their past glory. The city provides walking tours of the downtown area along with the history. By the way, here is a link to more detail on our entire Montana and Idaho trip.

C. P. Higgins Building

Missoula Montana Sightseeing
Historic C. P. Higgins Bank

Continuing the downtown Missoula tour, this is the C. P. Higgins bank on Higgins Avenue at Main Street. It’s one of the most historic corners in town. The bank quickly became the Missoula National Bank. Christopher P. Higgins and his business partner, Frank Worden, built a general merchandise store and then built the bank next door. The street became Higgins Avenue and eventually, Higgins Avenue Bridge followed. Higgins was an Army Captain, a businessman, a county commissioner, and a Montana Territory legislator.

LaFlesch Building

Historic Missoula Montana
LaFlesch Building

An example of historic downtown Missoula, the LaFlesch building continues to stand after many changes since its completion in 1891. Initially (or close to the beginning), the building housed the Missoula Publishing Co. That was the name of the building prior to the turn of the last century. Over the years, the building also housed bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and a laundry. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Mattie Fitzgibbon ran a boarding house on the second floor.

In the 1940s, The Flame, a bar with shuffleboard and a speakeasy atmosphere opened and remained until 1980. During that time, another bar opened on the second floor. That one took the name Chuck’s Lounge. Jay LaFlesch and his brothers K.C. and Corky bought the building in 1980. Initially, the bar was named Corky’s, and later, Jay bought out his brothers and the bar became Jay’s. With both floors open as bars, Missoulians knew the building as “Jay’s” and “Jay’s Upstairs”. In the early 2000s, Jay closed the businesses and he and his wife, Stephanie, took on the task of returning it to the early 1900s flash. Great background information for Missoula Montana sightseeing.

The building was renamed LaFlesch and took new life as Downtown Dance Collective took up occupancy on the main floor. As part of DDC, the building became an inviting space for weddings, meetings, fundraisers, and other various celebrations.

The second floor is home to The Loft of Missoula, a members-only social club. While a limited number of events can be scheduled by non-members, The Loft leadership tightly controls the space’s use. As of July 2021, The Loft is listed as “Permanently Closed”. Residents of Missoula hope to find a new use for this great space. I’ll keep checking back.

More Downtown Missoula Montana

Ron’s Hiking Trail

Clark Fork Riverfront Walk
Entrance to the hiking trails

A link to Riverfront Trails and pictures of downtown Missoula. The City Council of Missoula named the trail system Ron’s Trails, in honor of Ron MacDonald, a civic leader and attorney who lead efforts to develop Missoula for both tourism and local nature attractions. The trails are beautiful and well maintained. There are many miles of hiking trails in and around Missoula.

Lewis and Clark Interpretive Site Caras Park

Lewis and Clark Park
Commemoration of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the elusive hunt for the Northwest Passage (by water to the Pacific Ocean)

Caras Park occupies riverfront land in the heart of downtown Missoula. Here is a link to the many activities and events held in the the park. While the park hosts many events and sights, my focus here is just on the commemoration of the Lewis and Clark expedition through the Missoula area. They camped near the current site of Missoula at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Much of their successes in mapping the new Louisiana territory and making contacts and treaties with the local Indian tribes were achieved in Montana. To commemorate those successes, several plaques stand along the Clark Fork River. Another addition to Missoula Montana sightseeing.

Missoula Montana Skiing

Downhill skiing

The Rocky Mountains are known for skiing. Montana has great skiing although Colorado is more popular. There is a popular ski area within about 15 miles of Missoula. Other’s are further away but Missoula makes a great “jumping off” spot or a home base for your skiing adventures.

Snowbowl is located 12 miles from the Missoula Airport (MSO). Since it is so close to Missoula, lodging is in and around Missoula as Snowbowl does not have ski lodges. Snowbowl and Missoula provide the opportunities for great skiing for all levels of expertise during the day and Missoula’s great nightlife after your skiing is done for the day. Snowbowl has 42 trails with the steepest run providing 2600 feet in elevation drop and the longest run is 3 miles (link). With an annual snowfall of 300 inches, there is typically plenty of snow. Here is a link to a map of Montana ski areas.

PlanetWare rates Snowbowl as the fifth best of their 12 ranked ski areas in Montana. The influence upon the ranking comes from the fact that Snowbowl is more geared to intermediate and advanced skiers. Again, according to PlanetWare, Big Sky Resort, located between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park is not only the best skiing in Montana but the best in the US. Rounding out the top 5 in Montana are Whitefish Mountain Resort, Bridger Bowl Ski Area, and Discovery Ski Area. Here is a link to the rankings.

Montana Cross Country Skiing

Although Montana is best known for downhill skiing, cross country skiing is also popular. For large groups with different preferences, some of the cross country ski areas are located close to the downhill skiing areas. Here is a link to the top-ranked cross-country skiing trails in Montana.

Places to eat and sleep

Hotels

It’s hard to find decent rankings of hotels in Missoula. One of the rankings included Motel 6 as a luxury hotel! We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott which is generally considered mid-range in the Marriott family. We had a certificate for one night free and are in the Marriott rewards program. And the Courtyard was a very good hotel for its class. However, I couldn’t find a real luxury hotel, but there must be one or two in town.

Checking by chains: Marriott – Courtyard, TownePlace Suites, and Residence Inn. Hilton – Doubletree, Hilton Garden Inn, and Hampton Inn. IHG – Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, and Holiday Inn Express. Hyatt – None; Radisson – The corporate website says none but a search brings up Radisson Fort George Hotel; Best Western – Best Western Plus Grant Creek Inn. Wyndham – Days Inn, Super 9, La Quinta, and Wingate. (Wyndham likes to tout their Wyndham Grand, Dolce, and Tryp, but they own many middle and lower-end brands as well. But their rewards program does give you options.) I looked before we left and really couldn’t find anything better than the Courtyard.

Eating Places

Our best meal in Missoula was Bob Marshall’s Biga Pizza. TripAdvisor ranks it as the best pizza place in Missoula. And the #3 overall place to eat. They use some traditional recipes directly from Italy. Lots of pizza places in town, but it’s a college town! We also ate at the Montana Club as it was close to the hotel. But I don’t recommend that one. One of the days, I NEEDED a dessert so walked over to an Irish place called the Stone of Accord. The bread pudding was wonderful and the service was great! I’m not sure if eating places line up with Missoula Montana Sightseeing, but… oh, well!

The Pearl Cafe is rated as the best fine dining by TripAdvisor and was also recommended to us. Guess we should have gone there. Here’s a link to places to eat Missoula. I’ve found TripAdvisor to be a good indicator for restaurants because they do provide separate categories. That’s not true with hotels where you get a Super 8 and the Ritz Carlton ranked in the same category! And when rating hotels, people hold the high end hotels to a higher standard (as they should) but it will sometimes show a Super 8 outranking a Ritz Carlton! (Just an example, there is no Ritz Carlton in Missoula!)

University of Montana Grizzlies

General Information

The University of Montana is a public research university located in Missoula. As of the fall of 2018, the student body consisted of just under 11,000 undergrad and graduate students. When Montana became a state, Missoula wanted the University and made an agreement with Helena’s leadership to support Helena as the state capital if Helena would support Missoula as the location of the University of Montana. As a result, the new University of Montana opened in 1895. The U of M is the flagship institution of the Montana higher education system and the second-largest campus. Montana State University in Bozeman is Montana’s public land-grant university and has over 16,000 undergrad and graduate students.

Academics

The U of M ranks 17th in the nation and fifth among public universities in producing Rhodes Scholars! The university has nine colleges including a Law School. The most popular majors are Business, Management, Marketing, Education, and Natural Resources and Conservation. Due to the natural beauty of the city and the campus, some unique programs include experiential learning in the surrounding outdoors.

Athletics

The University of Montana athletic teams are known as the Grizzlies (men) and Griz (women). They compete in Division 1 and in the Football Championship Series (FCS) which is Division 1 as well. The U fields seven men’s sports and eight women’s sports. They compete in the Big Sky Conference. Surprisingly, none of the Big Sky members play hockey! It’s notable, considering approximately 140 colleges and universities do play hockey, many in the northern US. (Not sure how Arizona State (ASU) and the University of Alabama Huntsville starting playing hockey! By the way, ASU is the southernmost university to play NCAA hockey.)

Missoula Montana Air Service

Missoula receives service from five commercial airlines. Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, and United all provide flights into Missoula. Missoula is one of only three airports in Montana considered Primary airports and small hubs by the FAA. The others being Billings and Bozeman. (Billings is the largest city and Bozeman due to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park.) There are five other airports considered Primary non-hubs, included Helena, the capital city, and Kalispell, nearest to Glacier National Park. Five other airports provide scheduled air service but are not classified as Primary.

Due to the designation, Missoula has the best options for both schedules and lower costs for flying into western Montana. For example, I obtained two round trip tickets from Minneapolis (MSP) to Missoula for 15,000 Delta Skymiles each. Maybe not the greatest use of Skymiles but that’s another subject. There might be a post about the “points and miles game” in the future. If you want more information on points and miles, take a look at Thrifty Traveler. They are a small company that provides worldwide information on traveling and maximizing points and miles to fund it. You will find “a ton” of information on their website.

Missoula Demographics

Elevation, Terrain, and Population

Missoula is in the Montana Rocky Mountains. While the elevation of Missoula itself is about 3,200 feet (975 meters), two nearby mountains provide beautiful scenery. Mount Sentinel rises to about 5,150 feet (1,570 meters) and Mount Jumbo runs up to about 4800 feet (1460 meters). The terrain is mountainous and has flatter valleys. Missoula lies within the Clark Fork River Valley and four other valleys array around it likes spokes in a wheel. All of this contributes to a great Missoula Montana sightseeing trip.

Continuing with the rivers and valleys: The Clark Fork River and Valley is to the West, the Flathead River, and Valley to the North, the Blackfoot River, and Valley to the Northeast, the Deerlodge River and Valley to the East and the Bitterroot River and Valley to the South. Missoula is known for great trout fishing and for beautiful scenery. In fact, the movie “A River Runs through It” is set near Missoula, although the filming was done in several other locations as well.

Missoula’s population expanded rapidly in the last 25 years, nearly doubling during that time. The current population of the city is nearly 75,000 people and the county is over 120,000. That’s still small by “big city” standards but it’s the second-largest city in Montana. Only Billings is larger with about 110,000 city and 175,000 county. As I said in my cornerstone post, Montana doesn’t have a lot of people!

Missoula Montana Weather

Since Missoula is north of the 45th parallel (more than halfway to the North Pole from the equator), the winters often get very cold temperatures. In fact, as noted in the cornerstone post, the all-time record low (-70 F, -57 C) for the continental US is less than 100 miles away. The all-time record low in Missoula is -33 F (-36 C). The all-time record high is 107 F (42 C) in July 2007. However, the temperature rarely gets below 0 F (-18 C) in the winter and rarely gets above 90 F (32 C) in the summer. Missoula also gets an average of 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain in a year and 40 inches (102 centimeters) of snow. Here is a link to more information on climate in Missoula.

Historic Missoula Montana Sightseeing Wrapup

Overall, visiting Missoula was fun. Lots to see and do and the scenery alone is well worth the visit. Although we didn’t participate in the nightlife, I understand there are a lot of activities to do. After all, it’s a college town!

With the state parks and Glacier close by, the hiking and biking trails, and the nature watching, there is much to do. And skiing in the winter is a huge draw. So, go there! … What are you waiting for?

Did you know that Missoula is sometimes known as “Zoo Town”? Two reasons: Missoula is pronounced “Mi Zoo La” and with the University and the Tourism industry, you can always find raucous parties to attend! Ok, enough on Missoula. Have a great day! Why are you still here? You should be on your way to Montana!

Classic Rock Recollection

“Miss you so Badly” by Jimmy Buffett

I guess it all blew up in Missoula
There just was no other way
After months of going crazy
There was nothing left to say
But when the dust had finally settled
And the air had quickly cleared
Things were better off than I had feared

Written by: Gregg Taylor, Jimmy Buffett

Leave a Reply