You don't have to venture too far from Missoula, Montana, for great outdoor recreation and exciting attractions. The wide open spaces and stunning skies are the backdrops to captivating historical sites, majestic mountains, and incredible wildlife watching.
Along with Missoula's local attractions, the lively Montana town makes an excellent base for an active, extended vacation to go camping and flyfishing during the spring and summer or skiing during the wintertime.
It's easy to string several of these attractions together and create a day's driving tour.
Float Down Bitterroot River
Enjoy magnificent scenery and the charming towns of Darby, Hamilton, and Stevensville as you drive the US 93 highway through the idyllic river valley.
The Bitterroot River runs for over 80 miles through the valley and is perfect for floating, paddling, and boating. Flyfishing is a massive sport in this part of the country, and the Bitterroot River is packed full of an assortment of game options, including rainbows, browns, and salmon.
Explore local sites along the Lewis & Clark Trail, including Travelers' Rest and Lolo Pass. The Travelers' Rest location is a place where Lewis and Clark camped and is now preserved as a Montana State Park.
The expedition faltered during their attempts to cross the Bitterroot Mountains, but they eventually accomplished the feat via Lolo Pass. You can learn more about this episode of Lewis and Clark's journey at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center or by reading the posted signed while hiking parts of the trail.
Created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 for the express purpose of preserving North America's bison, this wildlife refuge is home to a large herd. Visitors can take a driving tour through the sanctuary to view herds of bison along with other wildlife, including elk, deer, chipmunks, and coyotes.
Resident critters that are more bashful include mountain lions and bears which you are less likely to see. Don't miss a stop at the National Bison Range Visitor Center to view exhibits, get current road and trails conditions, and to find the most current locations of where the herds are currently grazing.
As you drive along the highways just west and north of Missoula, you'll see ample evidence of a vast lake that existed during the recent ice age. Start your tour at the Montana Natural History Center in Missoula to get an overview of Glacial Lake Missoula, the ice age floods, and learn about sites to visit on your drive. The most popular stops include the Eddy Narrows and the Camas Prairie.
The best interpretive viewpoints to take photos are the KooKooSint Sheep Viewing Interpretive Site, off of Highway 200 near Thompson Falls, and the summit of Red Sleep Mountain Drive within the National Bison Range.
This historic site offers a visitor center and walking tour where you can learn about United States Forest Service pack animals and early forest firefighting practices.
Created in the 1930s, the Depot was used as a central location to house pack animals and train staff. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and still maintains an active animal workforce of mules and horses to ferry supplies up the mountain as needed.
Experience nature and history as you explore the old abandoned buildings of this mining-boom-era town. This is a real ghost town—a once-thriving community started in the 1800s, and went bust after the gold and silver rush, and was then left abandoned. The buildings and artifacts around the property provide a peek into everyday life during a long forgotten era.
After exploring Garnet, there are great nearby outdoor activities including hiking trails, mountain biking, hunting, fishing, and camping grounds.
For a glimpse into how the rich lived back in the early 19th century, take a tour of the Daly Mansion. The house was built by a local copper baron, Marcus Daly, and the 24,000-square-foot home features over 50 rooms, with 25 bedrooms, 15 bathrooms, and seven fireplaces. Located in the center of the Bitterroot Valley, the venue sees more than10,000 visitors annually and has 100 volunteers dedicated to preserving the grounds and main house. There are guided and self-guided tours available.
To understand the origins of Montana, St Mary's Mission is where you want to start. The location is known as "Where Montana Began” as Pierre De Smet, a Jesuit priest, founded the Mission in 1841, and the state grew out of the initial settlement. Free tours run from April 15 to October 15, and the grounds are open for visitors to picnic.
Consider supporting the Mission by swinging by the gift shop. On the shelves are books devoted to the history of Montana's star contributors like Lewis and Clark, and guides to the best hiking trails in the state.
Established in 1893, The Montana Museum of Art & Culture is one of the oldest art collections in the Northwest region. Housing over 11,000 objects, paintings, and sculptures, many parts of the museum are dedicated to works that highlight artists from the western parts of the United States and contemporary Native American art.
The museum regularly has live events to discuss new works and hosts receptions for emerging artists featured in the gallery—a great opportunity to meet a few locals with a shared passion.
Splash Montana is an outdoor waterpark featuring a trio of three-story waterslides, Olympic-sized pool with lap lanes, and a lazy river. The theme park also has a kiddie pool, cabanas for rent, and food concessions.
The venue offers swim lessons for children and adults using the foundation of the American Red Cross Learn-to-Swim Program. Group and private lessons are available.
While Splash Montana is only open during the summer months, there is a year-round indoor Aquatics Center on the grounds for those that need a swim during the winter.