Spreading along the banks of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon, Missoula (pop. 74,428) is an engaging mix of college-town sophistication and blue-collar grit. The two industries that built the city, railroads and lumber mills, have both diminished considerably since their turn-of-the-20th-century heyday but still form the foundation of the local economy. The University of Montana campus has given Missoula a literate and left-leaning air not usually found in this neck of the woods.
The mountains, rivers, and canyons around Missoula are Montana at its best. Downtown Missoula, stretching along the north bank of the river, contains a large number of elegant turn-of-the-20th-century brick buildings housing a buoyant range of businesses, from department stores to bike shops. Missoula’s other social nexus, the University of Montana campus, spreads south of the river at the foot of dusty brown Mt. Sentinel (the one marked with the large “M”) and the Sapphire Mountains. It’s a pleasant place to walk around—in summer, at least, when cyclists and in-line skaters outnumber pedestrians on the many paths—keeping an eye out for posters advertising local events.
Missoula’s number-one attraction, the Smokejumpers Base Aerial Fire Depot (406/329-4934, daily 8:30am-5pm summer, winter tours by reservation, donation), is seven miles west of town at the end of Broadway. Displays include dioramas, old photographs, and antique firefighting gear; hourly guided tours are led by the very people who jump out of airplanes to battle raging forest fires.
Thanks to the student population, Missoula has a wider-than-usual range of places to eat, and a truly phenomenal range of places to drink. Start the day at Bernice’s Bakery (190 S. 3rd St. W., 406/728-1358), which has good coffee and great pastries. Right downtown, the landmark Missoula Club (139 W. Main St., 406/728-3740) is a perfectly preserved 1940s burgers-and-beer bar. For an even grittier Missoula scene, it’s hard to beat the round-the-clock Oxford Saloon (337 N. Higgins Ave., 406/549-0117), where men and a few women huddle around nightly poker games, brave souls feast on the house special brains-and-eggs, and everyone drinks too much Bud.
There’s no shortage of accommodations in Missoula, though it’s always a good idea to book a room in advance. The nicest place to stay is Goldsmith’s Bed and Breakfast (809 E. Front St., 406/204-2535, $89-169), a comfortable downtown B&B along the river. A half dozen motels line I-90 and US-93 (which follows Broadway west of Missoula and Brooks Street south of town), including the usual national chains.