Missoula is a bustling, growing, vibrant city in western Montana. I have visited many times over the years. My wife was born and raised there and since most of her family is still there we go up at least twice per year. Luckily, I like Missoula and the surrounding areas. It has an increasingly urban vibe and gorgeous rural scenery in all directions just beyond the city limits.
Over the past decade or so, my father-in-law (who was also born and raised in Missoula) and I have taken many day trips from town. I drive. He provides commentary and history lessons as we go. The following paragraphs describe my favorite drives with him.
1. Missoula To Rock Creek
Approximately 20 miles east on I-90: Walk the meadows and meandering trails of the 300-acre Rock Creek Confluence Property. The curated trail runs approximately 0.75 miles from the parking area to the convergence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River. Of that, approximately 0.3 miles is wheelchair accessible. Afterward, lunch at Ekstrom’s Stage Station several hundred yards up the road. You’ll find Old Western decor with multiple animal trophies and homemade pies. Summer only for the restaurant.
Pro Tip: Be watchful for wildlife on these flat dirt trails. Signs along the trails note that this land is a habitat for bears and mountain lions among other creatures.
2. Missoula To Hamilton
Approximately 57 miles south on I-93: Stop at Big Creek Coffee Roasters on West Main Street in downtown Hamilton for a satisfying cup of joe and scones. Along the way visit the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge near Stevensville and marvel at the Bitterroot Mountains and Bitterroot River. They are stunning! Wanna see where the TV series Yellowstone is filmed? Drive another 20 miles or so south to Chief Joseph Ranch just outside of Darby. When driving back to Missoula, take State Highway 269, the Eastside Highway from Hamilton to Stevensville, stopping at historic St. Mary’s Mission, the place “where Montana began”.
This route is a lovely two-lane country road with spectacular views of the Bitterroot Mountains off to the west. Warning: Be watchful for speeders on this highway.
Read up on 7 Amazing Things To Explore In Montana’s Beautiful Bitterroot Valley here.
3. Missoula To Philipsburg
Maybe 75 miles each way: a gorgeous drive along I-90E past Rock Creek with views of the Sapphire Mountains, Ruby Mountains, and the Clark Fork River. Exit onto State Highway 1 also known as Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway near Drummond. I love the scenery on Highway 1. Philipsburg was known for mining gold and silver as well as precious stones in the past but today, of all things, it is known for having the largest candy store in the West. The town has an Old West feel and offers the opportunity to mine or pan for sapphires and other jewels. And to eat all the candy you might want!
4. Missoula To Rock Creek Headwaters
If you want max scenery and nature and quietude, this is the trip. Approximately 150 miles round trip and at least 3 hours. Take I-90E to State Highway 1 past Philipsburg to State Highway 38. Then Rock Creek Road north to I-90. This is my favorite day trip from Missoula. One caution: Rock Creek Road is unpaved, hard-pack, and single lane for a significant part of the trip. Summer or autumn trip only, before the snow. Do not drive anything larger than an SUV or pickup.
Pro Tip: Be prepared to back up for oncoming traffic…rare, but there!
5. Missoula To National Bison Range
The Range is home to approximately 400 to 500 bison. It is approximately 100 miles round trip plus drive time around the Range’s dirt roads for viewing wildlife. Easy to drive and guaranteed to bring you close to multiple bison and other wildlife such as elk, pronghorn antelope, several types of deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and even black bears as well as many birds, including eagles, hawks, and geese. There is a nominal fee to visit. Winter driving would be dicey. Find a map of the Bison Range here (opens as PDF).
6. Missoula To Philipsburg To Hamilton
This is a long drive — about 4 hours. It’s beautiful, but be aware that the route involves approximately 25 miles of hard-pack, narrow, backcountry roadway, Skalkaho Road, a continuation of Highway 38. Leave Missoula and take the route past Philipsburg. Turn right onto Highway 38 and head west toward the confluence of East and West Rock Creeks, marking the origin of Rock Creek. Continue west on 38, paralleling West Rock Creek. Pavement ends shortly thereafter as you traverse the Sapphire Mountains.
You may run into patches of snow even in the middle of summer. Several miles past the summit (7,258 feet) you will see the dramatic Skalkaho Falls showering the road. This is a great photo op! This day trip is long but well worth the time and effort. This is a seasonal road, not passable during winter. Grab that cup of coffee when you arrive in Hamilton and celebrate your just-concluded adventure.
Pro Tip: This trip is easily drivable with a sedan, which we did. Just take it slow and easy.
More On Spending Time In Missoula
There are multiple lodging options along the I-90 corridor that runs east to west through town. But the most interesting accommodations (both hotels and short term condo rentals) are in and around downtown, in easy, flat walking distance (less than half a mile) to the University of Montana, the Clark Fork River, as well as many restaurants, shops, and local businesses.
In recent years, the City of Missoula has been encouraging redevelopment of its downtown area. This has resulted in the addition of several new hotels and renovation of existing historic buildings. Three hotels in particular are convenient: Marriott Residence Inn, AC Hotel, and the soon-to-be-opened Wren Hotel. All are ideally located for exploring the area. Restaurants range from steaks (1889 Steakhouse), Thai (Zoo Thai), and Mexican (The Camino) to creative pizza (Biga) and hamburger places such as Wally and Buck as well as imaginative Rocky Mountain foodie, wine, art, and music spots, such as PLONK, which was recently named one of the 25 best bars in America by The Manual. All are no more than a 5- to 10-minute walk from any of the downtown hotels mentioned.
Are you a morning person hoping for coffee and pastries? Consider a quarter-mile stroll across the Higgins Street Bridge to Le Petit Outre on 4th South Street. In the opposite direction and a similar distance from downtown is the Black Coffee Roasting Company on East Spruce Street. Downtown breakfast near the hotels? Go for The Catalyst Cafe. It’s usually packed. Or The Shack Cafe. Old-time Missoula and funky. Got a car? Of course you do. For an interesting breakfast, about 1.5 miles from downtown, try Burns St. Bistro. Hip, cool, and fun. If you’re looking for lunch to go, Tagliare Delicatessen about a mile south of downtown on Higgins easily has the best sandwiches in Missoula. Maybe all of Montana. And pick a dill pickle out of the barrel while there. Wonderful!
I look forward to returning to Missoula for more day trips with my father-in-law. Despite all I have driven, there are always more. New places. New experiences. Great times on the road.