Brennan's Wave

Brennan's Wave is a popular spot for kayakers

courtesy of Taylar Robbins

You’re in an active city in the Northern Rockies that abuts a national forest, boasts numerous recreation areas, and seems to attract rivers like a fish to a fly. Getting outdoors in Missoula is easy. Deciding what to do may prove a bit more challenging. Our suggestion? Do it all. 

There are plenty of shops in town where you can rent or purchase necessary gear and equipment. This also puts you in contact with “in-the-know” locals who will be more than happy to ply you with suggestions and tips on where to go and what to bring.

WHERE TO GO standup paddle boarding & tubing

If standup paddle boarding sounds intriguing, visit Strongwater Paddle Sports, located downtown. Standup paddle boarding has become super popular, so reserve ahead of time, if possible.

If you like your water calm, visit Frenchtown Pond State Park, just 15 minutes west of Missoula, or Flathead Lake, a 90-minute drive north.

The more adventurous may want to try paddle boarding on the river. While still relatively calm, the moving water adds another layer of excitement.

Two fun, local runs are the Clark Fork River and the Bitterroot River. For the first, put in at East Missoula at the Sha-Ron fishing access site and take out downtown Missoula, either at the bridge at Finn & Porter (you’ll see the diners waving to you from the patio), river right, or float another 150 to 200 yards to Bess Reed Park, also river right, where you’ll see a small trail climbing up the embankment. NOTE: if you continue past these takeout points, you’ll float into downtown and through Brennan’s Wave. Tubers should plan on getting soaked as they make their way through the whitewater. Inexperienced paddle boarders and rafters should take out before the wave.

To run the Bitterroot, put in at Maclay Flat and cruise all the way to the Kona Ranch Road Bridge. Take out river left, just before passing under the bridge. Both of these stretches are ideal for inflatable kayaks, rafts and inner tubes as well. You’ll find tube, raft, and kayak rentals downtown at The Trail Head and 10,000 Waves Raft and Kayak Adventures.

WHERE TO GO whitewater rafting

Want something a bit more heart-pounding? Consider whitewater rafting. Here, we absolutely recommend going with an outfitter. In addition to being skilled in whitewater navigation and swift water rescue, outfitters take care of pretty much everything. And considering you’re on vacation, isn’t that how it should be? Shuttles, gear, meals, snacks and more will be provided, as well as some keen insight on the wildlife, flora and fauna you’ll be passing by.

A favorite of locals, Alberton Gorge is just 30 miles west of Missoula on the Clark Fork River. This Class III whitewater run is high adventure, with five rollicking rapids. It wends its way through thick forests and cool rock formations and has plenty of sandy beaches perfect for lunch or just kicking back. Be on the lookout for bald eagles and osprey. Local outfitters offer both half- and full-day adventures on the Gorge.

If you’re one of those “go big, or go home” kind of people, consider the Lochsa. The Lochsa River serves up a mix of Class II, III and IV rapids – we’re talking 25 Class IV rapids! – with very little break or float in between. This is a full-day, adrenaline-pumping, heart-stopping adventure that is sheer bliss. The Lochsa whitewater season runs from late April to late June, with peak flows during the latter part of June. Yee-haw.

If you like the idea of rafting but could do without the rapids, not to worry. There are plenty of easy-living, floatable stretches on all three of our local rivers. Again, local guides will be more than happy to set you up on a full- or half-day outing.

WHERE TO GO fly-fishing

Let’s face it. It wouldn’t be a trip to Missoula without a fly-fishing adventure. We’ve all seen the movie A River Runs Through It, right? Fly-fishing is absolutely central to this community. And while we can’t serve up Brad Pitt as your personal guide, we can offer an impressive number of outfitters ready to show you the ropes. For these guides, fishing is a passion. It’s an art. It’s a way of life.

Without question, your time here will be enriched if you spend a few hours on the river casting and floating with these professionals. There’s something almost Zen-like about this sport – you’re fully present, yet simultaneously a million miles away from the worries of the world. If ever there were a term for what a vacation should feel like, it just might be fly-fishing.

And with three rivers to choose from – the Blackfoot, Bitterroot, and the Clark Fork of the Columbia – as well as Rock Creek, famous for its blue ribbon fishing, you have an almost endless selection of stretches to explore. The angling is so good here, in fact, that Forbes Magazine recently named Missoula one of North America’s top ten trout fishing towns.

If lake fishing is more your speed, you’ll find plenty of options here as well. Flathead Lake, Frenchtown Pond State Park, Georgetown Lake, Placid Lake State Park, Seeley Lake and Salmon Lake State Park all welcome you to fish their waters.

Other warm weather activities not to be missed include biking, hiking, birding and golfing.

WHERE TO GO city and mountain biking

If you spend time downtown, you’ll quickly notice the large number of cyclists. On any given day, you may well see more bikes parked and locked up than cars. Missoula’s bicycle system includes more than 20 miles of bike lanes and routes on major streets. Numerous other trails connect most of the major landmarks, such as Downtown, The University of Montana and major shopping areas.

Rattlesnake National Recreation and Wilderness Area – It’s an easy five-mile bike ride from Downtown up the Rattlesnake to the main trailhead. Jump on the main service road for a gradual climb that’s not too technical and a fun downhill when you turn around. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, turn off onto any one of the single-track trails cutting off from the main trail. Sawmill Gulch is a popular one. The network of trails is winding and long – be sure to turn around on occasion to recall your surroundings. If you do get lost, just remember to head downhill. Also, this is bear country, so make noise and carry bear spray.

Blue Mountain Recreation Area – Blue Mountain offers a variety of mountain biking terrain, from a large open field with rolling hills to a doable service road that climbs up, up, up, to more challenging single-track trails. Plan to share the trail, as Blue Mountain is popular with horseback riders and dog walkers.

Pattee Canyon Recreation Area – Pattee Canyon has a variety of biking terrain and a variety of access points. A nice three and a half-mile loop ride is the Sam Braxton Trail. Access it from the Sam Braxton Trailhead, on the south side of Pattee Canyon Drive across from the picnic area.

WHERE TO GO hiking

Ready for a hike? It’s impossible to give due credit to each and every must-do hike in the Missoula Valley. There are simply too many choices, and that’s a good thing. Here then are a few suggestions:

Hike the M. You must. You can’t spend time in Missoula without noticing the huge white “M” set against Mount Sentinel. Beginning on the UM campus, it’s a steep three-quarters of a mile climb to the “M” and an additional one mile to the top of the mountain. The views of the Missoula Valley, the Clark Fork River, and the distant mountains are spectacular. The trail to the “M” is made up of 11 switchbacks and boasts an elevation gain of 620 feet – something you too can boast about once done.

From the top of Mount Sentinel, you can see Hellgate Canyon, Mount Jumbo, where you can note the water lines of Glacial Lake Missoula, and the Rattlesnake National Recreation and Wilderness Area. From there, you can take the Crazy Canyon Trail into Pattee Canyon, which links to the Kim Williams Trail.

Super popular with dogs and their two-legged counterparts, Blue Mountain Recreation Area is an easy two-mile drive southwest of Missoula. A nice mix of easy walking and steeper climbs, Blue Mountain boasts expansive meadows (keep an eye out for the most gorgeous blue butterflies) and great views of the Missoula Valley, including a self-guided nature trail. Be prepared for horses, mountain bikers and plenty of happy dogs.

Waterworks Hill is a favorite among locals. Located just off Greenough Drive, Waterworks is an easy, scenic in-town hike. The treeless stretch may seem barren on first glance, but on closer examination, you’ll find some pretty remarkable plant life. Low-lying, or cushion, plants come to life with a variety of flowers and colors in the spring. Be on the lookout for birds and foxes.

WHERE TO GO birding

How about getting out and counting birds as part of a group effort on Christmas Day? Or participating in a local birdathon fundraiser? Maybe you’d rather take a leisurely stroll and see what flies on by. No matter how you go about it, Missoula and the surrounding area offer a bevy of fantastic bird-watching sites and opportunities. Some of the more popular spots from which to view birds include Kelly Island, Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, Greenough Park, Maclay Flat/Blue Mountain Road, Mount Jumbo, the Kim Williams Trail, Pattee Canyon, and along the Clark Fork River on U.S. Interstate 90 East. It’s definitely worth a visit to the Five Valleys Audubon Society’s website. Five Valleys offers a variety of birding activities including guided bird-watching outings and the above-mentioned Christmas Bird Count and Birdathon.

WHERE TO GO golfing

Golfers love Missoula. Summer days are long and sunny. Our far westerly position in the time zone and northern latitude means we don’t see twilight until nearly 10 p.m. in June and most of July. Golf weather often arrives in March and lingers well into October, giving us (and you) a surprisingly long season. With eight courses – Canyon River, Highlands, King Ranch, Larchmont, Linda Vista, Missoula Country Club, The Ranch Club, and The University of Montana course, Missoula truly has something for every golfer.

Don’t worry about going stir-crazy in Missoula during the cooler months. There are plenty of activities to keep you busy in the great outdoors. And as any local will tell you, the secret to enjoying those cooler days is to play, play, play.

Many of the previously mentioned adventures carry through well into fall. With the right clothing layers – polypro, wool, windbreaker – mountain biking, hiking and golf are all quite enjoyable with a little chill in the air. When the snow flies, trade out your wheels for skis, and add snowshoes or cleats to your hiking shoes. Then get moving. Here’s how:

WHERE TO GO hunting

Stick around long enough, and you’ll hear locals talk about “bagging” an elk and filling the freezer for the long winter. Hunting is serious business in Missoula. Here, you’ll find elk, deer, pheasants, ducks, geese and grouse. Both rifle and bow hunting are permitted.

Hunting can be done on public and private lands, but different laws apply to each type of property. Be sure to know the rules before you head out. And be sure to have a license.

WHERE TO GO skiing & snowmobiling

Did you know Missoula has its very own ski area? Located just 20 minutes north of downtown, Snowbowl may surprise you with its steep and deep terrain comprised of 2,600 vertical feet and 950 acres. It’s a throwback kind of place with no glitz or glam – but you’re here to ski, so who cares? To get there, take the Reserve Street exit off I-90 and travel along Grant Creek Road. Turn left onto Snowbowl road.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly ski destination, check out Discovery Ski Area, or “Disco” to locals. It has a variety of terrain, with plenty of beginner and intermediate slopes, as well as some highly-technical runs on the backside. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Missoula.

Another popular choice for families is Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside, just 120 miles north of Missoula. You’ll find more than 1,000 acres to ski and runs for all abilities. Blacktail averages about 250 inches of annual snowfall, so the skiing is always good. And you’ll be treated to some amazing views. On a clear day, Flathead Lake, Glacier National Park and the Mission, Whitefish and Cabinet Mountain ranges are all visible.

Lookout Pass sits on the Montana/Idaho border and sees some of the area’s earliest snowfall, most of it light and fun to ski. It has 540 acres and 34 runs. Its two terrain parks have huge banks, mounds, launches, rails, and a 1,111- foot quarter pipe. Yep, it’s fun.

Lost Trail Powder Mountain is well known for reliable snowfall and consistently good snow conditions. It, too, straddles the Montana/Idaho border, though along the breathtaking Bitterroot Range of the Northern Rockies. Lost Trail is 90 miles south of Missoula.

Nordic skiers will find an impressive number of ski areas to choose from. Stay close to city limits at Pattee Canyon, (groomed on Fridays, ideal for both skate and traditional) or the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area (traditional and backcountry).

Other cross-country options include Lolo Pass, an easy 40-minute drive west of the city on U.S. Highway 12 (skate and traditional). There is a nominal fee to park, but the scenic vistas and seemingly endless trails make it worth it.

If you want to ski with your dog, Lubrecht Experimental Forest is your destination. There’s about 28 miles of trails with a variety of terrain. Pack a lunch and plan to eat at the covered picnic area. It truly is lovely. Lubrecht is about a 30-minute drive from Missoula.

Another popular cross-country ski destination is the Seeley Swan Lake Trail System. Maintained by the Seeley Lake Nordic Ski Club, the 32 km trail system offers groomed trails of varying difficulty. It’s a bit longer of a drive – about one hour from Missoula – but it’s definitely worth the visit.

Cross-country ski rentals are available at The Trail Head and Open Road Bicycle and Nordic. Hint: Call the night before to reserve, especially if the snow is flying.

When you’ve run out of steam but still desire to get out into the backcountry, consider snowmobiling. But be warned: It’s fast, fun and super addictive. Snowmobiling opportunities abound in the Lolo Pass, Seeley Lake, Lincoln, Ovando and Garnet areas.