Exploring Western Montana
Whether you’re fortunate enough to call this state home or you’re checking it off your bucket list, Western Montana offers a treasure trove of experiences. Here, I’ll share some recommendations to make your visit unforgettable.
Missoula: Missoula, often referred to as a college town with a heart, has charm that captures the souls of its visitors. It’s a place where nature enthusiasts, river lovers, cyclists, foodies, and locals coexist. There’s no shortage of reasons to love this place.
- Trails: The city boasts an extensive network of trails, perfect for hiking and biking. (For more trail information, check out my post linked here.)
- Biking Paradise: Missoula’s accessibility is topnotch with a bike path that weaves through the town and leads right into the downtown area. If you don’t have your own bike and would like the rent one, the Bicycle Hangar Downtown is a great option!
- Culture and Cuisine: The city’s cultural scene is vibrant, offering galleries, and live music venues. Check out the Kettlehouse Amphitheater if you love live music and want a true taste of Missoula. When it comes to food, Missoula has a diverse options to explore.
- Griz Pride: Missoulians take immense pride in their city. It’s a place where Grizzly fans come alive in the fall, and a significant portion of the population comprises alumni who decided to make Missoula their permanent home, myself included.
What to Do in Missoula:
- Market Mornings: If you’re in town on a Saturday morning, I’d highly recommend a visit to the farmer’s market. Alternatively, indulge in a delightful breakfast at Scotty’s Table, conveniently off the bike path. Their patio is the perfect spot for a leisurely morning, complete with mimosas and people-watching as the market-goers come and go.
- Caras Park: Nestled along the Clark Fork River, Caras Park is a bustling hub of year-round activities and events. It’s a great place to soak in the local culture and enjoy the surfers on Brennan’s Wave.
- Tailgate: As September rolls in, Saturdays in Missoula become synonymous with tailgating. Even if you’re visiting and don’t have your own tailgate, you can still enjoy in the game day spirit by visiting Washington Griz stadium before kickoff. The atmosphere is electric, with stands selling popcorn and hotdogs, fans discussing the previous night’s adventures, and predicting their outcome for the game.
- Turner Farms: For a quintessential fall experience, plan a visit to Turner Farms. Whether you have kids or not, this place is a blast with its farm animals, delicious donuts, an abundance of pumpkins, and activities for everyone.
Dining in Missoula:
When it comes to dining options in Missoula, there are some great choices. Here are some recommendations, all within walking distance of each other:
- Montgomery Distillery: Whether you’re on a waitlist or just pondering your dinner plans, head to Montgomery Distillery for craft cocktails or Bar Plata for tapas and drinks.
- Saketome: If you’re a sushi lover, Saketome is a must-visit. Be sure to make a reservation if you can.
- Camino: For a taste of high-end Mexican cuisine and the best margaritas in town, The Camino is the place to be.
- Zoo Thai: If Thai food is your craving, Zoo Thai offers amazing dishes with generous portions and bold flavors.
- Plonk: Don’t miss Plonk’s Happy Hour (from 3 to 5) if your schedule allows. Their dinner options are noteworthy, but I can’t get enough of their bao buns and buffalo cauliflower on their HH menu. If the weather is still nice enough, opt for their rooftop patio for seating!!
- Gild: For a more laid-back experience, Gild is a favorite. They serve only beer and wine but are known for having some of the best tacos in town. And if it’s still the season for elote (grilled Mexican street corn), it’s a must-try!
Leaving the City Behind:
As you venture out of Missoula and into the countryside, you’ll discover even more gems in Western Montana.
The Bison Range: The Bison Range is a crowd-pleaser, especially when we have guests. Picture rolling hills, tall grasses, and herds of bison. This place, operated by the Tribe, holds a special place in many hearts. Be sure to bring some snacks for the approximately 2-hour journey through the range. If you haven’t left Missoula yet, consider ordering sandwiches from Tagliare for the road. Along the drive, you’ll also be treated to jaw-dropping views of the Mission Mountains as you approach Saint Ignatius.
Seeley Lake: Seeley Lake truly shines in the summer, however, it’s equally enchanting in the fall, offering serene walks and a chance to savor the crisp, fresh air. This picturesque town is home to five lakes: Rainy Lake, Lake Alva, Lake Inez, Seeley Lake, and Salmon Lake. In the winter, it transforms into a snowmobiler’s paradise. Check out the Tamarack Resort Campground for cabin rentals!
For a quintessential fall experience, take a scenic drive along Boy Scout Road, complete with campgrounds and a pull-out where you can stroll and meet Gus, the largest larch tree, who has stood for a thousand years, towering at 153 feet tall and 34 feet wide. As you continue north from Seeley Lake, your next stop is perfect for a picnic and launching your kayak or canoe for a leisurely afternoon.
Holland Lake: If you need some more grub before heading to the lake, a stop at the Hungry Bear Bar for some classic bar food and a cold one. Please note that there isn’t any food available at the lodge, so come prepared for the day ahead.
Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted by the Mission Mountains reflected in the clear waters of the lake. It’s a breathtaking year-round destination, perfect for unwinding and hanging out with friends and family. A short hike around the lake leads up to picturesque waterfalls, offering captivating views of the valley and the lake below.
Whether you’re camping or just looking to extend your adventure, the next stop is an ideal place to spend the night.
Whitefish: Whitefish is renowned for its year-round playground status. It serves as the gateway to West Glacier for summer travelers, transitioning into a cozy ski town by Thanksgiving. You’ll find a range of accommodations, from lodges and campgrounds to high-end hotels and cozy Airbnb rentals.
My husband and I have loved weekends in Whitefish for years, particularly during the peaceful lull between the summer bustle and the winter rush. September and October in Whitefish are magical, with full access to Glacier National Park until October 1st. Even afterward, you can still reach Lake McDonald Lodge and enjoy sunrise and sunset that their dock.
Whitefish Dining and More:
- Tupelo Grille: A favorite dining spot, Tupelo Grille offers New Orleans-style dishes and a relaxed jazz bar serving exceptional cocktails.
- Great Northern Bar & Grill: After dinner, we love heading to the Great Northern Bar & Grill for live music and card games before retreating to our cozy Airbnb for the night.
- Morning Adventure: In the morning, set off into the park to catch a mesmerizing sunrise. You could also make a reservation for a day of horseback riding which would be a great way to see West Glacier. Afterwards, treat yourself to a delicious brunch at Swift Creek.
If you still have the energy and a desire to explore more of this remarkable state, load up your car and set your sights on Polebridge.
Polebridge: During the summer, Polebridge becomes a river rat’s paradise with convenient access to the North Fork, which carves through Glacier National Park. Be mindful that this pocket of the state has the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the lower 48, so it’s essential to be bear-aware.
Polebridge is renowned for its iconic mercantile, a cozy spot that whips up some of the most delectable pastries, rivaling anything I’ve had since leaving New England. While everyone raves about their bear claws, which are stuffed with huckleberries, my latest obsession has become their pizza rollies and sandwiches. The moment you step into the mercantile, it feels like home, with a friendly Great Pyrenees standing guard at the front door, ready to welcome you.
And now, we’re practically in Canada. I hope this guide proves helpful, whether you’re planning a trip to Montana or seeking a weekend escape in your local area. Enjoy the adventure as you explore the wonders of Western Montana!