Home to the University of Montana, Missoula is the state’s undisputed cultural capital, and its young, creative residents take full advantage of the surroundings thanks to nearby thrills such as whitewater rafting, steaming hot springs and historical remnants of the Wild Wild West. Here, five adventures in and near Missoula.
Hike to the Big “M”
Rising 1,958 feet above the University of Montana, Mount Sentinel is a favorite among urban hikers. In 1908, forestry students cut a zigzag trail up the mountain, and a year later, they added whitewashed rocks in the shape of a big M. In 1968, it was replaced with the “M” you see today, made of concrete and stretching 125-by-100 feet. The heavily trafficked path up to the letter may look easy, at only three-quarters of a mile in each direction, but it’s a doozy, thanks to 11 switchbacks and a 620-foot elevation gain.
Take a dip in hot springs
Why book a spa treatment when you can let nature do all the work for you? More than a dozen hot springs sit within a two-hour drive of Missoula, including the undeveloped Nimrod Hot Springs, 30 minutes outside the city and right along Interstate 90. Looking down at its bathtub-warm, crystal-blue waters, you might think you’re on some beach in the Caribbean, but it only takes a glance up at the surrounding pine-studded mountains and dramatic waterfalls to remember you’re right in the heart of Montana.
Wander through Garnet Ghost Town
One hour east of Missoula, Montana’s best-preserved ghost town makes for an excellent day trip for history buffs. In the 1890s, it was home to about 1,000 pioneering souls, who moved here to mine for the namesake semi-precious stone. Restoration work began in 1970, and today, you can step back in time as you stroll through town landmarks including a saloon, a hotel, a bar and a general store—many of which now house historic artifacts donated by the public.
Channel your inner cowboy at Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site
Dedicated to commemorating the ranching industry, this national historic site was once the headquarters of a cattle empire that stretched 10 million acres—a landmass so expansive that it would rank as the 42nd largest state. First built in 1863, it’s still a working ranch, populated by horses, chickens and three breeds of cattle: Shorthorn, Texas Longhorn and Hereford. Visitors can stroll around 88 historic structures (including bunkhouses and stables), watch a blacksmith at work and meet a working cowboy.
Whitewater raft the Alberton Gorge
In late spring and early summer, when snowmelt swells the Clark Fork River, head out into the Alberton Gorge—about 30 minutes west of Missoula—for some truly thrilling rafting adventures. As you splash and bounce through the chilly waters, remember to look up every once in a while to scan the canyon walls for ospreys and bald eagles. For a more relaxing day out, River City Brews offers tours on its floating bar, where you can sample locally made beers and ciders out of insulated steel growlers as you travel down a calmer stretch of the river.