Our Montana road trip starts in Missoula, Montana’s second-largest city located in the western part of the state. We instantly fall for this laid-back college town with leafy tree-lined streets and spend an afternoon exploring its riverfront park and downtown.
These are the highlights from our day in Missoula:
1) Missoula Airport
As soon as you step inside this airport, you feel as if you’ve arrived at a wild, untamed place. Giant animal trophies hanging from the wall great arriving passengers. Men wearing cowboy hats and holding fly-rods sit around waiting for their planes. A 10-foot stuffed brown bear stands on his black legs inside a glass case. Across the way, a stuffed turkey looks so real you practically hear a gobble. This is what I expected Montana to be like, though I never thought its outdoorsy charm would be so strongly present at the airport. I instantly fall in love with Montana before even stepping outside.
2) Clark Fork River
This snaking river cuts right through downtown Missoula and its collection of redbrick buildings. We walk along the riverfront, stopping to ride the lovingly restored carousel, exploring the giant castle-like playground at Dragon Hollow, and watching the kayakers play in the waves.
3) The Staggering Ox
The sandwiches dished up at this popular spot in a strip mall are like nothing else. Fresh fixings are stuffed inside cylinder-shaped loaves of bread that have been hollowed out–it’s sort of like a sandwich in a bread cup. It works brilliantly because the kitchen crew whips up all sorts of homemade sauces–spicy horseradish blue cheese, yogurt dill, ranch–and these cup-like loaves hold in all the yummy goo. I was quite happy with my salami sandwich dressed in a vinegarette.
4) Mount Sentinel
From downtown you can see this mountain. It’s hard to miss because there’s a giant white M on the side of it. As soon as I notice the switchback trail leading up to the M, I know that we must do the hike. We’re told the best time to head up is in the evening when it cools off so we take this advice and park at the trail head after dinner.
A plaque at the trail head says that forestry students cut the switchbacks in the early 1900s and in 1909 students build the first M with white-washed rocks. Finally, in 1968 a 125-foot-long concrete M was installed.
The views from the M are breathtaking–and as you get higher more and more mountains pop into view and you realize that Missoula sits in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
5) Big Dipper Ice Cream
Fresh, homemade ice cream–including the state favorite, Huckleberry.