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Culture, Food and Adventure in Missoula, Montana, USA

Surrounded by gorgeous views

I often get emails asking for suggestions on where to go for a foodie girlfriend trip or a fun-in-the-sun island getaway or a good destination spa for mother and daughters. My latest request was a toughie… where could four youngish single women go for their annual girlfriend getaway if half of them like culture, shopping and fine dining and the other two are the adventuresome, outdoorsy type?

Luckily, I didn’t have time to respond because I was running out the door to join an all-girls press trip to Missoula, Montana. After the first day I decided that this lively college town could easily make all four women supremely happy, plus, the place is simply crawling with cute guys!

Nestled in the beautiful Missoula Valley, girly-girls will love exploring historic Downtown Missoula.  It’s lined with tastefully renovated, turn-of-the-century buildings,  housing eclectic, shop-worthy boutiques. They range from hippy, peace-sign embellished stores to trendy art galleries filled with collectables made by local artists. Nicknamed the “Garden City”, this pretty-as-a-picture town is filled with city parks, big, old oak and maple trees and vibrant flower gardens.

Tip: The First Friday of the month is open gallery night.

Dining choices run the gamut from homey cafes to upscale eateries run by some supremely talented chefs, offering their twist on Montana’s toothsome beef, trout and abundant array of seasonal, organic fruits and veggies.

 

Who cares about a impending storm?

For a small town, Missoula offers a big-city cultural roster revolving around the symphony, a children’s theater (the largest touring children’s theater in the country), the ballet, a wide variety of fine museums and excellent performing arts programs by The University of Montana.

Missoulians really make their own fun and hardly a day goes by where they’re not throwing a festival. We joined the locals for two fun events at the popular, downtown Caras Park: Out to Lunch – free live music every Wednesday afternoon throughout the summer and Downtown ToNight , a similar event on Thursdays nights. Both offer dozens of food vendors (and a beer garden at night) and plenty of outdoor seating.

Tip: Take a break and venture over to the river to watch the kayakers frolicking on Brennan’s Wave. The local Salish Indians aptly call Missoula, “Nemissoolatakoo”, meaning “by the shining waters”.

Sportier-women will be thrilled using the Rocky Mountains as their playground. The area offers incredible hunting, biking and hiking over hundreds of miles of breathtaking trails. To really get the adrenaline flowing, turn to the waters for some exhilarating whitewater rafting, kayaking or fly-fishing.

A River Runs Through It” was filmed in Missoula but the real truth is that three major rivers run through the area: the Blackfoot to the North, the Bitterroot River to the South and the Clark Fork River, which actually bisects the town.

Here are my top ten recommendations: perfect for both indoorsy and outdoorsy girlfriends:

1. Smokejumper Visitor Center

After visiting the nation’s largest training base for smokejumpers (heroic firefighters who parachute into forests to fight wildfires) we stepped outside to see if there was a sign posted that read “Only gorgeous hunks need apply!”  Wow, what a great bunch of guys! Free guided tours let you get a behind-the-scene look at what goes on in the demanding life of a smokejumper. Great fun to see these macho firemen sewing their own storage bags and parachutes AND they cook. We were tempted to sign up. Admission is free.

Steve Reed, 17 year veteran smokejumper

2. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation  is a nonprofit conservation education facility, dedicated to protecting elk conservation and their habitat and also promotes safe, ethical hunting. The visitor center features an impressive collection of mounted elk antlers, wildlife displays, a theater and a gift shop filled with unique wildlife arts, jewelry and Montana-made products. Admission is free.

Horns a-plenty

3. Hike the M – one way to burn off those lumberjack-sized breakfasts.

Named after the huge concrete “M” high on the side of Mount Sentinel, you’ll find the trailhead off Campus Drive near the Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Although the winding path is only about a mile long, it’s a huffin’ and puffin’  620 ft. high, though you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view. Plus, it’s impossible to get lost.

Tip: The trail continues about another mile for 1,328 ft. in elevation if you really pigged out that morning.

the Big "M"

4. Flyfishing fit for pros or dummies-

First catch of the day

Grizzly Hackle is the Superfly in town. They’ve been providing their expertise, along with the best gear and guided trips for fly fishing enthusiasts for over 20 years. They’re also known for cooking up some delectable river-side feasts. Sign up for an excursion with them and newbies will learn everything from how to tie a fly, some zen-like casting moves and how to reel in the big ones.

The rivers were too high when we were visiting, so we detoured to the Red Quill Ranch, an idyllic spot where the lake is brimming with trout. It’s “catch and release” so no fish are actually harmed. There is a huge “designer” cabin available for overnights. Our adorable guides, Ben and Bryce, could not have been more fun or patient with our gaggle of gals. Griz owner, Dan stayed on shore to BBQ  some divine chicken tacos with all the fixing’s.

Tip:  Stop in at the shop to ogle the amazing assortment of flies. One of the craftier girls scooped up handfuls of them that she’s going to turn into jewelry.

 

The Grizzly Hackle

5. Big Dipper-

The perfect reward after all your hard work, or just because you’ve been a good girl, join the throngs at this beloved ice-creamery. Homemade flavors, Huckleberry, Mango Habanero, Red Tea Chocolate Chip, Danish Sweet Cream, Chocolate Thin Mint and  Espresso Heath were just of few that we enjoyed licking.

The flavors change daily so frequent visits are mandatory, but at $3.50 for a double scoop, it’s all good. Sadly, I never got to try the Big Dipper’s signature, Cold Smoke beer ice cream – made from Kettle House Brewery’s leftover mash.

The Big Dipper

6. Speaking of beer, it’s easy to put together your own pub crawl.

Start at Bayern Brewing Company, for a large selection of Bavarian beers made from the only German microbrewery in the Rockies,  then head over to Big Sky Brew and slam down some Moose Drool, the best-selling beer brewed in Montana. Also, order a luscious Bar Burger, fully loaded with bacon, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato.  End up with a brewski at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. one of the town’s newest Microbrew bars.

Tip: If you prefer wine, plan a detour to the tasting room at Ten Spoon (anagram of the owners names, Andy Sponseller and Connie Poten) Vineyard and Winery. They have been growing wine grapes in the Rattlesnake Valley since 1998 and making wine since 2003. All their wines are certified organic, with no added sulfites and are “Made in Montana”. Our faves were the estate grown Range Rider Red (full of zest with a strong berry nose) and their unique Paradise-Dry Pear Wine (crisp and elegant with just a kiss of pear).

7. Horsing around at Dunrovin Ranch: This boutique guest ranch, ten miles out of town, is a labor of love by SuzAnne Miller, a fourth-generation Montanan, and her family. Her goal is to provide the highest quality horseback riding experience stressing education, safety and the strong connection between you, the horse and nature. Dunrovin only uses Tennessee Walking Horses, the Rolls-Royce of horses, known for their speedy, floating-on-air gait.

There are two adorable, highly affordable cottages (with full kitchens, hot tub, fire pit, satellite TV) available for longer retreats. SuzAnne offers a wide variety of equestrian adventures  such as the “Big Sky at Night” ride led by a University of Montana astronomy professor.

SuzAnne demonstrating the proper way to mount her horses

8. Chow time: You’ll need at least three squares a day here to keep up your energy.

My breakfast fave was The Shack, rather a misnomer since it’s located in an ultra-stylish, repurposed car dealership. Swinging wooden saloon doors open to the main dining room decorated with old maps, clocks and brass chandeliers from the 1800’s and a huge antique oak bar.  I loved my fresh rainbow trout, hashed browns and poached egg brekkie.

Lunch winner is the Catalyst Café particularly on Thursday’s, which is the only day they offer a supremely addictive Mac & Cheese. It comes with a side of Patak’s Spicy Relish, which really adds a potent kick to the ol’ buds. “The Cat” also serves one of the best cappuccinos in town.

The best meat and potatoes dinner can be found at Lolo Creek Steakhouse,  a gigantic rustic log-hunting lodge (complete with stuffed animal heads adorning the walls). You can’t go wrong with the open-pit BBQ sirloin steak (three sizes to choose from) unless the amazing Red Angus steak (from a neighboring ranch) is the nightly special.

The entire staff treats the customers as family (but not a dysfunctional one) providing a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The charming owner, Mike Grunow, insisted we try the Coconut Macaroon Sundae (not being a big coconut fan I was a wee bit skeptical) but let it suffice to say that as stuffed as we were, we ordered seconds.

Lolo Steakhouse

For a mind-blowing, upscale gourmet meal, Scotty’s Table takes the toque. Self-taught, chef-owner, Scott Gill honed his skills in Northern California wine country, but moved to Missoula for the quality of life, which is reflected in the high quality of his food.

This sophisticated bistro has it all going on: our server was professional yet supremely helpful, the spacious dining room is beautifully appointed with sky-high ceilings and picture windows, and the food is creative, impeccably prepared and relies on local organic ingredients whenever possible. It’s hard to remember you’re in Montana when dining on refined offerings such as the Poached Egg, served on white salad with seared house-cured prosciutto, shaved baguette, Beemster cheese and roasted onion crème.

I didn’t know if I should paint a still-life of the local grilled lamb, served with Montana purple barley and sautéed Savoy spinach, or just devour it all. I decided on the latter.

9. Shop the Markets– Start at the Saturday Farmer’s market where you can join the colorful locals while they schmooze, sip a hot coffee, and nibble on some fresh baked goods while doing their weekly produce shopping at nearly 100 food stalls. Then meander up the street to the People’s Market to check out the local art, jewelry and clothing. Loved the mud-dyed t-shirts and animal filled jungles fashioned from colorful balloons.

10. 10,000 Waves – Thumbs-up for all things non-alcoholic, water-based: whitewater rafting, kayak lessons, guided river trips, or for scaredy-cats, they offer scenic river-floating. Our guides were the prefect combo of professionalism while being extremely safety-conscious, but with a large dose of good, crazy fun thrown in.  1000 Waves is perfectly situated near the campsite of the Lewis & Clark expedition, where the Blackfoot and Clark Fork River meet, they can handle just about any river adventure you have in mind.

Ready to run the rapids

WHERE TO STAY:

There are tons of motel and hotel chains to choose from but for a group of girls, I’d highly recommend either the reasonably priced DoubleTree or the Staybridge Suites.

The Staybridge Suites  are exceedingly roomy. All suites have separate living and working areas and a fully-stocked kitchen. Amenities include a open laundry room, a cozy, first-come-first-served theatre room, pool table, exercise room, pool area, business center and even an outdoor basketball court. Complimentary hot breakfast buffet offers fresh fruit cocktail, waffles, scrambled eggs, bacon, tortillas and all the fixings needed to make your own brekkie burrito.

The Doubletree Hotel is one of the prettiest Doubletree’s I’ve ever seen as it is perched right on the bank of the tumbling Clarks Fork River. Complimentary computers, an outdoor swimming pool, a fitness room,  fresh-brewed coffee in the lobby (perfect for pairing with their famed choco-chip cookies) are just a few of the offerings. Step into their award-winning restaurant, Finn & Porter, to try the Snake River Farms all-natural sustainable American Kobe Beef dinner, full breakfast or one of their speciality Martinis on the outdoor deck.  We all agreed that their marshmallow soft “Sweet Dreams” bed provided our best sleep of the trip.

Flying in: Visiting Missoula

Missoula International Airport, about 15 minutes from downtown by car, is served by Horizon Air, SkyWest, United, Northwest, Allegiant Air and Big Sky.  Both of the above hotels have an airport shuttle to whisk you to your room.

For more help in planning your getaway:

Visit www.glaciermt.com  and  www.missoulacvb.org/

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About Janice Nieder

Janice Nieder
Janice Nieder could be the love child of Indiana Jones and Julia Child. Previously a specialty food consultant in NYC, Janice is currently a SF-based culinary tourism writer who has wined & dined her way through 80 countries

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7 comments

  1. Janice Nieder

    Ooops. Major typo. Somehow I deleted a zero in “10,000 Waves Rafting & Kayaking” company. You can find them at http://www.10000-waves.com

    • Thanks Janice! We had a blast with you and the rest of the gang! Look forward to seeing you again and following your adventures and writings. We should have had you on our dinner trips. We would have loved to have shown you what we do out on the river on our dinner trips. Have fun and remember excitement comes in waves….. like 10,000 Waves.

  2. sounds like nonstop fun–guys would enjoy many of these activities, too! Sounds like the writer really got into the place thoroughly–feel like I was there with her! Keep up the great reporting!

  3. Christina – if you need any information or help while you are here, don’t hesitate to stop by our Visitor Center, 101 East Main. Great info. on everything Missoula – so glad you are coming!

    Barbara Neilan
    Executive Director
    Destination Missoula
    The Official Convention & Visitors Bureau for Missoula
    1-800-526-3465

  4. Janice Nieder

    Acutally, A River Runs Through It (the book and the movie) were set in this area, but it was not actually filmed here.

    Tia Troy

    Public Relations Manager

    Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission

  5. wow – sounds exciting! My friend and I were planning to visit Bozeman but after reading about Missoula ( and especially the cute guys) looks like a change in plans for us. great tips btw.

  6. We are two very busy banking execs in our late 40’s. * not married so a gaggle of
    cute guys sounds appealing! We’ve been kicking around if there was a fun and
    DIFFERENT place for us to go together (and each take and treat our 15 year old nieces/godchildren.)LOVE it…a Nemissoolatakoo ( MIssoula) trip will knock their soxs off and be fun for us as well. In lieu of beer they can go crazy with ice
    cream. Intend to just follow you guide 100%…already checked…Staybridge Suites
    looks great for us. We will win such points foe being cool aunties!! Hoorah-

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