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WEEKEND PLANNER

Big Sky, quiet splendor

Missoula, Mont., is a playground of natural wonders

MISSOULA, Mont. -- This city of about 95,000 in western Montana is best known for the state university and, hence, for being the state's most progressive area. During a weekend visit, though, what is most apparent is not Missoula's politics or culture, but its livability, its friendliness, and its love affair with the outdoors. It evokes a smaller Denver -- blue skies, low humidity, less altitude (3,205 feet), and a panorama of mountains from the Sapphire and Bitterroot ranges. Operating from the area are a slew of whitewater rafting and fly-fishing outfitters, and the city alone has five bicycle shops.

If you stick to the main part of town and skip the fairly recent suburban sprawl, you find historic buildings, quiet and attractive neighborhoods, a nice art museum, a gleaming carousel, miles of busy bikeways, rows of cafes and shops, and lots of Missoulans out walking and cycling. And that's before the school year begins, when the University of Montana's 13,000 students fill out the city.

Adding to Missoula's attractiveness is the Clark Fork River, which divides the university side from downtown. Several wide bridges pass over it, and paved trails run alongside it. You sometimes see anglers testing their fly-fishing skills closer to home before venturing out to one of the nearby trout-filled rivers. The best known is the Blackfoot, made famous by Norman Maclean's 1976 classic book, "A River Runs Through It," later made into a movie.

Missoula is also headquarters to several outdoors-related national groups, including the Boone and Crockett Club, which conducts big-game record-keeping and conservation work; Adventure Cycling Association, which has mapped bike routes around the country; and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a hunting and conservation group.

Most of the stores and cafes are on Higgins Avenue, which crosses the river and passes near the university. In Caras Park, along the riverfront below the bridge is "A Carousel for Missoula," so named because it was donated in the '90s by woodworker Chuck Kaparich, who hand-carved every gorgeous piece. A huge volunteer effort raised the money to house and maintain it. Next door is Dragon Hollow, a volunteer-built playground.

Two notable shops downtown are Stringed Instrument Division (541 S. Higgins Ave., 406-549-1502, www.netguitar

.com), which makes, repairs, and sells new and vintage guitars and other stringed instruments; and The Laughing Boy (234 W. Front St., 406-543-0677, www.thelaughingboy.biz), full of not only local artisans' crafts but an owner-created line of handsome furniture woven from recycled leather belts. Heading out Broadway toward the airport you will want to stop at the Elk Foundation's wildlife visitors center to learn about elk conservation and hunting and view the outstanding wildlife diorama.

Near the airport, a must-stop is the Smokejumper Visitors Center, run by the US Forest Service. As the largest active smokejumper base and training center in the country, it is home to 75 smokejumpers, elite firefighters who parachute into remote woods to contain wildfires. (Fire season was just heating up when I visited in July, and by late August, Missoula had been hit hard by thick smoke and two fires that forced thousands on the outskirts of town to be evacuated.)

The center's hourly tours ended after Labor Day, so you'll need to call for times. You learn about jumpers' techniques, equipment, and impressive physical requirements. When the firefighters are not jumping, they are inspecting parachutes or sitting behind sewing machines, making Kevlar jumpsuits for other smokejumpers and other groups, including the US Special Forces.

Some regularly scheduled summer doings are worth noting. "Broadway in the Rockies" puts on plays featuring national actors. It is run by the Missoula Children's Theatre, the country's largest touring children's theater. Outside, at Caras Park during the summer, "Out to Lunch" and "Downtown Tonight," on Wednesdays and Thursdays respectively, are daytime and evening events that feature entertainment and food from local restaurants.

On Saturday mornings mid-May to mid-October, a 30-year-old farmers' market bustles with scores of booths and thousands of shoppers. You can buy produce, food and drink, flowers, and gift items, such as clothing, jewelry, and bars of scented homemade soap made with buffalo tallow.

Though I had attempted to stay in town at Goldsmith's Inn, one of the few B&Bs, which overlooks the banks of the Clark Fork, it was full. As luck would have it, I ended up at the Foxglove Cottage B&B, a taste of the city (as in New York) a couple of miles out of town. Owners John Keegan and Anthony Cesare moved here from Manhattan, fixing up a small 100-year-old farmhouse in Missoula's historic Rattlesnake District, a residential area that abuts the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Cesare is crazy about gardening and photography, two passions that color the inn. (He put together a series of images of the World Trade Center, before and after, that has been traveling the state.) Keegan last year co-wrote "The Short (but Happy) Life Cookbook," a hilarious, campy paean to overindulgence (see review on Page E4).

Missoula is also a day-tripper's paradise in all directions. One afternoon I headed northwest on US Highway 93 with travel consultant Karen Liechty, who owns Adventure Connections and runs www.montanatravel.com. We visited the National Bison Range in Moiese, where a herd of several hundred buffalo roam on 19,000 acres of grassland and forest. It's also a great place to spot other wildlife and wildflowers. Nearby, in St. Ignatius, we toured the St. Ignatius Catholic Mission, a 1891 church built and beautifully decorated inside by Native American workers and Jesuit missionaries. Lunch was at Ninepipes Lodge, in a room with a gorgeous view of the Mission Mountains and surrounded by the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. Next door is the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana, an outstanding private, nonprofit museum featuring cowboy and Indian artifacts and operated by the Cheff family, longtime ranchers in the area.

We ended the tour with a huckleberry milkshake at a roadside stand. Like the blueberry in Maine, you can find the related huckleberry in all sorts of configurations in Montana, but nothing beats the shake.

Diane Daniel can be reached at ddaniel@globe.com.

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