Top 10 Things to do in Missoula, MT for Families
Missoula, Montana is a vibrant and culturally rich city nestled in the heart of the northern Rocky Mountains. Over 12,000 years ago, Missoula lay beneath a lake in 2,000 feet of water which eventually formed the unique geological formations found in this area.
With its proximity to three major rivers, the Clark Fork, the Blackfoot and the Bitterroot plus the surrounding wilderness, Missoula plays host to a plethora of outdoor activities. Depending on the season, you can hike, ski, raft, kayak, fish, walk, run, bike, ride a horse or simply talk current events at a local craft beer brewery. Missoula simply offers something for everyone and is especially welcoming for children. There is no shortage of activities available whether it is outside enjoying one of four distinct seasons, perusing local art in one of the many galleries, listening to world class music at one of several venues, or enjoying one of the many flavors of locally made ice cream.
Missoula is addicting. Visitors become so enthralled with what this city offers and the high quality of living, that they return year after year or simply end up moving here.
There are easily over 100 fun things to do in Missoula, MT, so it was difficult compiling this list of the top 10 activities for families. Whatever you end up doing during your visit, you are guaranteed to have fun!
1. Hike the M
The “M,” located on the west side of Mount Sentinel, is a well known Missoula feature which can be seen from most points around Missoula. This popular hike features an elevation gain of 620 feet and has 11 switchbacks that zigzag up the mountain for about 3/4 of a mile. It is suitable for all ages but is quite strenuous. Fortunately, there are numerous benches where you can rest and catch your breath while marveling at the view of Missoula and surrounding area. You will be proud of yourself once you reach the top. Make sure you have your camera handy because the views are worthy of many Instagram posts.
For those more adventurous and with a bit more time, you can continue climbing for another mile to the top of Mount Sentinel where the views will knock your socks off. To the north you will see Mount Jumbo and the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. To the south you will see the snowcapped Bitterroot Mountain range. For geologist buffs, you can look for prehistoric water lines formed by the waters of Glacial Lake Missoula etched into the slopes of Mount Jumbo. From the top of Sentinel, you can retrace your steps to the base of the mountain or follow Crazy Canyon Trail into Pattee Canyon.
Tip: If you are visiting in the summer, I recommend hiking the “M” during early morning or late afternoon. The summer sun in Missoula can be intense and hot. Make sure to wear tennis shoes and bring water and a hat for comfort.
2. Ice Cream Anyone?
After a hike to the “M,” cool off with locally made ice-cream at either Big Dipper Ice Cream or Sweet Peaks, both located in the downtown area. Big Dipper Ice Cream and Sweet Peaks are extremely popular among locals and tourists alike and it’s not uncommon to find long lines gathered at either place even on the most frigid of days. Both are committed to using local ingredients and take pride in giving back to the community. Another bonus is they have junior size scoops for the youngest of ice cream connoisseurs.
Big Dipper Ice Cream has received national attention from a recent appearance on Good Morning America for being chosen as one of America’s Best by Food and Wine magazine, USA Today, Yahoo news and Budget Travel. They have a large selection of yummy flavors with local ingredients and weekly experimental flavors such as Cold Smoke (Ale) or Espresso Heath. Bubble Gum is a favorite for my kids and Tangerine Sorbet makes my mouth water just writing this article.
Sweet Peaks is a more recent addition to Missoula but has been around in other Montana locations for a several years. They offer about 16 delicious flavors using milk and cream from the Hutterite dairy farms of Montana. Their flavors range from the classic Madagascar Vanilla to Lemon Dill to my favorite, Chocolate Love. My 8-year old daughter is obsessed with Salty Carmel.
3. The Ron MacDonald Riverfront Trail System
Walking trails are not just limited to the paths outside the city. Downtown Missoula is fortunate to have the Ron MacDonald Riverfront Trail System that parallels the Clark Fork river and offers miles of bountiful opportunities for walking, jogging, fishing or biking.
Rent a bike at Missoula Parks and Rec or stroll along this scenic trail to visit numerous attractions such as the popular carousel which features horses, dragons and chariots lovingly made by local artisans. The fee to ride is quite minimal and the kids will want to ride over and over (and over…) again.
Once the kids decide to stop riding the carousel, you will find Dragon Hallow next door. Dragon Hallow, a magical playground featuring a play structure in the form of a dragon, takes children back into medieval times where they can jump, slide and swing in a controlled and fenced environment. Fortunately there is no charge for admission, because the kids will want to return again and again to explore and make new friends.
4. Caras Park Pavilion
Also along the Riverfront Trail System is the Caras Park Pavilion which is host to an eclectic range of events and festivals throughout summer, most of which are free to attend and usually are kid-friendly. During the months of June, July and August you will be amazed with the variety of foods for sale at the weekly Out-to-Lunch (Wednesdays at noon) and Downtown ToNight (Thursday evenings). Both are free to attend and there is live music for entertainment (and dancing on the grass!).
Kid-Fest, held annually at the end of July or early August, is a highly popular festival for kids designed by kids. There are science exhibits, bug exhibits, Lego robotics, space machines, face painting, music and food. My kids hate to be out of town and miss this fun-filled weekend.
Probably the most popular summer event at Caras Park is Symphony in the Park. Approximately 5,000 people attend this free event held annually in August and it is sponsored by the Missoula Symphony Organization. It is a spectacular way to spend a warm summer evening, reveling in beautiful music, as the sun sets over the valley, illuminating the “M” in the distance and the Clark Fork river babbling gently nearby. Ahhh…summer in Missoula is not to be missed.
Tip: While visiting Caras Park make sure to wander over to the wooden deck that faces out over the river. Here you will find Brennan’s Wave, which is a man-made white water feature popular with kayakers and surfers alike.
5. The Children’s Museum
Need to go indoors for a bit? The Children’s Museum, located downtown on Front Street near Caras Park, the Carousel and Dragon Hallow, is a wonderful place for children ages 0-9 to be creative, explore and have fun with numerous hand-on educational exhibits.
Although it isn’t a large museum, there is plenty to keep your child engaged for a couple hours with a dress-up center, grocery store, a dino dig, construction site, baby/toddler only section, slide, reading nook, arts and crafts, and a popular water feature. The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10 am – 5 pm, Sunday noon – 5 pm (CLOSED Sundays in July and August), Mondays CLOSED.
Tip: If you are a member of another Children’s Museum, check to see if there is reciprocity. This is a great way to save money!
6. How About a Swim at Splash Montana?
When the heat of summer gets too hot, head on over to Splash Montana! This popular outdoor waterpark is located in Playfair Park and is run by Parks and Recs of Missoula. The whole family will enjoying spending the day floating the lazy river, sliding down the giant waterslides, testing balance skills while trying to cross a floating log or just swimming laps in the Olympic size pool. Little ones won’t be intimidated as there is a zero-entry section just for them complete with a bear slide.
The big slides require riders to be at least 48″ and they are strict on that measurement. When you get hungry, the snack bar offers a wide range of food and beverages.
Tip: It can get very crowded, come early to grab lounge chairs in the shaded areas for more comfort.
7. The Montana Natural History Center
Kids can let their curiosity about nature go wild at the Montana Natural History Center. Their focus is on the Missoula area and includes everything from information about ancient Lake Missoula to the abundant local flora and fauna. Although rather small, it provides a well-rounded educational opportunity to learn about our area. Plan on spending no more than about an hour exploring the museum. Admission is very reasonable: Adults $3, Children 4-18 $1, Under 4 FREE, Family Rate $7.
If you are in town for an extended amount of time, consider enrolling your child in one of their highly popular camp sessions. It will be a memory of a lifetime!
8. The Smokejumper Visitor Center
Did you know the largest smokejumper base in the country is located in Missoula? The family will love this unique and interactive center where you can learn all the in’s and out’s of this important occupation and see how smokejumpers live and train while they wait to be dispatched to a fire.
The free tour of the facility includes a visit to the Smokejumper loft, the ready room, and the National Smokejumper memorial. Make sure to try and lift the 80-lb packs the smokejumpers carry into action. It will certainly give you more appreciation for what they have to do! The center is open year-round but during the summer, their impressive aircraft is present. There is also a gift shop and museum, which includes a fire lookout tower originally built in 1930.
Tours are available at 10 and 11 am, 1, 2, 3, and 4 pm daily and take approximately 45 minutes. Admission is free of charge. During the winter, please call two days in advance to schedule tours, 406-329-4934 or 406-329-4900, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
9. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Visitor Center
While visiting Missoula, make sure to carve out some time to visit the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) Visitor Center where you learn the foundations important role in preserving the elk habitat in our area. Here you will find fun and interactive exhibits to learn about elk, elk country and the role the RMEF plays in conservation.
Ever hear an elk bugle? Its unique and slightly haunting sound can be heard at the center. Kids will have fun learning to identify animal tracks (always good to know on a hiking trail!), feel just how heavy those elk antlers are, and enjoy a wildlife conservation film.
After exploring the inside, stretch your legs as you wander around the 22-acre RMEF property. It’s not uncommon to spot white-tailed deer, turkeys, bald eagles and other wildlife that frequent the property. It is guaranteed you will leave the RMEF with a deeper respect for elk and their habitat and wish for continued conservation success. The museum is open year round and admission is FREE!
10. The Alberton Gorge – White Water Rafting
Attention thrill seekers! Get off the land and into the water; white water rafting is an exhilarating experience you will never forget! The Alberton Gorge is located just west of Missoula and features some of the finest white-water rafting around with Class II, III & IV rapids. You are sure to spot some incredible wildlife such as bald eagles, osprey, kingfishers, big horn sheep and perhaps even a bear or mountain lion as you float along this scenic river canyon.
There are several companies that take people out for either half-day or full-day rafting experiences, but I recommend either Montana River Guides or Zootown Surfers for their expertise and safety records. I have used both companies and was equally impressed with their guides and overall trip satisfaction. Unless you are highly experienced on the river, I do not recommend trying to white water raft on your own. It can be dangerous and both these companies have guides that are experienced and extremely knowledgeable in river safety.
Tip: Because there is some risk of getting thrown from the raft as you bounce through a rapid, I personally wouldn’t recommend taking children under the age of 8 unless the float will be mellow and without a lot of rapid activity. Get your guides recommendation, but you need to make the final judgment call on whether you think your child is a strong enough swimmer to handle getting knocked into the water.
There you have it! Missoula, Montana is the perfect destination for a visit and with everything to do, you will need ample time to do it all.
Looking for lodging that is close to all of the downtown attractions? DoubleTree by Hilton Missoula – Edgewater is ideally located adjacent to the Riverfront Trail System and sits along the Clark Fork river where many rooms offer a river view. You probably should put that moving company on speed-dial because after one visit, you will want to come back for more!
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Moving to Missoula, Montana was the best choice for Lara — she found her soulmate and loves the connection she feels to this vibrant community. Her two young…