200 miles E of Spokane, Washington; 213 miles NE of Lewiston, Idaho; 339 miles W of Billings; 115 miles NW of Helena; 115 miles S of Kalispell

Missoula has been growing by leaps and bounds, and the reason is clear: The city is in a beautiful valley along the Clark Fork River, with a relatively mild climate more influenced by the Pacific Northwest than by the high Rockies. One could say the same about the local culture.

Because this is the home of the University of Montana, the crowds in Missoula's vibrant downtown are usually either young and Birkenstocked or grizzled and cowboy-booted. Also in the mix are many prominent Western writers who live in or near the city; the result is an intellectual and cultural outpost.

The great outdoors -- be it fly-fishing on Rock Creek, skiing at Snowbowl, hiking in the Selway-Bitterroot or the Rattlesnake Wilderness, or cross-country skiing on Lolo Pass -- is probably what most attracts these types to the area. The outdoors figures heavily in area politics as well, with a strong pro-environment sentiment among the populace.