When you look up in Missoula, it is hard to miss the giant "M" on Mount Sentinel. The trail to the M is a popular hike, a steep zigzag that rewards the determined hiker with panoramic views of the valley. Mount Sentinel is also a favorite spot for hang gliding. You can obtain information and maps of recreation areas before leaving town at the Bureau of Land Management, 3255 Fort Missoula Rd. (tel. 406/329-3914).
Organized Adventures -- Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures, 912 E. Broadway (P.O. Box 9051), Missoula, MT 59807 (tel. 800/366-6246 or 406/728-7609; www.trailadventures.com), offers guided hiking, biking, and paddling trips in the area.
The best place to cycle is at the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness (tel. 406/329-3750). To get there, drive northeast on Van Buren to Rattlesnake Drive. Be sure to consult one of the free trail maps available at bike shops before setting out. Bikes are prohibited in the wilderness portion of the recreation area. Montana Snowbowl ski area also has trails for the serious mountain biker. For information, contact tel. 406/549-9777. To rent bikes, contact Missoula Bicycle Works, 708 S. Higgins Ave. (tel. 406/721-6525; www.missoulabicycleworks.com). Rentals run $18 for a half-day and $25 for a full day.
There are hundreds of square miles of cross-country ski terrain within 30 miles of Missoula. In nearby Garnet, the absence of gold turned a once-prosperous mining town into a ghost town that's now become a magnet for cross-country skiers at the Garnet Resource Area. With more than 50 miles of trails and a remote location, this area offers a delightful backcountry experience. And while out there, many like to stay in Garnet's old-fashioned miner's cabins. Getting there can be an arduous task in winter. Take I-90 east to Mont. 200, turn east for 5 miles to Garnet Range Road, and then go south along the Forest Service Road.
There are 150 miles of marked cross-country ski trails scattered through the Lolo National Forest (tel. 406/329-3750). Popular areas include Pattee Canyon, Seeley Lake, and Lolo Pass. The Pattee Canyon Complex, 5 1/2 miles south of town, offers several groomed trails that range in difficulty from a short 1-mile trail to a longer 3.4-mile trail, but the snow level varies from year to year. At Lolo Pass, there's a National Forest information center at the top of the pass with maps and permit sales. To get there, take U.S. 12 west from Lolo for about 30 miles.
Twenty miles from Missoula, the Lubrecht Experimental Forest (tel. 406/244-5524), operated by the University of Montana's forestry department, has six ski trails and numerous logging roads. To reach Lubrecht from Missoula, take I-90 east to exit 109 and follow Mont. 200 northeast to Greenough. Turn right just past the post office, and less than a half-mile down that road is the Lubrecht camp.
The Clark Fork River, which runs through town, has had its share of environmental problems and concerns over the years. A cleanup effort that began in the 1970s has helped, but it's never going to be an angler's first choice. The Bitterroot River and Rock Creek are better bets. Though Rock Creek has been known as a blue-ribbon trout stream, the Bitterroot is also a good spot for those who want to pull in a trout or two, and it has multiple public-access areas near the highway. The Missoula office for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (tel. 406/542-5500) will direct you to some fine fishing spots, including Siria, a more remote site 30 miles up Rock Creek Road.
Whether guiding you along Missoula's Clark Fork River or helping you pick out the perfect fly, Grizzly Hackle, 215 W. Front St. (tel. 800/297-8996 or 406/721-8996; www.grizzlyhackle.com), can help you with your fly-fishing vacation. Seasoned guides lead you to fishing holes along the Lower Clark Fork, the Bitterroot, the Missouri, and the Blackfoot rivers, as well as Rock Creek, in search of native rainbow, Westslope cutthroat, and brown trout. The company also runs the Lodge on Butler Creek, not far from Missoula, where rooms rent for $165 per night for two, and other overnight accommodations. Grizzly Hackle advocates barbless hooks and catch-and-release fishing, donating heavily to river restoration projects and angling-oriented charities.
Farther north, there are a number of great golf courses, but in Missoula the golf is only average. The 9-hole Highlands Golf Club, located at 102 Ben Hogan Dr. (tel. 406/721-4653), is a short, hilly, public course with wickedly gyrating greens. A round runs $12 to $15. There's also the par-29 executive Linda Vista, 4915 Miller Creek Rd. (tel. 406/251-3655), with greens fees of $10, and another 9-hole course on the University of Montana campus (tel. 406/728-8629), with greens fees of $13 to $15. The Larchmont Golf Course, 3200 Old Fort Rd. (tel. 406/721-4416), an 18-hole public course within city limits, is a long, fairly tough track that the big hitters will like. Greens fees are $26 to $28 for 18 holes. A more expensive 18-hole option is the Ranch Club, 8501 Ranch Club Rd. (tel. 406/532-1018; www.ranchclub.com), with peak summer greens fees of $95 to walk and $115 to ride. Nonmember access is limited to six rounds a year.
Named for a late local newspaper columnist, the Kim Williams Trail follows either side of the Clark Fork River for 2.5 miles through downtown. Just north of town is the Rattlesnake National Recreational Area and Wilderness (tel. 406/329-3750). To get there, drive northeast on Van Buren to Rattlesnake Drive. The Rattlesnake covers 60,000 acres, 33,000 of which are congressionally designated wilderness. Camping is prohibited within 3 miles of the road because of the heavy use the area receives. Drive northeast on Van Buren to Rattlesnake Drive.
There are two state parks in the Missoula area: Beavertail Hill (tel. 406/542-5500; fwp.mt.gov/parks) is located on the Clark Fork and is open May through September, with excellent river access and shady cottonwood trees lining the riverbanks. There is a day-use charge of $5 for nonresidents; campers pay $15 per night. Council Grove State Park (tel. 406/542-5500; fwp.mt.gov/parks) is where the Hellgate Treaty establishing the Flathead Indian Reservation was signed. Open for day use only (free), the park has interpretive displays and picnic facilities. Take the Reserve Street exit from I-90 and drive 2 miles south, then 10 miles west on Mullan Road.
Southwest of town, the Lolo Trail is an interesting hike. This trail was created by the constant use of the Nez Perce, Salish, and other tribes that lived in the area and moved back and forth across Lolo Pass.
You can explore a half-mile section of the original trail at Howard Creek, 18 miles west of the intersection of U.S. 93 and U.S. 12 in Lolo. Or hike a 5-mile section of the trail from Lee Creek Campground to the Idaho border. The campground is about 26 miles west of the highway intersection in Lolo.
The areas around Missoula have more than 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in a number of popular areas. In Lolo Pass, for instance, there are 150 miles of groomed trails connecting the Lolo and Clearwater national forests. There are four other nearby designated areas -- Superior, Skalkaho Pass, Seeley Lake, and Lincoln -- each with approximately as many miles of groomed trails. For a guide to area snowmobiling, contact the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 800/526-3465).
White-Water Rafting & Kayaking
Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures, 912 E. Broadway (tel. 800/366-6246 or 406/728-7609; www.trailadventures.com), offers no-nonsense white-water rafting on the Salmon River during excursions through the heart of the Frank Church No Return Wilderness. The main trip is on a 120-mile stretch of Idaho white water, where you can expect to see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, eagles, and otters. Other excursions take in the Lochsa River, the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork River, and the Missouri River (through areas in which Lewis and Clark made their famous trek). Trips run May through September. Hiking, biking, and historical tours on the Lolo Trail are also available. Six-day trips on the Salmon River start at $995 per adult. One-day trips on the Lochsa or through Alberton Gorge range from $75 to $115 per adult. Guided hikes on the Lolo Trail are between $139 (1 day) and $675 (3 days) per adult. Children's rates are about 30% lower.
The Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot rivers are the settings for white-water adventure with 10,000 Waves (tel. 800/537-8315 or 406/549-6670; www.10000-waves.com). Half-day and full-day floats feature thrilling white-water rapids along high mountain rivers and through steep, narrow canyons. Half-day trips are $70 per person; full-day floats cost $85 (includes a great lunch), and dinner trips run $87. The company uses self-bailing rafts, which enable the paddler to focus on the sport, not survival. If you want an even bigger thrill, consider a guided kayak trip with instruction. Rates are $159 for a full day, or $243 for a 2-day beginner clinic.
Montana River Guides (tel. 800/381-7238 or 406/273-4718; www.montanariverguides.com) is another good option, offering paddling instruction as well as rafting expeditions. Half-day trips run $45; full-day and dinner trips are $75. The most gonzo approach is a guided "riverboarding" trip -- akin to sledding on the river on a board designed for the purpose -- for $85 to $129.
In town, Brennan's Wave is a white-water kayaking park on the Clark Fork in the shadows of the Higgins Avenue Bridge. Named for late local kayaking legend Brennan Guth, the park is open to the public and busy with paddlers nearly every day of the year.