Sightseeing in Missoula

Recipe for Planning a Successful Road Trip
  • Step 1: Identify your “must visit” destinations, and
  • Step 2: Connect the dots by planning your route between Step 1 destinations.

Voila! You have a road trip itinerary. It really is that easy.

Our Road Trip 2019 includes three “must visit” locations: 1) Missoula to visit Philip, Kim and Owen, 2) Seattle to visit Andrew and Gail, and 3) Portland to visit Ken and Gloria (brother and sister-in-law).

It’s our third visit to Missoula in the past ten months – two weeks last September and a week at Thanksgiving, so we’ve had recent opportunities for sightseeing. But there’s more to do, of course, and this post highlights a few local attractions.

Blue Mountain Recreation Area

Located just a few miles outside city limits, this popular 4,900-acre site includes 40+ miles of trails. Hiking with Philip, Kim and Owen, we walk through terrain that is recovering from a 2003 wildfire, so there are large gaps in the forest that offer excellent views of the Missoula valley and the Bitterroot River. It’s a fun outing, but fairly short, since Owen isn’t fully on board yet with the idea of a long hike.

Smokejumper Center

Smokejumpers are highly trained firefighters who parachute into rugged terrain to fight wildfires, and the Smokejumper Center is Missoula’s #1 tourist attraction on Trip Advisor. It’s free, well worth a visit, and only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The idea of people parachuting from airplanes to fight forest fires dates back to the mid-1930s, but despite promising results from early trials, the notion was not well-received by U.S. Forest Service officials, who thought it preposterous that trained firefighters would agree to jump out of airplanes.

Evan Kelley, Region I Forester at the time, opined that “all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy – just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn’t be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking” and dismissed the “scheme” by stating that he had “no hankering to assume the responsibility for men risking their lives” in such a manner.

But the initiative didn’t die, it just lay dormant for the next few years until gaining sufficient traction for a few small scale trial runs. Successful results led to the expanded use of smokejumpers, so that they eventually became an integral part of our modern wildfire management plan.

Today, the U.S. has approximately 400 total smokejumpers assigned to one of 11 base locations throughout the West. The largest contingent, with around 75 members, is based in Missoula. We learn during our tour that over half of the Missoula team is currently battling wildfires in Alaska.

The exhibits at the small Smokejumper Center are interesting and educational, but the highlight is the tour. The group is small (8 people), and our guide has been a smokejumper for 15 years. He takes us through the workshop where they make, store, maintain and stage their gear, and out to the tarmac to go inside one of the planes used to transport firefighters and supplies. He shares enough of their day-to-day activities so that we get an interesting glimpse into what they do and how they do it. And finally, he patiently answers any and all questions from the group.

These highly skilled and dedicated men and women play an invaluable role in protecting our forest lands, and it’s critical that the federal government continue to support this program. As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this section, the Smokejumper Center is totally worth a visit if you get the chance!

U.S. Highway 12

U.S. Highway 12 roughly follows the route taken by the 1805 Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery from Missoula through the Bitterroot Mountains, all the way across Idaho and eventually to the Columbia River in Washington.

Our first stop on this cloudy and chilly day is the Visitor Center at the top of Lolo Pass on the Montana-Idaho border, where we find a nice exhibit about the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as helpful Forest Service employees and volunteers, various maps of the area, plus a couple of short nature trails. And restrooms.

DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove

Continuing beyond the pass into Idaho, we stop at the DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove for a short walk through a forest of magnificent red cedar trees, some of which are more than 2,000 years old.

Bernard DeVoto (1897-1955) was an American writer, scholar-historian, and conservationist who, among his many publications, compiled the various journals kept by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition into a book that is still in print today. His preferred place to work was in this grove of cedar trees, and at his request, his ashes were scattered here. In 1962, the Forest Service named this spot the DeVoto Memorial Cedar Gove in his honor.

Lolo Trail at Howard Creek

After leaving the cedar grove, we return to Lolo Pass and back into Montana. About halfway to Missoula, we stop to hike on the Lolo Trail, part of the 3,700-mile Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

The 200-mile Lolo Trail is the actual route that the Lewis and Clark expedition followed through the Bitterroot Mountains, both outbound toward the Pacific Ocean as well as on their return trip the following summer. They made the journey in 11 days on the way out, and it was cold, snowy and miserable; Clark’s journal entry noted that it was a “verry bad passing over hills & thro’ Steep hollows.”

Our hiking conditions on this day are much better, but we only make it about a mile before turning around and retracing our steps back to the car. Gorgeous views, however, as the trail follows the ridgeline after ascending sharply from the creek below.

Barmeyer Loop Trail

One more day, and one more hike. Recommended by Kim, the 3-mile Barmeyer Loop is a 2018 addition to Missoula’s trail network. Despite spot-on directions from Philip and Kim, we drive right past the trailhead for several miles before realizing that we missed it somehow. We had expected to see a trailhead sign of some sort. Silly us. We eventually locate it despite the absence of signage, so we’re back in business.

We have a nice hike, with 270-degree scenic views much of the way, and the trail is nicely maintained. We meet a few others along the way – a mountain biker, a couple of trail runners, and a handful of hikers and dogs. An enjoyable morning, and we’re back in town by lunchtime!

A Few Shots around Town

Our visit to Missoula is coming to an end . . . temporarily. We will return for another week after a side trip to Minnesota.

Categories: Idaho, Montana


  1. My brother Larry and cousin Jerry were both smoke jumpers based out of Missoula. We will also be stopping there on our trip to Montana in August, never miss stopping there.

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