Missoula-based author and environmental writer Richard Manning welcomes you to his town with suggestions of what you can do on foot while you are attending SEJ's 20th Annual Conference. It's a college town nestled in a Rocky Mountain valley that you won't want to miss.
Missoula is easy. You’ve got your river and you’ve got your hills and everything else is oriented to these, most of it in walking distance. If you get lost, just look up.
The hill with the “M” on it is Mount Sentinel, our totem mountain and your homing point. Head toward the M to find the University of Montana’s campus at the base of the hill, center of the conference’s activities.
While you’re at it, notice the lack of subdivisions or development of any sort on Mount Sentinel’s slopes, or on the surrounding hills for that matter. This is the legacy of more than thirty years of open-space protection here, the benefits of which you should enjoy while here, because “open” means accessible. The hike to that “M” is a quintessential Missoula experience, and the trailhead is on campus. There are more trails on the next mountain, Mount Jumbo, the one with the “L” on it. (No, we do not alphabetize our hills to keep track; the initial is that of a nearby parochial school.) There is also a network of trails on Waterworks Hill, which is just west of Jumbo. All these connect to the riverfront trail system and offer a good possibility of seeing both whitetail deer and mule deer; if you are lucky, a black bear, so heads up.
As you can imagine, Missoulians have long oriented ourselves by the hills that define this valley, but surprisingly, our attention to the river that runs through the center of town, the Clark Fork, is relatively new. The town once faced away from the river, because it was a garbage dump. It ran red with copper mining wastes as late as the 1970s, and I have seen photos of a guy dumping garbage directly into the river off the balcony of the Wilma Building, that stately old theater at the center of town. But now this town faces the river.
A green belt runs along both sides through the downtown and on up Hellgate Canyon to the East, if you are looking for a trail for a morning run. This same trail system will also get you where you’re going while you're here, especially from the in-town hotels to campus. The other bearing point you will need is Higgins Street, which crosses the river just downstream of the conference hotels, near the Wilma Building. Caras Park is right next to the Wilma and is our town’s prime outdoor meet-and-greet space. The downtown with all its amenities runs along Higgins, mostly north of the river. The street that parallels the river on the north is Front, once the city’s red light district, literally, and polite folks didn’t go there. Loggers and cowboys did. Now it holds shops, restaurants galleries and your hotels.
Most of what you need is right along the river. Restaurants for instance. Begin right in the Wilma Building at Scotty’s Table, which occupies wonderfully renovated space on the park level of the building. The bison and beef on the menu are often local and are always expertly handled. Likewise at Pearl, which is a couple of blocks east on Front Street in equally impressive space. You may want to hit Pearl early enough to visit the Trail Head in the same building. A gear head’s dream, the Trailhead has everything you might require in the way of outdoor gear, clothing and expert advice on where and how to use it. Owner Todd Frank is a long-time supporter of environmental causes in Missoula.
The other high-end restaurants are the Red Bird a block north of the Wilma in the Florence Building and Finn and Porter, which is in the Double Tree, one of the main conference hotels. The latter features deck space overlooking a popular flyfishing spot on the river, a great place to deliver a critique of a tourist’s backcast over a glass of wine.
There are plenty of places offering less formal fare and lunches around this same area. My personal favorite is Sean Kelly’s, an Irish pub on Pine Street just off Higgins and a couple of blocks north of the Wilma. The food is several notches above usual pub quality and the staff will make you feel like a regular. Out the back door and across the alley is the Old Post, also a good place for lunch or a beer in the evening. Flyfishing conditions on various streams are posted on the bar’s blackboard. Worden’s Market, next door to the Old Post, has an impressive array of sandwiches for the lunch crowd as well as downtown’s best stock of wines and esoteric beers.
The Iron Horse is a brew pub just across the street with a full menu, and as good a place as any to explore local beers. They abound. Iron Horse has a long affiliation with Bayern, but you’ll also encounter Kettle House and Big Sky. If time is limited, start with the Big Sky IPA.
These establishments anchor the north apex of what we call the “bar-muda triangle.” Two of the more notorious and storied public houses are right here.
The eminence grise of these is the Oxford Bar and Cafe at Pine and Higgins. It is said there is no key for the front door, because it never closes, although the live poker game in the back room is not 24-7. It is also widely said that Mike Mansfield made the Ox a regular stop when he was U.S. Senate majority leader in the ‘60s. Constituents left him mail there, and he stopped by personally to pick it up. I’m not sure if brains and eggs are still on the menu, but if you do step in to find out, you will probably notice that not all of the patrons are Senate majority leaders.
Across the street and north a half a block is Charlie B’s, favored by an eclectic mix of the literary crowd, old drunks (despite what you have heard, there is a difference) and granolas. One night I watched the late, great Jim Crumley strong-arm an obnoxious drunk at Charlie B’s, to the great delight of a reporter from a French magazine who happened to be profiling him at the time.
The other venerated institution is the Missoula Club, a couple of blocks south on Main. Go there for the burgers and to figure why people crowd a hole-in-the-wall shotgun shack of a bar to guzzle under full-force fluorescent lights. A couple of years ago I spotted Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his dog, Jag, headed into the Mo Club about three in the afternoon. Nothing odd about that; the man needed a burger, but about then, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester drove up, parked and headed in the same direction. “A high-level political summit?” I asked the senator. “Brian’s here? I had no idea.” Tester, too, had simply stopped by for a burger.
A few years earlier, I had joined a group of highly opinionated friends (is there another kind?) at the Mo Club, and we had spent about a half hour loudly condemning something Sen. Max Baucus had done. Just as the discussion reached full crescendo, Baucus walked in the front door. Bill Clinton sampled the burgers there when he was last in town. But it’s not all politics; I once walked in and sat down on a stool next to one occupied by the actress Andie MacDowell.
Other bars in the triangle include the Rhinoceros and Top Hat, both out the back door of the Mo Club, and the cognoscenti do indeed prefer the alley route. I’m also told there is a wine bar just down the alley in the Florence Building. I’ve never been.
The dominant coffee house is Break Espresso on North Higgins, next to Charlie B’s. Break does such a good business that Starbuck’s decided to open a shop a couple of doors down. Starbucks closed within two years, and we’re kind of proud of that. Also try Liquid Planet a couple of blocks south on Higgins, a local chain. This list is by no means exhaustive. Espresso machines occur at a density that rivals Seattle, and in fact, one of the best shots in town is on campus in the market on the first floor of the University Center.
The downtown bookstore is Fact and Fiction, independent and good. Barbara Theroux is the longtime owner and a stalwart supporter of local writers. She’s almost always in the shop and can fill you in on the forthcoming projects of James Lee Burke, Rick Bass, David James Duncan, Bill Kittredge, and the rest.
You’ll also need a fishing license and a decent selection of flies. Grizzly Hackle is on Front and Ryman and Kingfisher is on Broadway near Madison just across the river from campus.
Oh, and I’m told I should say there are nice boutiques and art galleries scattered among all of this. I can’t say for sure, but it’s probably true.
Richard Manning is a Missoula-based author of eight books including Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape.