Welcome to Big Sky Country! I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people don’t really ever think about visiting Montana. Sure, it’s home to some killer skiing, fly-fishing insanity, and Glacier National Park.
Alas, I’ve never heard anyone say they want to go to Montana for any other reason than the occasional outdoor activity or because they have to drive through it to get somewhere else. And that’s just ridiculous.
People tell us they want to visit Yellowstone, or Seattle, or Vancouver, or Portland. They never say, “Hey, I’d love to go to Missoula!” Because they don’t know.
We love Montana. Well, we love the left half of the state. The right half is rather flat – yet filled with scenery and national parks of its own – so I suppose we’re at least half-guilty of not targeting the state since we only set our sights on half of it.
Regardless, you really should visit Montana. Before we get into that, though, let me preach my disclaimer from our other reports.
This is not a list of things to do, nor is it any sort of travel guide to tell you where the hot spots are and the cool kids go. It’s merely a rundown of what we did when we were in Montana. You can read the full disclaimer at the beginning of this post.
We do, however, welcome your thoughts and suggestions in our comments section of this post. Not only would we love to hear them, but other readers would as well. So, feel free to wail away.
All that said, I have fond memories of visiting Montana as a kid. The mountains are just ridiculous, as are the small cities that dot the state – mostly in the western half. And just because they have some of the highest speed limits in the country, that doesn’t mean you need to blast through it at Warp 5. You could even be like us and not get on the interstate at all. Yes, there are other roads than the blue ones in your atlas!
This is a state report instead of a city report, since we unfortunately didn’t have a ton of time in Montana. We were only there for a total of three nights due to a lodging availability issue, but keeping our drives short and our days long gave us ample opportunities to explore some of what the state has to offer.
Shall we proceed?
We drove the byways and scenic roads to get into Montana, as is our M.O. This brought us from Idaho Falls, Idaho, through a desert and countless mountains, to Missoula. Heading northwest out of Idaho Falls, we hit a massive space of desert before we cut through the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and the Salmon-Challis National Forest on Idaho State Highway 28. This allowed us to see plenty of small towns, and gave us the opportunity to get stuck in the middle of a cattle run.
If you’re all about the journey, as we are, then you might love getting caught up in this action. No need to rush it!
Here are the details for Missoula:
- I-15 north to State Highway 28 north/west from Idaho Falls, ID
- US 93 north at Salmon, ID
And that’s it! It’s quite a drive for both distance and scenery, but well worth it as it takes you along “official” scenic routes, as well as up and over a mountain pass at the Idaho-Montana border.
After Missoula, we headed to the small town of Thompson Falls, Montana. This afforded us some rural relaxation where we were fortunate to engage with a variety of people as well as spend some time in a variety of state and national parks.
Here are the details for Thompson Falls:
- US 93 north from Missoula
- State Highway 200 north/west at Ravalli
We had a few twists, turns, and side trips along the way, but we’ll get to those down below.
Get your snooze on! Our first stop involved two nights at the lovely Red Lion Inn & Suites in Missoula. This was covered by the company’s support of our “Fabric of America” tour, and I cannot begin to tell you how easy it would be to get us to stay here again. We actually wanted to stay three nights, but it was booked up and we were only able to stay for two. You can read our in-depth review of the property right here.
The location of the hotel:
700 W. Broadway St.
Missoula, MT 59802
Tel: +1 (406) 728-3300
Next up, we found a nice, quiet, independently-owned hotel in Thompson Falls. Falls Motel is owned by Katrina and Mark, who are about our age and bought the place several years ago. They’ve kept it small-townish and wonderfully comfortable, and we immensely enjoyed our time there, both exploring nature in the area and spending time with locals at different establishments in town. The hotel retains a lot of its vintage charm, and the couple are constantly working on making it even better. You can read more about the hotel at their website.
The location of the hotel:
112 S. Gallatin St.
Thompson Falls, MT 59873
Tel: +1 (800) 521-2184
Being in Montana, and not being around anyone who we ever found to be rushed or lazy with their recommendations, there was very easy access to locally owned face-stuffers everywhere we went. As we normally do, we asked the folks at our hotels where we should eat. We’re not picky by any means, and love to sample whatever goodness is thrown our way. Outside of our ability to down coffee like few can, we eat at least once a day. A whole one time! Why? I don’t know, that’s just how we are. Let us proceed…
Tamarack Brewing Co.: This local brewery and restaurant is originally from the town of Lakeside, Montana, which is a couple hours north of Missoula. They have a second location in Missoula, which was recommended to us by Paul at Red Lion. We always want to check out a brewpub and get our hands on some local hops while shoving “nutrition” down our gullets, and this was apparently the best place to do that. Ang got all healthy-like with a fresh salad that included apples, walnuts, and huge hunks of brie. Huge!
I went all greasy with a bacon cheeseburger, which was delicious in flavor but dry in preparation. My medium-rare burger came to me well-done, which is just not cool. I hate to complain about things like that, so I never say anything until after the meal. I made the mistake of mentioning it before we paid the bill, though, which prompted a visit from the manager. Look, folks: When my meal is not done properly, it’s really not a big deal. One overcooked burger does not a bad experience make. I don’t like to grumble about things like that – it’s not like there was a fingernail in my dish – and it was edible, by all means.
The only reason I ever like to say anything about a minor bad is because I want them to know something was done incorrectly – so it can be noted for future reference and fixed for the next guy who walks in the door. I do not want a discount or a free meal. Alas, the manager came over and made a joke about how he could “see the gray from across the room,” which was hilarious even if prepared, and basically forced a discount on us after some debate with me on the merits of doing so. (We made up for it by tipping extra.) I have since learned my lesson and never say anything until after the bill is paid.
You might not feel the same way, but that’s how we roll and we do understand that mistakes happen. It’s even more important to be patient and understanding when it’s a small business, because these things matter much more than if it’s a chain restaurant. The main question here is: Would we eat there again? Definitely. The beer was oh-so very good, and the service was on-point despite the bartender being run completely ragged during our time there. Everything was fantastic, and we’d recommend it.
Triple Dragon: We love us some good food. I’m sure you know that. We especially love us some good Chinese food. This place was also recommended by Paul at our hotel, and we were all skeptical because the place simply looks run-down. We’re pretty sure that no one can see their signs from the street, and we wouldn’t even have known about it if it wasn’t across the parking lot from our hotel. Despite always looking empty, possibly closed, and unkempt, we gave it a shot based solely on what we were told. And kapow! Man, was it good. Proper (American) Chinese food, with great service to boot.
It’s definitely lacking in decor and kind of dingy inside, and during a conversation with our server, she took pains to explain to us that she keeps telling the owners they should fix the place up a bit. It seems they don’t want to spend the money on fixing up a restaurant that’s been there for 12 years – something rare for any restaurant, anywhere – and they don’t really listen to her or others’ suggestions. Can’t win ’em all, we suppose. The food was most certainly on-point, and we loved our time eating scrumptious delights and having some fantastic conversations with our waitress. Despite its appearance, we recommend you swing by when you’re in Missoula.
P.S. Sorry for the lack of pics. Looks like we failed at that – certainly not helping their cause. D’oh!
Wild Coyote Saloon: We only had one night in Thompson Falls, and this is where we chose to dine. Despite recommendations at the hotel for a few restaurants in the center of town, we headed 15 minutes southwest and took a chance on Wild Coyote at the behest of the local barber. (More on that below.) This rural establishment is quickly making a name for itself, with outlandish and hilarious owners, Wayne and Karen. The staff is definitely proud of their work, with Ellie handling the bar and Buck manning the kitchen. I’d say that it probably appeals mostly to locals and bikers. And us. It also has a “casino” inside with keno machines and all that, but it’s much more than a typical roadside bar.
There’s plenty of seating in both the dining room and at the bar, with a pool table, the aforementioned video poker machines, and a log-cabin build and decor that suits the area perfectly. The folks here also host a festival every year, but we weren’t lucky enough to be there for it as it was scheduled a few weeks after our departure. We went for burgers, Ang telling Buck to grill her whatever he likes best. He didn’t hesitate, bringing her some sort of insane concoction with avocados, bacon, and pepperjack cheese. He doesn’t mess around, as both our plates were shoveled down quicker than one normally should. Lip-smacking good, says we. If you find yourself in the area – which you should – be sure to meander your way out of town for a meal, and have some eats and drinks at Wild Coyote.
Bayern Brewing: If you know us, then you had to know this was coming. We looked up breweries before we got to Missoula, and found out that Bayern Brewing is actually owned by a German. Given our past, you know we had to check it out. Jürgen and his friends have been cooking up brews since 1987, making it one of the oldest micro-breweries in the country. If you’re not from the region or don’t spent time here, then you’ve likely never heard of it as distribution is limited to Montana and the surrounding states. We’ll get into that more in a separate feature about the company. In the meantime, though, we’ll tell you that you should make it a point to head over there for a tour, and stop by their in-house tap room to imbibe in all of their glorious delights.
Downtown Missoula: Missoula has a fantastic riverfront downtown, where you can stroll along the water, watch people surfing – yes, surfing – in the Clark Fork River, jump in there yourself, or explore the historic buildings and shops that line its streets. And it certainly helps that the entire city is surrounded by mountains.
The aforementioned Tamarack Brewing Co. has its Missoula location smack-dab in the middle of downtown as well. Between that and all the other great places to eat/drink in this easily-walkable city center, you’ll never find yourself stretching to locate a place to relax with a pint or a plate.
Spend Time with Your Neighbors: We unfortunately did not get a picture with Eric and Christine, but they were our neighbors down the hall at the Red Lion in Missoula. A semi-retired couple from Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, they’re kind of on the same mission we are. They simply picked a direction and started driving, leading them to a stop in Missoula. We swapped plenty of stories and were intrigued to hear about their hometown, as it’s got its own unique climate, completely separate from the rest of BC. Eric is also quite the jokester, to which Christine often shook her head at him while we laughed together over some beers. Listen, people: You know we love meeting folks from all over, learning more about them and trading tales of the road or otherwise. Don’t be so insular when you’re out and about. The people you meet will often be your greatest memories – something you’ll learn if you do more than just nod at a passerby or say thank you at a store. Eric and Christine enriched our lives with the time they gave us, and we thank them for that.
National Bison Range: If you’ve been following us on Facebook or Instagram, you know that we’ve been misled over and over again into thinking we’d stumble upon hordes of wildlife. Specifically, bison. We barely saw any in South Dakota, we saw zilch at Yellowstone, and we only saw one herd in the Tetons. We’re thankful for what we have seen, but we also feel like there’s been a lot of hype with very little action. That all changed when we saw the sign for the National Bison Range as we made our way from Missoula to Thompson Falls.
This little-known wildlife refuge is just off State Highway 200 and US 93, and has been doing its thing since 1908. 1908! The protected area hosts about 1,000 bison, as well as bears, bighorn sheep, antelope, elk, deer, and a whole lot more. We slowly made our way around the 19-mile dirt road over the course of a couple hours, and got our fair share of bison as they all laid in the dirt, trying to cool off from the sun.
The bighorn sheep and bears were nowhere to be found on this 100F day, but we did catch an antelope or two during our roundabout. If you want to drive around some winding roads, see plenty of wildlife, and avoid the crowds, this is where you need to go.
Thompson Falls: Just like other cities with “Falls” in their names, this town is host to a dam and some very extravagant falls that lay below sheer cliffs on the Clark Fork River.
Access to this area is literally behind the Falls Motel, with a bridge that takes you to an island park full of paths and abundant wildlife.
There’s another pedestrian bridge on the other side of the island which may have your knees quivering as it straddles the top of the cliff sides, high above the river.
Even if you don’t want to swim or boat in the area, just walking around the park, river, and dam, as we did, will have you feeling relaxed and content.
Ross Creek Cedars Natural Area: People talk about the massive redwood and sequoia trees in California, but have you ever heard of the giant cedars in Montana? No? Neither had we. Fortunately, Katrina and Mark at the Falls Motel were kind enough to inform us of this park, which is a part of the Kootenai National Forest near the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana, just east of the Idaho border.
After jumping off of State Highway 200 and making our way north on State Highway 56 for a half-hour, we found ourselves surrounded by nearly 200-foot-tall cedar trees, some of which are 400 years old.
There is a nice trail loop that leads visitors through the forest, occasionally giving information about the unique biology of the area, including the cedars’ hemlock partners and the ground below the canopy. This gem is also light on crowds – and a non-fee area to boot – so you should have no trouble enjoying the calm and quiet while you marvel at the ridiculously large cedar trees that dwarf you at every turn.
Get a Haircut: My head was getting a bit bushy by the time we got to Thompson Falls, so we asked Mark at the hotel about a place to get my wig split, as I say. He directed us to the barber shop in town, and we rushed over there to see if I could get in before they closed for the long holiday weekend. The shop was properly old school, with a barber pole and a barber wielding metal blades instead of that ridiculous plastic nonsense you see at so many hair cutteries these days. The lady behind them is Sherry, and we enjoyed our banter with her while she brought my hair and beard back to proper length. I have no idea what this shop is called, but it’s the only place (we know of) with a barber pole out front, and Sherry is the owner. Thompson Falls only has one major street and 1,300 residents, so all you need to do is look around or ask for Sherry. She’s one of a kind, and we appreciate both her time and her skills while we were in town.
While our time was short in Montana, we certainly got the most out of it and are fortunate to have had so many interesting, unique experiences. The people we met here, whether on the street or at a business, certainly made the trip for us. From a younger couple with a motel, to nice folks at hotels and restaurants, to a lady barber with her own shop, to a German immigrant with a long-established small business, to a vacationing couple from Canada and so many more, this is really what keeps us going. It’s more than enough that Montana’s natural beauty has so much to give, but it’s really folks like these who make it even better.
Sometimes, you just really need to get away from big cities and overcrowded tourist sights. Take the path less-traveled and see what you find. In Montana, that means great people, the hidden gems of nature, and plentiful options for delicious eating and drinking. We loved our time spent in Big Sky Country and wouldn’t hesitate at the opportunity to visit again.
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Have you ever been to Montana? Did you visit any of the places in our post? Do you have any suggestions for things people should see when they stay in the region? Any other thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!