The Best River Towns in America: Missoula, Montana

The place where people who can choose to live anywhere call home

People-watching Missoula style.

People-watching, Missoula style.     Photo: Woods Wheatcroft

The Stats

Missoula, Montana
Population: 66,788
Median Age: 31
Median Annual Salary: $36,547
Median Home Price: $225,000
Unemployment Rate: 6.6 percent
Votes Received: 5 percent

Plenty of people—including more than a few famous writers—have endeavored to sum up what makes Missoula great. But we were hard-pressed to find a better account than the one offered by local artist Teshia Freseman, who describes the town as a place where “outdoors fanatics, hippies, crazy college kids, retirees, horse-whispering cowboys, creative entrepreneurs, activists, rugged rednecks, collegiate-sports aficionados, adrenaline junkies, and everyone in-between meet downtown on Thursday nights for two-for-ones.” The reason they all call Missoula home, as other readers point out, has a lot to do with the city’s proximity to world-class fly-fishing (the Blackfoot, Rock Creek, and Bitterroot rivers), hundreds of hiking and biking trails in the Rattlesnake and Lolo wilderness areas (five minutes from downtown), and the college-town vibe. “I lived there 10 years, and not once was I ever bored,” says librarian Jill Munson. Residents highlight everything from tubing on the Clark Fork with a crew of friends and a cooler of Kettlehouse Cold Smoke to mountain-biking old pack trails in the Rattlesnake to hucking cliffs at Snowbowl to eating yellow-cake ice cream at Big Dipper. Summer evenings are spent at Caras Park, where families come to walk the dog and listen to open-air concerts while kayakers practice at Brennan’s Wave whitewater park. Careers can be hard to come by—with 15,642 students, the University of Montana dominates the economic landscape, as does the forest service. (One of the largest bases in the country is located here.) But if you’re living here, chances are you’re not too interested in climbing the corporate ladder. (Locals call the lack of career opportunities the wilderness tax.) As attorney John Hart puts it, “People who could live anywhere choose to live here.”

BEST SICK-DAY ITINERARY: “I’ll run the kids to Bernice’s Bakery for breakfast, drop them off at school, then take the dog for a lap over Mount Jumbo, whip up a salad with freshies from the Saturday farmers’ market, maybe hit the mountain bike for some laps up Rattlesnake Canyon, load the raft and kayaks, grab sandwiches from Rattlesnake Trading Company, pick the kids up from school for an evening dinner float and fly-fish on the Blackfoot, and still get them home for bedtime,” says Dan Pierce, an emergency physician at St. Patrick Hospital.

ON THE TOWN: It only started seven years ago, but the River City Roots Fest has quickly become Missoula’s signature celebration. The two days of art shows, family events, and free concerts on a downtown stage (past headliners include Robert Earl Keen and the Infamous Stringdusters) make for a community-centric August weekend.

WHAT YOU GET FOR $5: Roughly one pound of hand-picked wild huckleberries from the Missoula farmers’ market.

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