Detailed Day Trip Itineraries From Missoula You Don’t Want to Miss
Missoula is the major city of Glacier Country in western Montana. It’s also gorgeous and fun and one of our favorite places in Montana. Missoula is truly a great city to use as your base when exploring the western side of Montana and is close to some epic day trip destinations.
We have many University of Montana alums in our family and we also simply love the mountain beauty of the area so we enjoy visiting Missoula frequently and including some day trips from the city.
One thing that makes visiting Missoula so special is the vast amount of things to do in and around the city, and we are going to cover our five favorite day trips from Missoula in this article. This isn’t just a highlight reel, either. We go into detail about how to spend your day in each destination so you have a comprehensive itinerary to plan out the perfect day.
Read on for our top five favorite day trips to do from Missoula.
Day Trip From Missoula #1: Bitterroot Valley
Drive south of Missoula just an hour and you’ll discover a wild wonderland of rivers and cattle drives and distant mountain peaks called the Bitterroot Valley. It’s one of our favorite parts of Montana.
The Bitterroot Valley is a bit of a less visited part of western Montana since it feels kind of in the middle of nowhere. However, those in the know (like you now!) know that you can easily get there on a day trip from Missoula.
The Bitterroot Valley is punctuated by three small towns that we think are some of the most charming towns in Montana. A day trip from Missoula down to the Bitterroot Valley is best spent visiting each of these towns. That’s because they’re quite close together. Each town has interesting attractions, plus is close to fun outdoor activities.
We recommend spending your day in the Bitterroot Valley exploring Stevensville, Hamilton, Darby, and Lake Como.
When driving to the Bitterroot Valley from Missoula, you’ll first come to the town of Stevensville. This small town is nicknamed “the place where Montana began.”
Stevensville is a good place to get acquainted with the early days of Montana, particularly with a visit to St. Mary’s Mission. This historic church is located right on the outskirts of town. You can tour the inside of the church as well as walk around the grounds.
The well tended-to property is home to cabins, sheds, and informational boards about early settlers and Native Americans who lived in this region. Also on the grounds is a little museum packed with historical info.
The other top thing to do in Stevensville is a very short drive from Saint Mary Mission: Fort Owen State Park. This is a small Montana state park where you can see the remains of the fort that was once there.
An outdoorsy thing to do near Stevensville is the Kootenai Creek Trail, which takes you alongside the wide, scenic creek. The entire out-and-back hike is nearly 20 miles, but the beauty starts immediately so you can hike for as many miles as you’re comfortable with before turning around and heading back to the trailhead.
Next up on your day trip to the Bitterroot Valley is Hamilton, located 25 minutes south of Stevensville.
Hamilton is the biggest town in the Bitterroot Valley with the longest Main Street. Definitely spend a bit of time on Main Street; it’s a great place for lunch or a drink, or to stock up on some candy at Big Sky Candy.
A big attraction in Hamilton is the Daly Mansion, located in the countryside of Hamilton.
This mansion belonged to one of the “Copper Kings” who made their money from the mining industry in Butte in the early 1900s. Marcus Daly and his wife built this massive mansion which you can tour for a fee.
You can also simply walk around the beautiful grounds, which are free to explore during opening hours.
The next town you go to on this Bitterroot Valley day trip from Missoula is Darby, but first, you’re going to want to take a detour off US-93 about halfway between Hamilton and Darby onto the aptly named Lake Como Road, which will take you to beautiful Lake Como.
This serene lake is nestled right at the base of the mountains and has an excellent day-use area where you can swim or just relax by the water. Lake Como’s day use area is also a fun place to bring kayaks or stand-up paddle boards if you want to get out onto the water.
Next, you’ll head down to Darby. You’ll have to backtrack back to the US-93 route from Lake Como. Once back to the highway, head south and after a short drive, you’ll be right in the middle of little Darby, Montana.
US-93 cuts right through the middle of town so you can’t miss Darby’s cute Main Street, which has a western flair.
Darby is known for its fly fishing as well as being one of the towns where they film the hit television show, Yellowstone. Though if you want to actually see the ranch where they film you’ll have to book an overnight stay there.
While it might seem like you have packed a lot into this day trip to the Bitterroot Valley, the good news is once you’re done exploring, it’s just an hour and 15 minutes from Darby back up to Missoula.
Day Trip From Missoula #2: Flathead Lake
Let’s move in the other direction for a day trip from Missoula and head north to Flathead Lake.
Easily one of the best day trips you can do from Missoula is to head up to Flathead Lake and do the scenic drive around the lake with some stops in the little towns located on its shores.
From Missoula, we recommend taking Highway 93 up to Polson, located on the southern end of Flathead Lake. Stop at the lookout along the way for a great picture of the lake.
Polson has an excellent public beach area with ladders going right into the water if you want to take a dip. Just be warned that the water is cold since this is a very deep glacially-fed lake. You might want to pack a wetsuit for a swim.
Polson is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation and you can learn more about the history of the reservation in the Polson Flathead Historical Museum. Polson is also home to a few other interesting museums, such as the eclectic Miracle of America Museum.
From Polson, head north along the eastern side of the lake. Take a detour to Finley Point State Park. The drive to the park will take you through some of the back roads along Flathead Lake’s famed cherry orchards. An insider tip — if you see a stand selling local Flathead cherries, definitely pick up a bag; they’re some of the best cherries in the world!
At Finley Point State Park, take a walk along the water. This is also a great place to do some boating or paddling. Don’t spend too much time at the state park though because you still have lots to do on your Flathead Lake day trip from Missoula.
Next up: say goodbye to the cherry trees and keep heading north toward the town of Bigfork.
Bigfork is our favorite town along Flathead Lake. Its quaint downtown area has a fun vibe with a historic playhouse, lots of shops, and some excellent restaurants. We also love Bigfork’s close proximity to Swan River; you can even see where that river flows into Flathead Lake while in Bigfork.
If you’d like to check out another state park along Flathead Lake, Bigfork is right by Wayfarer State Park.
And if you like whiskey be sure to check out Whistling Andy’s Distillery where you might want to pick up a bottle of the local huckleberry-infused whiskey.
After Bigfork, you’re just going to drive for a little bit as you make your way around the northern part of Flathead Lake and on down to the western side where your next stop will be Big Arm State Park.
And yes — if you’ve noticed that there are a lot of state parks along Flathead Lake, you are correct. There are actually six. We talk about all of them in our article specifically about Flathead Lake State Parks, which you can read by clicking the link below.
Big Arm State Park is special because it’s the easiest way to get to Wild Horse Island State Park if you’re not doing a boat tour there. From Big Arm, you can boat or even kayak over to Wild Horse Island, which is only accessible by water.
As for its name, there is indeed a herd of wild horses that live on this island. If you do one of the loop hikes from the public access area of the island you might get lucky and see them roaming the hills of the island.
If getting over to Wild Horse Island on your own sounds daunting you can plan your day trip to Flathead Lake around a scheduled boat tour that will take you there. The marinas around the lake are for the service. A few places to check out are Wildhorse Island Boat Trips, Big Arm Boat Rentals and Rides and Flathead Fish Finders.
Day Trip From Missoula #3: Butte
We love Missoula for its culture and outdoor activities with gorgeous views, but if it’s history and architecture you’re looking for then we recommend doing a day trip from Missoula to the city of Butte.
Butte is located about a 2-hour drive east of Missoula. Like Missoula, Butte is located right off Interstate 90.
Butte is an interesting city to walk around with many Victorian homes and buildings lining the streets. We at Travel Montana Now think it’s right on the cusp of becoming the next big destination in Montana. After all, it’s located right in between Missoula and Bozeman, and there’s so much history in Butte.
So get there before everyone else figures out how cool it is with a day trip to Butte from Missoula!
Start your day early, though not too early, because then you’ll be driving right into the rising sun. Though try to be on the road by 8 am so you can hit up the mansions before getting lunch in Butte. But hold on, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s talk about those mansions. Butte was known as the “richest hill on earth” in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to its thriving copper mining industry.
The wealth of copper found in the earth around Butte also translated into lots of riches for those at the helm of the copper mining heyday. These men became known as the Copper Kings of Montana (remember Marcus Daly from the Hamilton section earlier??) and a couple of their mansions are still available to tour today.
Walk around the beautifully preserved Clark Château mansion and learn about the residents, opulence, and grand parties that once filled this house. Just down the street is another estate called the Copper King Mansion that is also a bed and breakfast.
In addition to looking at all the gorgeous Victorian architecture along the downtown streets, you can even have lunch in an old bank vault at Metals Sports Bar and Grill. My uncle lives in Butte and took me there last time I was in the city and we had a great lunch at this very cool sports bar. The vault now houses the wine. Cool, right?
After lunch, drive up to see Berkeley Pit, which is where all of that copper mining happened. It was considered a major toxic waste site for many decades, but conservation efforts have begun to clean it up in recent years.
The loop at the top of Alexander Street will give you views of old mining pits and equipment as well as the chance to read numerous informational boards about the mining history in Butte.
Another site you can’t miss getting out and walking around along this loop is the Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Memorial, which is dedicated to the lives lost in the greatest mining disaster in US history. It’s a somber experience, but one that really teaches visitors what the dangers were for miners of that era.
Next, drive back down south of downtown Butte to Stodden Park for some fun if you have kids or if you’re a kid at heart. This new park has a great playground with a mining theme. There’s even a mineshaft elevator that was my kids’ favorite part of the playground.
Next to the playground is the Spirit of Columbia Gardens Carousel, which also incorporates some mining history. Back in the day, copper king Clark built an amusement park up the hill for the miners to have some entertainment. The enclosure for that amusement park was moved around to this park to house the carousel.
Next to the carousel, the family fun continues with the Ridge Waters Water Park. If you’re in Butte on a hot summer day this is a great place to cool down before you head back to Missoula.
Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Butte, MT
Day Trip From Missoula #4: Philipsburg
Get onto I-90 to Hwy 1 and take it to Philipsburg, located about an hour and 15 minutes from Missoula.
Philipsburg, Montana was once the silver mining capital of the world for a brief period in the late 1800s.
For a bustling decade, people came here to try and find their fortunes in the silver mines and a town named Garnet was built to support that endeavor.
It is easy to visit this town on a day trip from Missoula, though nowadays it is referred to as Garnet Ghost Town since no one lives there anymore. Instead what you’ll find are some interesting buildings, some of which have been preserved by the state.
You’ll also learn more about what it was like to be a miner in Garnet. For an extra history lesson, head back towards Phillipsburg and visit Granite County Museum, which shows you a day in the life of a miner during that time period.
The geological culture of Philipsburg hasn’t completely faded away with the silver though. Just north of Phillipsburg, there is a prominent sapphire mine.
One of the best things to do in Phillipsburg is to visit one of the local gem stores that offer you the opportunity to sift through your own local dirt to find a sapphire or other gem. You can then keep that sapphire as a memento of your day trip to Phillipsburg or you can have the jeweler treat and polish it and turn it into a piece of jewelry. (For an extra cost of course.)
We’ve done sapphire sifting using dirt from Philipsburg before and it was so much fun! We found some beautiful little blue and purple sapphires, too.
Read More: Top 10 Best Small Towns in Montana
Day Trip Idea #5: The National Bison Range North of Missoula
Another great day trip to do from Missoula is to head north to Charlo. Near the small town is the National Bison Range. This is a great place to see bison without the crowds like you’ll find in Yellowstone National Park.
The bison wilderness area is located a short distance southwest of Flathead Lake. So if you start your day early enough you might even have time to combine the National Bison Range with your Flathead Lake day trip from Missoula.
Another site to add into your drive up to the National Bison Range is the Garden of 1000 Buddhas in Arlee, MT. This is an intriguing, serene park in Montana that is home to 1,000 Buddha statues.
Have Fun on Your Western Montana Day Trip From Missoula!
These are the best day trips from Missoula to take and will give you lots of fun memories to look back on. They will give you plenty of reasons to come back again and again.
While you should of course spend some time during your Montana vacation exploring the city center of Missoula, there are also so many excellent day trips from Missoula that we recommend.