Missoula Road Trip: Montana's Urban Paradise

Steinbeck Montana quote, Iron Hose Brew Pub MissoulaTo me, Missoula has long ranked as one of Montana's most dynamic and lively towns.  I have always felt it has a certain je ne sais quoi making it feel like a much more urban place than Bozeman. While it is bigger (69K people compared to Bozeman's 41K), I don't think the population difference is enough to give it a more urban feel then Bozeman yet it certainly has one. I got to experience the vibrancy and urban-ness of Missoula once again as Mike and I made a quick trip there this past weekend.

The primary reason for our trip was to see Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett in concert. If you're a fan of my radio show then you know Mr. Keen is one of my favorites so this performance was not to be missed. Add in great restaurants and pubs, a walk-able downtown and a convenient network of hiking paths and trails, and Missoula was the perfect destination for a short spring road trip.

Stylish Lodging
Since this was a whirl-wind excursion, we decided that a convenient place to stay was key. A VRBO search revealed that the Wilma building, where the show was to take place, had a number of condos on its upper floors. We found one that was available for the night and this swanky studio was the perfect place to call home during out trip. While we could have paid less and gotten a hotel room, the location couldn't be beat and our spot in the Wilma was well worth the money.

Our lofty fifth floor location gave us great views of the river and nearby foothills.  The condo was located in back of the building and street noise was surprisingly limited. The studio was smartly decorated in dark neutral tones and matched my impression of what a downtown Missoula condo should look like. I would stay there again and highly recommend a condo in the Wilma to anyone wanting a comfortable and convenient spot while in Missoula.

Hitting the Streets
After dropping our stuff off in our room, we took a long stroll through downtown. Cool shops, trendy eateries and lively pubs lined the streets and a nearby historic district revealed some charming old homes. A re-purposed train depot marked one edge of town and a lively river walk was just steps away from the Wilma. Perhaps one of the coolest things about the river area is Brennan's Wave, an engineered whitewater play wave popular with kayakers and surfers drawing users year-round.
Dudes in Brennan's Wave, Downtown Missoula
Dudes in Brennan's Wave, Downtown Missoula
As we walked, I realized that Missoula doesn't just feel larger and more urban that Bozeman, it really is larger and more urban. For the most part, Bozeman's downtown runs a few blocks east to west  along Main Street with only an occasional establishment located one block north or south of Main. Missoula's downtown, on the other hand, expands further. Add in metered (And scarce) parking, full size buses that trundle through regularly, folks cruising by on skateboards, and a number of transient looking folks but subtract an abundance of put-together locals and kinda lost looking visitors and Missoula has the makings of a small city that are lacking in Bozeman.

Peace & love are everywhere in Misoula
Peace & love are everywhere in Misoula
For dinner we hit the Iron Horse Brew Pub. While on our walk earlier, I noticed a stiff looking bodyguard, ear piece, unfashionable suit and all, outside of the the Iron Horse and it left all sorts of questions in my head. Were Mr. Keen and Mr. Lovett dining there? Are they the type of performers who have body guards? If not them, who could it be? When we found ourselves at the Iron Horse later on we asked the waiter about it. Apparently Montana's governor Steve Bullock, along with three bodyguards, were there for lunch. We were to later to find out that Mr. Bullock was in town for various visits and a high-end fundraising dinner where attendees had the chance to meet the governor and Mr. Lovett. Nice!

The Glorious Wilma Theatre
After our stroll and dinner, we had some downtime to lounge in our digs in the Wilma and then it was down the stairs to the show. The Wilma Theatre has a stellar reputation as a concert venue and I have always wanted to see a show there. It was a "So this is Yale" moment for sure and the Wilma lived up to its reputation in every way. If one were to design a venue from scratch, this would be the ideal spot to emulate.

Locals told us that the Wilma holds 850 people for a seated show yet with the lower level seats removed it can accommodate 1,500 people. The lower level, where we sat, has a front section followed by a back section that is about a foot higher. The back of the upper level has a bar in an open area, which is great because you can still see the stage from there and the space is big and open enough so folks don't get jammed up passing to and from. The upper level balcony had fixed seats and was nicely tiered offering good views regardless of where you sat. Apparently, the venue finished an extensive re-model last fall ($2.5 million was the figure we were quoted!). With a great sound system, sensible and versatile layout,and nicely refurbished theatre environment, the Wilma is a gem and a must-visit for avid concert goers. As for the show itself, it was stellar. A review is coming soon. (Review just posted)
Robert Earl Keen & Lyle Lovett, March 18, 2016 Wilma Theatre Missoula
Photo courtesy of Kenny T., KGLT Dead Show
More Perambulations
Saturday brought more exploration. We started along the river walk, which was just feet from our lodging, and walked to Missoula's M trail. Slick muddy conditions prevented us from reaching the top of Mt. Sentinel but it was still a worthwhile trek with a good elevation gain within a short distance. We followed this by a walk through the University of Montana campus and nearby neighborhoods. After our walk we had a late breakfast at the Hob Nob, which turned out to be a tasty, hearty treat, and hit the road.

Downtown Butte was a good stopping point on our way home where we stretched out legs and strolled some more. It was fascinating to see the big old buildings in various states of repair, marvel at what once was and wonder about the town's future. We were too late to go up onto the Berkeley Pit viewing platform but have it on our list for future road trips. I don't know why the remains of an open pit copper mine are such a draw but it is a major (The only?) tourist attraction in Butte.

I would highly recommend a trip to Missoula for Bozemanites (and anyone else) looking for a nice get-away. It has everything you need for a short trip along and its groovy, unpretentious and urban vibe make it a nice change of pace from day-to-day life in the Bozone.