Montana may be known as Big Sky Country, but in the state’s rugged northwestern corner, the landscape looms just as large. Like the cowboys, prospectors, and pioneers who staked their claim to its riches, nature exists on an epic scale in Flathead Country — where the mountains seem the highest, the valleys the broadest, the rivers the wildest, and the lakes the bluest of blue.
A brawny western town, Missoula sits in a fertile basin where the Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot rivers converge. Through the years the site has served as a natural thoroughfare — first for Salish Indians and much later for travelers on the Northern Pacific Railway.
Despite a devastating fire in 1884, much of historic Missoula remains. The old downtown district on the north side of the Clark Fork showcases many lovely old structures. Across the river the University of Montana, a major research institution, is surrounded by leafy blocks of lavish 19th-century homes.
Missoula’s mile-long Greenough Park provides a refreshingly scenic hike through stands of conifers and cottonwoods lining the banks of Rattlesnake Creek. Bird-watchers gather here to glimpse warblers, pileated woodpeckers, American dippers, Bohemian and cedar waxwings, and other avian rarities.
2. Flathead Indian Reservation
Traveling northwest from Missoula on I-90, the drive traces the Clark Fork for eight miles through grassy bottomland and then turns sharply north on Rte. 93, where it begins to climb. Seven miles later — and about a thousand feet higher, amid forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pines — you arrive at Evaro and the southern boundary of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Home to more than 5,000 Indians, the reservation encompasses over 1.2 million acres, including much of the valleys to the north and the mountain ranges on either side.
From Evaro, the road descends into the Jocko Valley to Arlee, site of the largest powwow in the northwest, held every summer in July. From there a short, steep climb leads to a turnout with an eye-popping view of the Mission Mountains. Reaching 10,000 feet, these stunning peaks form a barricade of ice and stone that seems to launch skyward from the valley floor. So protected is Mission Valley that the Indians knew it as the “place of encirclement.”
3. St. Ignatius Mission
As early as 1840, Jesuit missionaries — known to Indians as Black Robes — visited western Montana, choosing this hillside spot to build their mission in 1854. The structure’s plain brick exterior gives little hint of the beauty to be found within; about 50 murals and frescoes with biblical themes adorn the walls and ceiling.