By Matt Villano, on October 7, 2016

Missoula for families

The next time I visit Montana with my kids (three girls, all under the age of 8), we’re heading to Missoula. As I learned during my (solo) visit for the 2016 Expedia Viewfinder Summit, the state’s most happening city is also its most family-friendly, with a host of kid-oriented diversions. Here are four of the ones I think my girls would like best.

Missoula Insectarium

Just about the only way I can tolerate bugs is when I know they’re contained safely in glass habitats—places from which they cannot touch me. My girls feel the same way. This is why everyone in our family would like the Missoula Insectarium.

The intimate facility is home to 18 aquariums and terrariums with live arthropods, including butterflies, tarantulas, hermit crabs, millipedes, and more. There 16 species on display at any given time

Signage throughout the museum teaches kids what they might not glean from the docents.

When I visited (again, mind you, sans kids), I was transfixed by the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. They were huge—they were the size of Clif Bars. And they just sat there, occasionally inching from here to there but mostly just sitting there waving their antennae back and forth. I kept imagining spotting one of these buggers in a New York City subway station late at night, and kept visualizing what I’d do next. ICYW, none of my daydreams ended well for the roaches.

I also really liked the interaction table toward the back of the space. During my visit, a docent had set up shop with two or three portable terrariums, and allowed me to hold an Australian walking stick bug, which—as the name suggests—looked like a stick with limbs. The insect was so lightweight, I could barely feel it on my hand and arm as it crawled all over me.

Viewfinder Tip: After a day of museum-hopping with the kids, grab a seat in the lounge at Plonk, a wine bar, and imbibe wines from all over the West.

University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area

Another great Missoula attraction for families is the spectrUM.

Technically the museum is a science museum, not a kids’ museum. Whatever you call it, the place is perfect for kids ages 12 and under, and you can plan on spending at least an hour there.

The modest museum, which moved recently to the west side of town, is broken into two main parts—the main museum and a hands-on area, which is dubbed BrainLab. When I visited (the old downtown location), visitors were learning about brain maladies during Shakespeare’s time, part of a weeklong celebration surrounding Shakespeare’s First Folio.

When there’s no special focus, kids can sidle up to the BrainLab and check out the brains of fruit flies (under microscopes, of course).

In the main museum, an exhibit on large river ecosystems gave kids the chance to soar (via virtual reality) above the Clark Fork River, create their own virtual floodplain, and more. Another exhibit, the SciGirls DigiZone, offered the opportunity to play with different kinds of technologies. A third exhibit called The Discovery Bench, encourages hands-on play and teaches different types of science such as magnetism.

Smokejumper Visitor Center

Missoula is home to the largest smokejumper base in the country, and this all-ages visitor center is a place to celebrate that profession.

The free 45-minute tour of the facility includes a visit to the smokejumper loft, the ready room (some call this the locker room), and the National Smokejumper memorial. There is also a gift shop, a museum, and an old-school fire lookout tower that dates back to the 1930s.


During the late spring and summer, visitors to the Smokejumper Center might also see smokejumper aircraft, and may even see Smokejumpers dispatched to a fire. When we visited, in April, we were able to get up close and personal with one of the planes—all part of a scavenger hunt that sent Expedia Viewfinder bloggers running all over town.

(The scavenger hunt also timed us to see who could don a smokejumper’s outfit the fastest; those poor people lug around about 30 pounds of gear.)

While the Smokejumper Center might skew toward kids older than mine, I know my girls would have appreciated learning more about firefighting and the people who do it. Beside, something about peering into the lockers of these brave men and women was (voyeuristic and) one-of-a-kind fun.

Elk Country Visitor Center

Montana is home to tens of thousands of wild elk, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) works tirelessly to protect these animals. As part of the organization’s ongoing conservation efforts, it operates a visitor center in Missoula that serves to educate the public about elk and explain in more detail the importance of protecting land on which these animals can roam free.

One of the exhibits at the modest museum introduces pint-sized visitors to all of the different animals who call the area home. Another, more interactive exhibit enables kids to hear elk bugle, identify animal tracks, feel the weight of an elk antler, and more.

Another great part of the visitor center is the wooded nature trail that winds its way around the 22-acre property. When I visited in the spring, from this trail I spotted white-tailed deer, turkeys, a bald eagle, and an owl. RMEF spokespeople say there are trout in streams near the trail as well (but I didn’t see any of those).

Finally, for older kids, the Visitor Center hosts free monthly seminars on subjects that pertain to smaller kids—hunting, fishing, the great outdoors. Free and informative! This parent couldn’t possibly ask for more.

What are your favorite cities to visit as a family and why?