Nestled in the heart of Missoula’s flourishing wilderness, the Bitterroot Valley is a 95-mile-long stretch of untamed forests, steep mountain cliffs, and deep canyons.
The valley lies smack in between the Bitterroot Range in the West and the Sapphire Mountains in the East and is one of the best travel destinations for those looking for outdoor adventures and untouched nature—making it one of the most frequented places in Montana.
But that’s not all. The Bitterroot Valley is also home to many quaint little towns with thriving communities such as Corvallis, Darby, Florence, and Hamilton, each with its own distinctive charm and laidback energy.
To make the most of your visit, it’s best to plan ahead. Find out how and when to visit the Bitterroot Valley, the best sightseeing places, activities, and everything else that you need to know to make the most of your stay.
The Best Time To Visit the Bitterroot Valley
The Bitterroot Valley, also known as the ‘Banana Belt’ of Montana, boasts pleasant weather conditions throughout most of the year. (Well, pleasant by Montana standards. It’s still cold in the winter.)
In the summer you’ll see highs in the 80s and enjoy lovely sweater weather in the evenings. The area experiences moderate to heavy snowfall in the winter, depending on the elevation.
Spring and fall are the best times to visit if you want to enjoy mild weather throughout the day and cooler nights. The valley is a truly mesmerizing sight in spring when it’s washed in saturated hues of blooming wildflowers and mountain creeks overflowing with chilly water. If you want to indulge in wintertime sports, though, December and January are great months to visit.
Places To Visit in the Bitterroot Valley
The valley is so vast that you’ll run out of time before you can explore all its sights. That’s why it’s important to know how to visit the Bitterroot Valley to have the best experience.
While most people come for the outdoors, the towns in the valley feature many historical and cultural sites worth visiting. The Bitterroot Trail is a 50-mile biking path that runs south from Missoula to Hamilton, but if you’re lugging camping gear, it’s easier to rent a car from Missoula. Either way, here are the places you’ll pass.
Florence is a quiet town located near Lolo on the Route 93 Corridor. South of town you’ll find quite a few camping spots and trailheads—Bass Creek is one of our favorites. You’ll also be close to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, which is an excellent place for birdwatching, nature viewing, and photography.
This town can be reached in about 45 minutes via the Bitterroot Trail from Florence or in ten minutes via car. Stevensville is known for its prosperous community and booming shopping district. St. Mary’s Mission, a historic church and awe-inspiring architecture, is a must-visit in the area. Fort Owen State Park, a former log trading post turned into a preservation, is a 15-minute walk from the town center.
Victor is a quiet town situated between Stevensville and Hamilton and has a very small yet welcoming community radiating warmth and welcoming visitors with open arms. The town’s position allows one to take in a panoramic view of the Sapphire and Bitterroot Mountain ranges.
Also known as the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, Corvallis was one of the first settlements in the valley and has many historic buildings to show it. The nearby Mill Creek Trailhead is one of the best places to hike and bring a picnic lunch.
Hamilton is one of the largest towns in the Bitterroot Valley and will be your home base for most structured activities. If you’re looking for a guided hunting or fishing trip, or you just need to stock up on supplies, you can find several outfitters here. The area also has several adventure companies for activities like white water rafting.
If you happen to be there in July, stop by the Daly Days festival for local art, live music, and microbrews.
Darby is a small rural town near the southern end of the Bitterroot Trail and is a must-visit if you want to appreciate the architecture of the Old West. Darby provides easy access to the Lake Como Recreation Area and the Trail Ski Area, two of the most popular tourist spots. If you’re a history buff, you can visit the Darby Pioneer Memorial Museum to see a collection of artifacts from the earliest settlers in the valley.
Things To Do In The Bitterroot Valley
Western Montana is certainly mountainous, but the valley has hikes for all experience and fitness levels. Beyond backpacking, here are some other activities you can’t miss.
1. Attending Live Events and Festivals
If you’re here in the summer, nearly every weekend has some sort of local event. From fireworks to strawberry festivals to battle reenactments, visiting some of the small-town thrills is a great way to experience the local culture. The Chamber of Commerce keeps an updated list of community events.
2. Hiking or Biking Along the Bitterroot Trail
The valley is strewn with countless trails for short hikes and long treks. A few notable ones are the Boulder Creek Trail, Lake Como Loop Trail, Warm Springs Trail, and Bear Creek Trail. If you’d rather take on a relatively flat paved trail, stick to the Bitterroot Trail that runs through the towns.
3. Driving Across Scenic Highways
Long drives are well worth it in the Bitterroot Valley. The Trapper Peak Vista Point offers an unperturbed view of the highest point in the valley whereas the Magruder Corridor can take you to the deepest reaches of the valley’s wilderness.
4. Swimming or Paddling in Lake Como
If you’re visiting in summer, then a visit to Lake Como is all you need to cool off and re-energize yourself after a long hike or a day exploring any of the valley’s wonders.
5. Fishing in the Bitterroot River
The Bitterroot River is home to a large population of trout and a favorite spot for fly-fishing enthusiasts. You can find five varieties of trout in the river including Rainbows, Cutthroats, and Bulls. The river runs throughout the valley so you can fish in any of its smaller streams or forks.
A few other outdoor adventures you can embark on in the valley are trap shooting and golfing in Hamilton, driving through the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, skiing at the Lost Trail Powder Mountain, snowmobiling in the Sapphire Mountains, and relaxing in the Lolo hot springs.
What to Eat in the Bitterroot Valley
The towns in the valley house many cafes, bakeries, restaurants, distilleries, and breweries where you can grab a bite to eat to fuel your outdoor escapades along the Bitterroot Trail and enjoy some local handcrafted beer.
If you’re in Hamilton, you can check out Spice of Life and The Edge for a fine dining experience complete with a bar or Bitterroot Brewing for some fish and chips, lively music, and a pint or two of beer. The Fiesta En Jalisco serves the best Mexican dishes and cocktails in the area.
In Stevensville, you can find French cuisine at Mission Bistro and Italian delicacies at Romeo’s Italian Kitchen or Marie’s Italian Restaurant. CJ’s Den is also a local favorite bar and restaurant serving good food and drinks. We also recommend trying out the Moose Creek BBQ & Grill for some Southern-style BBQ dishes.
Shopping in the Bitterroot Valley
There are plenty of places to shop for souvenirs in the valley. In fact, each town in the area boasts its own shopping district with specialty shops for clothing, antiques, candies, and more.
You can find lots of educational guides, puzzles, games, and toys at the Discover the Bitterroot store in Hamilton along with local souvenirs to take a taste of the valley and its sweet memories home with you.
If you need any supplies for fishing, camping, hiking, and the like, then there are many retail stores that sell outdoor equipment as well. You can also easily find grocery stores to find food items to prepare your own meals or stock up on snacks before you tackle the Bitterroot National Forest.
How to Reach the Bitterroot Valley
The easiest way to reach the valley is through the Missoula Airport. Route 93 follows the Bitterroot Trail and is “the” road in the area.
We recommend renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle from Missoula Car Rentals to traverse the rugged terrain of the Bitterroot Valley and reach all the destinations from your bucket list with ease. Missoula Car Rentals makes it easy. We bring the car to you at the airport so you don’t have to wait in line or take a shuttle. We’re a local company with deep knowledge of the area, so if you need any recommendations about where to go or what to do, we’re happy to help. Contact us to reserve your vehicle now!