Missoula is a college town. It's home to the University of Montana, the oldest university in the state. Located 340 mi/545 km northwest of Billings, Missoula has a fun downtown area featuring a wide range of shopping, entertainment and dining, along with events held on the riverfront in Caras Park. Kids will love Missoula's Carousel and the Dragon Hollow Play Area, along with the nearby Children's Museum. The Montana Natural History Center provides information for all ages on local and regional geology, flora and fauna. Other popular museums are the Missoula Art Museum, featuring contemporary art and American Indian art and works from regional and local artists; the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History, with a wide collection of documents and artifacts commemorating the armed services from the frontier period through today; and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, with its collection of 25,000 artifacts and 13 historic structures—we found Fort Missoula to be particularly engaging. In its long history, it has been home to the U.S. Army's only Bicycle Corps (it was supposed to replace the cavalry), an all-black regiment, a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II and a prison for court-martialed soldiers at the end of that war. Also in town is the U.S. Forest Service Aerial Fire Depot, which has exhibits on the history of fire fighting and tours of the base. It's the headquarters of smokejumpers who parachute into remote fire areas. The depot can be visited Memorial Day-Labor Day, though tours by appointment are possible at other times of the year. The visitors center features a replica of a 1930s lookout tower and tours of the smokejumper facilities.
From Missoula, you might consider driving 45 mi/72 km north to the National Bison Range in Moiese, where you can take a self-guided tour of buffalo grazing lands. If you've never seen these magnificent animals up close, you'll be impressed by their mass. The range is home to hundreds of bison (exact numbers vary depending on time of year). In spring, you can see baby buffalo and enjoy the beautiful array of wildflowers. The prairie lands, forest and wetlands of the range are also home to elk, deer, pronghorn, black bear, bighorn sheep and coyote. All roads are open mid-May to mid-October. If you're in the area, stop at the mission in St. Ignatius and view the 58 vibrant murals painted more than a century ago. The beautiful Mission Mountain Range provides a majestic backdrop to the church.
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