By common perception, the northwestern part of the state is wet, forested, and populous. But in fact, the main city, Missoula , has only 64,000 inhabitants, receives no more than 13 inches of rain in an average year, and is only particularly well-forested in the Rattlesnake corridor. Much of this corner of the state has been voraciously logged, and the climate is too harsh for seedling trees to easily reforest the clear-cut areas.
The other common perception about northwestern Montana is that it’s a recreationalist’s dream come true. That it is: Not only is it the gateway to Glacier National Park , but there are fishing areas, hiking trails, and public campgrounds galore, particularly in the national forests.
For many visitors, this is archetypal Montana; these beautiful lakes and soaring mountain peaks are what you came here for. However, you’re not alone. The last decade has seen burgeoning growth in this area, particularly in the Flathead Valley, so be prepared to share this corner of Montana with quite a few others.
Northwestern Montana’s topography is characterized by a series of forested mountain ranges (the Cabinets, Missions, Bitterroots, Flatheads, Salish, Whitefish, Purcells, and Swans), running generally northwest to southeast, and the valleys that separate them. Although this is a mountainous area, it’s not particularly high by Montana standards; Montana’s lowest spot (1,892 feet) is where the Clark Fork River enters Idaho near Troy in the state’s northwest corner.
Missoula is at the mouth of Hell Gate Canyon, the Clark Fork River’s path between Mt. Jumbo (to the north, with the “L” for Lolo spelled out in white stone on the hills) and Mt. Sentinel (south, with an “M” for Montana) on the eastern edge of town. The narrow valley immediately broadens as four other sizable river valleys join it and open up the landscape, creating a bowl-like setting that makes for both pleasingly temperate weather and the dreaded phenomenon of winter temperature inversion, in which warm, moist air, often laden with particulate matter, is trapped and held in the valley by high pressure.