5 Things to Do in Missoula with a Toddler in Tow

Last year, as many of you know, we embarked on our biggest trip to date with BattleKid. It was a two-week USA road trip taking in the stunning Yellowstone National Park, smoky Missoula in Montana and the hip and vibrant city of Portland. Missoula is a place not many people will have heard of, us included before our trip, but is definitely worth a visit. And today I’m going to share with you 5 things to do in Missoula with a toddler in tow, should you be visiting yourself with a toddler or young kids.Missoula with a toddler - blog graphic

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Now, we chose Missoula, which is in the state of Montana, as it was roughly the halfway point between Yellowstone and Portland. Stopping there would enable us to break up the driving and have some down time with BattleKid during our road trip. We also chose it because there was a town called Lolo right beside it and also Lolo National Forest. Lolo is the nickname my Dad got from his first grandson and it stuck. So naturally we needed to visit the town that shares his name.

We also intended to visit Lolo National Forest but alas it was not to be. Montana was cloaked in smoke due to widespread forest fires, some of which had reached Lolo National Forest, causing it to be closed to the public for safety. But it gives us a reason to return. With the forest no longer an option, we needed to find things to do in Missoula with kids.

Our first port of call was Google. We searched for things to do with kids in Missoula. These had to include fun activities for kids as we had BattleKid with us. We were also fortunate that our AirBnB host had left a few magazines in the apartment one of which had articles about things to do in Montana with kids. The articles proved so useful to us. They not only showed what to do with kids in Missoula and the wider Montana area, they also gave some ideas of free things to do in Missoula.

Armed with as much information as possible, we set out to discover Missoula and other nearby things that we otherwise would have missed had the forest been open. And as a result, I am able to share with you 5 things to do in Missoula with a toddler in tow. All of these are fun things to do in Missoula and the slightly wider areas around it.

5 Things to Do in Missoula with a Toddler in Tow

Have a Picnic in Caras Park Missoula

Caras Park is located in Downtown Missoula along the Clark Fort River. It is a lovely area and the Park Pavilion plays host to a variety of events throughout the year including music concerts, festivals and even a type of Oktoberfest, which was being set up the day we had our picnic in the park.

We visited one day during our time in Missoula after being in the wider Montana area, and I had packed a picnic. We found some picnic benches near the Pavilion and enjoyed our lunch in the sun. Other families soon joined us on the adjacent benches for their own picnics. And if you don’t want to sit on the benches there are plenty of lovely grassy areas for picnic blankets too. Afterwards, you can enjoy one of the following two things.

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Picnic time in Missoula

Have a Ride on the Carousel for Missoula

Located in Caras Park, the Carousel for Missoula was opened in 1995 and was the culmination of the labour of many volunteers and over 100,000 construction hours. Featuring 38 hand-carved ponies, two chariots, 14 gargoyles, mirror frames and the largest band organ in continuous use in America, it is somewhere kids, young and old, can enjoy. You need a token per ride, which costs just 75c, and if you, as a parent, want to ride and share a pony with your child (as I did), it will cost you two tokens.

There is also a chance to win free rides by collecting rings from a chute as you pass by, but you need to be on an outside pony to try your luck. BattleKid and I enjoyed two rides together and he didn’t want to get off. The Carousel for Missoula is really one of the fun things to do in Missoula with kids that shouldn’t be missed. It is open 364 days of the year between 11 and 5.30.

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One the Carousel for Missoula

Let your toddler run wild in the Dragon Hollow Playground

Also located in Caras Park, right beside the Carousel for Missoula, the Dragon Hollow playground is a brilliant place to visit with toddlers and kids. It was designed by artists and consultants after getting advice and ideas from local school children. It is a very safe playground which is enclosed by a picket fence and has chip bark flooring. Featuring a huge Dragon themed play house with tunnels, stairs and slides, BattleKid had a great time weaving his way through to the biggest slide he could find!

There are also swings, musical play features and an area for smaller children. It is suitable for kids from 18 months to 12 years of age, is open all year round and is free to use. There are seats around the playground for parents to take a breather. One thing I will point out is that once your child enters the dragon, you cannot easily see them until they emerge from a slide. So just be cautious. But it is one of the best wooden playhouses I have ever come across and BattleKid thoroughly enjoyed himself here.things to do in missoula with a toddler in tow - visit dragon hollow playground

Visit the National Bison Range

Established in 1908 as a sanctuary for the American bison, the National Bison Range is located approximately an hour north of Missoula. It was one of the places featured in the magazines that our AirBnB host had left in the apartment and somewhere we might have missed. It is home to a herd of between 350 and 500 bison but is also home to other animals such as coyote, black bear, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn deer.

There are two routes you can drive at the Bison Range. The short Prairie Drive is open all-year round while the longer Red Sleep Mountain Drive is only open from mid-May to early October. We did the Red Sleep Mountain Drive and it was challenging. It has sharp switch-backs and steep declines and I’d recommend you do this in a 4×4 car due to the roughness of the road. Note, this drive is closed during the winter months.

Although we had seen bison in Yellowstone, we were hoping to see other animals and saw elk and pronghorn deer during our visit. A day pass costs just $5 (you can get an annual oass valid from your first visit for just $15), and the gates are generally open from 7am to 7pm. The visitor’s centre, where you pay, has plenty of information about the range and also has toilets too. Although we only spent a few hours there it was worth the drive from Missoula.

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Visiting the National Bison Range, Montana

Visit Ewam Buddha Garden, the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

This was one of the most surprising places we visited in Montana. Situated in Arlee, about 40 minutes north of Missoula, the Ewam Buddha Garden has to be one of the most peaceful and tranquil places we’ve ever visited.

In the centre of the garden lies a 24-foot tall statue of Yum Chenmo. One thousand Montana-made images of Buddha are arranged in the shape of an eight-spoked Dharma wheel, which encircle Yum Chenmo. 1000 additional stupas surmount the two exterior throne walls, creating the outer rim of the Dharma wheel. And it is a mesmorising sight to see.

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A view of the Ewam Buddha Garden from the hill of prayer flags. See how smokey it is!

The gardens also have a small lake hosting fish and surrounded by large Buddha statues. The garden is open all year round from dawn until dusk and is free to visit (with donation boxes at various points throughout the garden). It was designed for people to enjoy the space, flowers and serene surroundings. Guided tours are available and there is also a gift shop and ample parking.

Once we found out about the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas we knew we had to visit it. A dear friend of ours in Wales introduced us to Buddhism. BattleKid enjoyed our walk around the garden, stopping here and there to admire certain Buddha statues and to say hello to the fish. I’m just sorry we didn’t know there was a prayer flag mount there before we went, or we would have created our own to add. You wouldn’t think this is a place to visit with kids but BattleKid really enjoyed it, so I’m sure your kids would too. And as it is on the same route as the Bison Range you could visit both in one day.

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The central buddha in the Ewam Buddha Garden.

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I can hand-on-heart say we enjoyed each and every one of these activities in Missoula and Montana. And in hindsight the forest fires and resulting smoke were a blessing in disguise. We might not have visited any of these sights had it not been for the fact that Lolo National Forest, our original reason for visiting Missoula, was closed. Our sudden change of plans worked out for the best and we got to visit places even BattleKid enjoyed.

So, if you are wondering what to do in Missoula and Montana with toddlers and young children, I hope I’ve given you some ideas of both paid and free things to do with my 5 things to do in Missoula with a toddler in tow.

And if you are considering visiting the USA with kids and not sure what there is to do with them in certain cities, these posts might help decide for you!

20 Things to do  in Oklahoma City with kids (or without) – Parenthood and Passports

How to do a weekend trip to Sarasota, Florida with kids – Our Globetrotters

My perfect 24 hours in San Francisco with kids: itinerary – Learning Escapes

5 Things to do in New York with a Toddler in Tow – BattleMum

Cath x

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USA Road Trip Holiday Diaries – Day 9

BattleKid and I woke shortly after 7am and chilled in the living room with the help of Puss in Boots, the series, on Netflix. I managed to catch up on some writing before BattleDad appeared shortly after 8am.

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Deer in the back garden of our AirBnB

Again, we watched a deer in the garden but this time she had two babies with her. I made us all an omelette for breakfast, and then we packed a picnic and headed out on the road, bound for somewhere else we’d seen in the information magazines our host had left. We needed an ATM as we were all out of cash and found one near a Cabela’s Outdoor Store. BattleDad had played the Cabela’s PC games many moons ago and really wanted to go inside. So, we did.

Oh my word, this was another experience. Cabela’s is a huge store with the outdoors firmly in mind. It was bigger than some of the Asda shops of the UK. There were sections for fishing that my Dad would have gotten lost, a camping section and the biggest range of guns and ammo I’m ever likely to see for a very long time.

There was also a section designed for ski and winter wear. By the end of September, Montana sees snow and temperatures that can drop well below freezing. I spotted some trapper hats for BattleKid and I. I snapped them up, all in preparation for our trip to Lapland in 2018. We also got BattleKid a much better set of nocklers, with the help of a very friendly staff-member. As we were paying for the hats, the lady on the checkout asked were we getting ready for winter. Sort of we responded, haha.

Satisfied with our purchases, we set off. Our destination was the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, located near Arlee which we had passed through the day before on our way to the National Bison Range. It took us just over 40 minutes to drive there and we parked in the car park and walked to the Garden.

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Walking in the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas
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Prayer flags
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Saying hi to Buddha

And what a beautiful place to visit in the middle of Montana. The Garden of a Thousand Buddhas has exactly that, 1000 statues of Buddha in various sizes, set in 10 acres of beautiful gardens. Still under construction, this spiritual site on the Flathead Indian Reservation is intended to be a place of pilgrimage for the Western Hemisphere and expected to welcome people of all faiths in the future. 

It was one of the most peaceful, serene places we’ve ever been. One of our longest friends in Wales introduced us to Buddhism many years ago, and although we are not Buddhists, we appreciate their way of life and much prefer their teachings and morals over the religion we were brought up in.

The gardens were beautiful, there was a lovely little lake and also a set of prayer-flags on a hill. Had we known before we visited, we’d have brought one to add to the ones there. The Garden of a Thousand Buddhas is free to visit but there are donation boxes there, which we put some money in. I was glad we had stopped at the ATM at Cabela’s. We thoroughly enjoyed our quiet walk through and around the garden.

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Spotting the fish
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The largest Buddha in the Garden

Back in the car park, we started talking to a guy and his friend from the car beside us. Nate, a very nice guy from Utah, was really friendly and has since become friends with BattleDad on Facebook. He was interested in why we’d visited and our travels. Nate was also interested in recommendations for Irish films to watch once he learned we were Irish, and he gave us some great recommendations for Portland.

Before departing, he gave us a bunch of lavender as a gift, which we weren’t expecting but was a lovely gesture. Lavender is the essential oil our Buddhist friend used to use on us during our sport therapy treatments with her. It felt like something had come full circle for us. All we could offer him was some bottles of water, as we had a case of it in the car. Both Nate and his friend were very grateful as the temperatures were over 30C that day and they had run out.

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Selfie with my boy

We headed back to Missoula and located Caras Park, where two children’s attractions that had been recommended to me were located. We had a picnic first as it was lunchtime, before BattleKid and I enjoyed some rides on the Carousel for Missoula, where an adult and child can share a seat for just $1.50.

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Enjoying our picnic

A volunteer-built, hand-carved carousel in Caras Park, Carousel for Missoula was completed in 1995 but not without the efforts of many volunteers and fundraising. Cabinet maker Chuck Kaparich from Missoula visited a carousel in Spokane in 1988 and it was there the vision for a carousel in Missoula was born. However, it took a lot of fundraising, over 100,000 volunteer hours and four years before the carousel was completed. The carousel has 38 hand-carved ponies and two chariots and hosts over 200,000 rides a year.

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Riding the Carousel for Missoula

After our rides, we let BattleKid run off some energy in the Dragon Hollow Playground, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Created in just 9 days with the help of over 4000 volunteers, Dragon Hollow Park is a playground adjacent to the Carousel for Missoula. Free to use, it has castles, slides, swings and plenty of hiding places for kids to let off some steam. Thanks to those on Facebook for these recommendations.

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Play time in the Dragon Hollow Playground
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Swinging in the Dragon Hollow Playground
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No fear going down the big slides in the Dragon Hollow Playground

On our way back to our AirBnB, we stopped by Walmart on the way back to our AirBnB to get a pizza and some American croquettes called Tater Tots. BattleDad had always wanted to try them, and they were tasty. Back at the apartment I got packing us and tidying up while the boys played and chilled with Netflix. After dinner we watched Zootopia with popcorn before getting a little boy into bed. After another two episodes of Ozark, BattleDad and I were in bed, ready for another long day of driving, the penultimate leg of our road trip.

Cath x

Our Visit to Yellowstone – Planning Part 1 of Our USA Road Trip

BattleDad and I have wanted to make a visit to Yellowstone ever since seeing the 3-part BBC documentary. It just looked like the most wonderful place to visit, full of wildlife and earth’s raw power. I can’t quite believe it was broadcast in 2009. We’ve watched it a few times since, and each time our desire to go to that part of the world just got stronger. I’ve mentioned this desire before on the blog.

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Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone – Picture Source

When BattleKid came along we knew we wanted to share our visit to Yellowstone with him but we became very torn. Do we go and just take lots of pictures for him to look back on when he’s older? Or do we wait until he is older so that he can remember the trip? We also wondered if we did the trip while he was young, would it be something he would do himself in years to come, therefore helping with some of the guilt we might feel at doing this trip of a lifetime while he was too young to remember it.

By last October, our patience ran out and we decided just to book it. We felt a little guilty as BattleKid will be three and a half and will most likely not remember the trip but we really wanted to go. We started by looking into flights. Originally we planned to fly to either Billings, Bozeman or Yellowstone airport itself, all via Salt Lake City, and hire a car there. We then wanted to drop the car off at Portland Airport as we would be combining our visit to Yellowstone with Portland.

However, when considering the car hire option we saw quotes of over $4000. That is just crazy money. To take that option would mean our transport costs would be well over $7000. That was our budget well and truly blown. So, we started again and found that car hire from and to Portland airport, for a big 4×4 RV car, was $1000 for two weeks. This was a bit more reasonable and so we took the decision to fly in and out of Portland and drive to Yellowstone.

I should point out that we are not doing the entire 860-mile drive from Portland Airport to Yellowstone in one go. Once we arrive into Portland, we’ll drive 220 miles to a place called Richland in Washington state near the Columbia River. We are staying overnight before then doing the 600-mile drive from Richland to Island Park, in Idaho, which is where we are staying. Our recent drive from Santander to Southern Portugal will have been good practice for us for a full day in the car. It’ll be a long day but worth it in the end. We had considered staying within Yellowstone itself but it was crazy money. 

Instead of staying in Yellowstone itself, we managed to secure a fabulous looking log cabin in the woods, through AirBnB, just outside a town called Island Park. This town is just a 30-minute drive to West Yellowstone. This base is ideally located for us and we might even see some wildlife from the cabin. We are staying there for 5 days before we slowly make our way back to Portland via Missoula and Richland again. The first two days of our USA road trip will be long and tiring but I am looking forward to our visit to Yellowstone.

With flights, car and accommodation all sorted, I started investigating what we should see and do in Yellowstone, beside the famous Old Faithful geyser. I asked a few travel Facebook groups I’m in for their recommendations. We got a varied response and here are what we’ve been recommended for our visit to Yellowstone.

Recommendations for our visit to Yellowstone

An ice cream at Mammoth Hot SpringsMammoth Hot Springs, located some 76 miles from Island Park in the North of Yellowstone National Park, is apparently a great place to watch elk parading while enjoying an ice cream. There is also a visitor’s centre and Fort Yellowstone is also located at Mammoth Springs. You can walk on boardwalks above the thermal spring features or drive around the travertine terraces, amazing looking terraces formed from limestone. I think this is a must-do area for our visit to Yellowstone.

The Boiling River – The Boiling River is only a few miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs, it is a Hydrothermal feature, popular for seasonal bathing, where a hot spring flows into a cold river water. It is one of the few legal areas within Yellowstone that is suitable for people to bath in; the river itself, not the spring. That said, it is not always open, there is no lifeguard on duty at any time, currents can be very strong and disease-causing bacteria thrive in the warm waters and there is only one toilet. While this would have been a nice idea to do during our visit to Yellowstone, I think we might give this a miss. I don’t fancy any of us getting ill just a few days into a two-week USA road trip.

Old West Dinner Cookout – This dining experience within Yellowstone was recommended to us and it is one we are seriously considering. Leaving from Roosevelt Lodge within Yellowstone itself, you travel for 30-45 minutes by traditional canvas wagon to the cookout area where you will find the cookout site serving steaks and traditional sides. As the experience starts at dusk it is one of the best places around the Roosevelt area to see wildlife. The only drawback is the 2-hour drive back from Roosevelt to our accommodation at Island Park.

The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Centre – This wildlife park and education centre is located just outside Yellowstone at the West entrance, just 30 minutes from Island Park. The Centre is home to both grizzly bears and grey wolves, who unfortunately cannot live in the wild. The centre offers visitors to Yellowstone a unique chance to see these creatures who act as ambassadors for their wild counterparts within the park. As we will be passing through West Yellowstone to enter the National Park itself, we will definitely be visiting this centre!

Bear World – This drive-thru wildlife park is located south of Island Park, about a 55-minute drive, in a town called Rexburg near the Jackson or Teton Gate of Yellowstone National Park. You have a chance to see Mountain Elk, Bison, various Deer, Mountain Goats, Moose and both Black and Grizzly Bears. It also boasts a petting zoo, amusement rides and bottle-feeding experiences with the keepers. I think we will be taking time to visit here too.

Other recommendations for our visit to Yellowstone

Running Bear Pancake House – This eatery located in West Yellowstone has been recommended to us for breakfast. As we will be passing through West Yellowstone most days on our way into the National Park, I think we’ll definitely try this place out. I have suggested to BattleDad that we eat here on our first morning and if it’s good, we’ll eat there most mornings on our way into the park.

Jackson Lake Lodge – Located in Grand Tetons within Yellowstone, this hotel has been recommended to us for either breakfast or lunch. It is quite a drive from where we are staying in Island Park, so we may only go there if we are nearby one day.

To save money, buy groceries before going into the park – One person recommended we buy our groceries and lunch before going into Yellowstone as everything inside the park is very expensive. We are expecting the worst and so our plan it to eat breakfast outside the park if we don’t cook ourselves. Then on our first day we’ll try somewhere inside for lunch, and if it is extortionate then we’ll do as this person has suggested. But I do think lunch near Old Faithful is a given really. I’ll report back on the cost of things inside the park in forthcoming posts after our visit to Yellowstone.

Homemade pies made from scratch – While looking at the Bear World website I stumbled across a recomendation on their site for a place called Frontier Pies in Rexburg. They make and serve homemade pies of all sorts and I think we might just stop for pie there. I quite fancy the sound of the Jumbleberry Pie or the Lemon Meringue Pie.

All of this, alongside things like Old Faithful Geyser, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mystic Falls, is going to make for a jam-packed few days during our visit to Yellowstone. And this is just the start of our USA road trip. From Yellowstone, we head to Missoula and Lolo National Park. Then we plan to drive along part of The Dalles Shamrock Tour on our way back to Richland, before we head for Portland. While in Portland we want to take a day to drive along part of the famous 101, the Pacific Coast Highway.

So, our Yellowstone Bucket List looks a bit like this.

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Come back after our visit to Yellowstone to see if we managed to tick them all off.

Cath x

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