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Best of Montana in Fall: Scenic Drives and Flights

Get ready for a breathtaking ride across (and above) a lush landscape in Big Sky country.

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A floatplane from Backcountry Flying Experience flies over the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Take an Aerial Charter Over the Northern Rocky Mountain Backcountry, Kalispell

For eagle’s-eye views of northwest Montana, take to the Big Sky in a restored vintage floatplane. Backcountry Flying Experience offers tours over pristine backcountry areas, including remote sections of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

“The best time to see the Bob Marshall Wilderness is in autumn when the native tamarack and aspens are changing to their flaming range of golden oranges and yellows,” says Backcountry Flying Experience owner Peter Gross. “The undergrowth explodes with brilliant fall colors, and you can watch the bighorn sheep and other wildlife as they move to their winter range.”

All of the floatplane tours begin and end on Whitefish Lake. Gross customizes each tour based on what his passengers want to see and do. Options include a Hungry Horse Reservoir lunch tour and landing on Flathead Lake to explore Wildhorse Island, home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, bald eagles, and its namesake five wild horses.

Drive the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway

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Southwest Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is nearly three times the size of Glacier National Park yet remains relatively undiscovered by visitors. Locals know that the 3.35-million-acre wilderness showcases the best of the West: granite peaks topping 10,000 feet; world-class fly-fishing; ghost towns; wildlife; and, in fall, golden willow river bottoms and alpine meadows.

To sample a slice of this paradise, follow the 49-mile Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway (Forest Service Highway 73) from Highway 43 at Wise River south to Highway 278. Although the drive along the Wise River delivers a nonstop highlight reel of idyllic mountain, river, and forest views, the most dramatic scenery awaits those who get out of their cars.

“Side roads and trailheads beckon you to the back of beyond,” says Bozeman guide, writer, poet, and conservationist Phil Knight, who regularly hikes and bikes in the forest’s rugged backcountry. “Walk up nearly any side creek from the main road and you will find immense wet meadows. These are gifts of the glaciers that shaped this country and left moraines near the mouths of the canyons. Over time, the creeks have carried down sediment from the mountains and filled in the valleys behind the moraines, forming huge, lush meadows. Creeks meander through the grasslands, attracting beaver, otters, moose, and waterfowl.”

Take the Paradise Valley Scenic Loop, Livingston

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Highway 89 from Livingston south to Gardiner and the Yellowstone National Park north entrance is a spectacular drive in fall when the cottonwoods and aspens blaze bright gold.

For better views of the delicate quaking aspen trees, which appear to shiver or “quake” when their leaves flutter in the breeze, take a detour along the less traveled East River Road (Highway 540). From Livingston, follow Highway 89 about five miles south to the East River Road exit, and turn left, crossing the Yellowstone River. From here you’ll meander south through farms and ranches along the east side of Paradise Valley. East River Road basically parallels the river, so you’ll get the same views of the foliage and Gallatin and Absaroka Ranges as the highway drivers, only at a more relaxing pace.

This route is a cycling favorite on weekends, so plan a weekday drive if possible. East River Road ends at U.S. 89 to the south, where you turn right and drive north to Livingston (completing the loop), or turn left and continue south to Gardiner and Yellowstone.

Travel Part of the Monida-Yellowstone Stagecoach Route, Monida to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

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Today, remote Centennial Valley in southwestern Montana near the Idaho border is one of the least visited parts of the state. But in the late 1800s, the primary stagecoach route connecting the train station in Monida (on the Montana-Idaho border) to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park went across the valley floor. Lakeview, where the Red Rock Lake National Wildlife Refuge visitor center is located, was the second of three stage stops along the route.

The gravel South Valley Road (Route 509) follows the original stagecoach path. Although the 28-mile drive from Monida to Red Rock Lakes can get treacherous in muddy or snowy conditions, early September is typically clear and dry enough to see a part of Montana that most outsiders miss.

“This drive caters to those who enjoy visiting places few others do, and who don't mind the isolation,” says Ed Geiger, manager of the Yellowstone Historic Center. “The route primarily follows the northern base of the Centennial Mountains, and there are vast sweeping views of rolling hills and grasslands. In the 1870s, it was said that if someone wanted to disappear, this would be the place. There is still room to disappear here.”

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