Best of Montana in Fall: Outdoor Recreation
Check out the must-do local activities for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Montana this season.
Learn to Rock Climb, Bozeman
Before joining the locals on the limestone rock climbing crag at Allenspur south of Livingston or on the boulders at Neat Rock along the Madison River, play it safe by signing up for a guided outdoor rock climbing trip with Spire Climbing Center. No previous climbing experience is required, and each half-day or full-day trek includes all the rental gear you’ll need and is custom-tailored to fit an individual’s or family’s abilities and needs.
If the idea of learning to climb on the rocks is a bit daunting, you can always start out at Spire’s indoor climbing center, which offers more than 6,000 square feet of roped climbing to heights of 38 feet, and 2,200 square feet of bouldering. “This is a teaching gym, and our staff has over 75 years of combined climbing experience to show new folks the ropes,” says Spire assistant manager Ty Morrison-Heath. “We pride ourselves on being a welcoming place for climbers of all skill levels, so it’s the perfect place to get started.”
All customers over age 14 receive a free top-rope belay lesson with the purchase of a day pass, and any age can climb.
Hike the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park
September in Glacier is arguably the best time to hike in the park. The crowds are gone, the days are dry and clear, and it’s easier to spot wildlife, especially along the northern section of the Continental Divide Trail.
“This area is home to mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmot, grizzly bears, and, sometimes, the rare wolverine,” says Corrie Holloway, a veteran hiking guide with Glacier Guides. Tuesdays in September, Glacier Guides leads a Highline Trail hike along this wild section of high country. The daylong trek starts at Logan Pass, the highest point on Glacier’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
“The first part of the trail is not for the faint of heart, since it cuts through high cliff bands,” Holloway says. As the trail continues north, it hugs the western flanks of the Continental Divide, winding through alpine meadows laden with 360-degree views of snowcapped peaks and wildflowers.
The rest break (a homemade lunch is included) comes with unobstructed views of the Livingston Range north to Canada. Along the trail, look for stromatolites, the oldest fossils on Earth and the most visible life from the ancient sea that covered Glacier billions of years ago.
“Cowboy Up” on a Working Ranch, Bridger
Lonnie Schwend is a fifth-generation Montanan, and his working ranch sits on Clarks Fork Valley land homesteaded by his ancestors in 1906. Staying and working alongside Schwend family members gives visitors the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a real cowboy.
Lonesome Spur Ranch isn’t for city slickers. Guests work hard (actual activities depend on what’s needed, such as moving cattle from one pasture to another and riding the fence line) and play hard. Most Sunday nights, guests and wranglers head to a local watering hole to shoot pool and listen to live music.
Since September and October are when the Schwends gather and move cattle from the summer mountain range down to the home ranch, fall visits are ideal for serious riders who want to take longer rides on challenging terrain.
Ride Like a Local, Helena
In 2013, Helena was designated as one of only 17 International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Ride Centers worldwide. The IMBA Ride Center certification confirms Helena’s status as a bike-friendly community and specifically recognizes the city’s investment in trails and services for riders of all levels.
Since Helena is located on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, the city is extremely dry, creating a longer-than-usual-in-Montana riding season, from late April through November.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
“Several trailheads start at the end of residential streets, so you can ride from your lodging to the trails,” says Jim Barnes, owner of Helena’s Big Sky Cycling and Fitness. Barnes rents bikes and offers insider tips for the best trails based on ability and the time you want to spend out on the trail.
“Helena grew up from a gold mining camp,” Barnes says, “so you’ll likely see old miner digs and piles where they were prospecting. Many bike trails are built from old mining trails and roads, and some gold ore kilns remain along the roads leading into the hills.”
See Yellowstone on Horseback, Livingston
Lifelong Paradise Valley residents Tim and Cindy Bowers are fourth-generation Montanans and, as owners of Bear Paw Outfitters, licensed horseback riding tour operators for Yellowstone National Park. Summer is their busy season, but fall is quieter, slower, and one of the Bowerses’ favorite times to ride in the park.
“The mornings are crisp and cool, there’s a tinge of snow, and the horses smell different—there’s a smell of strength to them,” Tim Bowers says. Saddling up with guides along trails they (and their horses) know by heart offers the rare opportunity to experience the wilderness like a local, at least for a day. “Lots of outfitters just put people up on horses and run them through like cordwood, but with us, you receive instruction along the way, such as how to sit in the saddle and how to stop your horse correctly," he says. "It’s like a $4,000 backcountry education in only two hours.”
Options range from one-hour trail rides to overnight high-mountain camping in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Bowers also runs a ten-student school in September (and June) to train the next generation of wilderness guides.