1. Leaf Peeping in the National Parks
Cloaked in colorful quilts of foliage, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks look markedly different in fall than in summer. And, since visitor traffic thins considerably in autumn, it’s easy to view the kaleidoscope of colors at a leisurely pace. On the eastern side of Glacier, see Quaking Aspens shimmer in the breeze in the Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and St. Mary areas. Two park trails typically awash in glowing fall colors are the 7.2-mile (roundtrip) hike to Bullhead Lake and the easy (three-tenths of a mile one way) hike to Running Eagle Falls. In Yellowstone, the drive from West Yellowstone to Mammoth Hot Springs pops with pockets of red fireweed and yellow-gold aspens. One of Yellowstone’s best fall color spots is the Lamar Valley, accessible from Montana’s Gardiner gateway. In Gardiner, stop at Tumbleweed Bookstore and Café for a breakfast burrito or a sandwich (like the Jacque, a triple-decker peanut butter and raspberry jam on wheat bread) before heading into the park.
2. Scenic Drives
Western Montana is a road tripper’s dream destination, particularly in fall when wildlife sightings are common and brilliant colors paint the landscape. Take U.S. 89 through the Paradise Valley from Livingston south to Gardiner to see the warm yellow cottonwoods and aspens glow. In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, take it slow on the 49-mile Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway to soak in the only-in-autumn views of golden willow trees lining streams and river bottoms. Considered one of the nation’s most scenic drives, the 68-mile Beartooth Highway through southwest Montana delivers breathtaking views of snowcapped peaks, several topping 12,000 feet. Wintry weather arrives early along the Beartooth, Montana’s highest elevation (10,350 feet) highway. Check road conditions before attempting the drive.
3. Fall Flavors and Festivals
Meander south on U.S. 93 through the Flathead Valley to sample craft brews, small-batch distilled spirits, and local wines made with wild huckleberries, Flathead Cherries, and other Montana-grown ingredients. Postcard-perfect locales like Whitefish, Kalispell, and Bigfork are home to wineries, breweries, and distilleries, and host fall farmer’s markets and festivals. The last weekend in September and the first weekend in October, sip local beers and ales, listen to live music, and try smoked elk bratwurst at The Great Northwest Oktoberfest in Whitefish. Continue south on U.S. 93 through the Bitterroot Valley to shop for antiques and Montana-made gifts in the charming small towns of Hamilton and Stevensville. Hamilton also hosts one of western Montana’s top—and tastiest—fall events: McIntosh Apple Day (Oct. 7), otherwise known as the Biggest Bake Sale Under the Big Sky.
4. Outdoor Adventure
Western Montana’s crisp, clear autumn days are perfect for playing outdoors. Fish the Big Hole, Jefferson, Gallatin, or another blue-ribbon trout stream, all of which see fewer anglers after Labor Day. Mid-October to early November, try to land a big brown (some measuring nearly two feet long) on the Madison and Missouri Rivers. Hike through a grove of 175-foot-tall Western Red Cedars in the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area near Troy. Rent a ride at Open Road Bicycle & Nordic in Missoula to pedal the Clark Fork Riverfront Trail or part of the 50-mile-long paved Bitterroot Trail connecting Missoula and Hamilton. Go wildlife watching in Yellowstone, where hundreds of bison regularly roam in the Lamar Valley, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Old Faithful areas of the park. At Mammoth Hot Springs, use binoculars to watch the antler-crashing battles of one of nature’s greatest spectacles—the elk mating season, or rut.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
5. Nature-Based State Parks
Experience the serenity of the shoulder season in any of the 55 Montana State Parks. Nature-based parks, such as Beavertail Hill on the Clark Fork River southeast of Missoula and Lost Creek near Anaconda, are particularly well suited for fall campouts, picnics, and wildlife viewing. Stay overnight in a Sioux-style tipi (sleeps 8) at Beavertail Hill, or spend an hour walking the park’s nature trail. At Lost Creek, hike the short, paved trail to Lost Creek Falls, and scan the grey limestone cliffs for mountain goats and bighorn sheep. In eastern Montana, travel back in time to an otherworldly land of the dinosaurs, Makoshika State Park in Glendive. Before hiking through the park’s badlands rock formations, stop at the visitor center to see the fossilized remains of Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and other dinosaurs.