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Best of Montana in Fall: Festivals and Events

Discover the best events to attend in Big Sky country during autumn.

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Bannack State Park is a preserved ghost town with annual Ghost Walks where visitors are able to explore the park with reenactors from the American gold rush era.

Take a Spooky Night Walk in a Ghost Town

For two eerie nights just before Halloween, Montana’s best preserved ghost town, Bannack (25 miles west of Dillon), comes to life thanks to a band of community volunteers. About 30 (or more) locals channel the ghosts of Bannack’s gold rush past during two (7 and 9 p.m.) Ghost Walks, historical reenactments of hangings, gunfights, and other terror-inducing events.

The performances are perennial sellouts (reservations are required; 100 people maximum per show), says Tom Lowe, Bannack State Park assistant manager and park ranger, who adds that 9 p.m. tickets (adult $10, children $5) are the most coveted. “The later shows are the best because it is pitch dark by then, which makes everything more eerie. Plus, the actors are volunteers, not professionals, so by 9 p.m. they are more comfortable with their lines.”

Locals also pitch in by carrying lanterns, tending fires, and directing traffic. The authentic ghost town setting—including locations such as Cemetery Hill and Hangman’s Gulch—and near total darkness make the Ghost Walks too terrifying for children under age 6. “Bannack is known to be haunted, so it’s extra scary and fun to come into the park at night,” says Lowe. “Prepare to have fun, and be sure to dress warmly and bring a flashlight.” This year's walks are on October 24 and 25.

Eat Your Fill at the Annual Ennis Hunters Feed, Ennis

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To make room for the expected bounty from the upcoming hunting season, families across Big Sky country clear out their freezers each fall. Nothing goes to waste, of course. Instead, the past season’s moose, deer, elk, and other wild game meat are used to make chili and other savory dishes.

In the small town of Ennis, located in southwestern Montana 70 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, this freezer-clearing rite of fall first spawned a community potluck in 1985. The tasty tradition continues once a year on the Friday afternoon (3–5 p.m.) before the first day of rifle hunting season (October 24 this year).

Local chefs (anyone who can cook can participate) set up shop along Main Street to serve custom creations such as elk and deer chili, moose meatballs, and even antelope and bobcat. Attendees sample their way along the street for free, voting for the best chili, best non-chili, most unusual, and best overall entries as they go. “If you want to sample everything, get there at 3 p.m. because some people run out of their dishes before the feed is over,” says resident Kenzi Clark, who helps coordinate the free event hosted by the Ennis Chamber of Commerce.

Meet Alpine Artisans, Tour of the Arts, Seeley Lake

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The alpine meadows and glacier-topped mountains of the Seeley Swan Valley are lined with western larch, one of the few conifers that turn from green to gold in fall. Tamarack is the local name for the towering pines (some over 150 feet tall), and when the trees don their autumn colors, people drive the gravel back roads to share in the spectacle.

That’s part of the appeal of the valley’s annual Tour of the Arts self-guided driving route. Held the second weekend of October, the free tour includes stops at museums, galleries, and the open studios of more than a dozen members of the nonprofit Alpine Artisans, including woodworkers, photographers, painters, sculptors, and didgeridoo makers.

“Art is a combination of your surroundings and how people interpret that in their work. So, I think Seeley Swan is a natural fit for art, because we are surrounded by natural beauty,” says local resident and Tour of the Arts regular Ron Schulfer. “Take the entire weekend to weave in and out of the valley, stopping to visit with the artists who live here. Part of the allure is in not knowing where you will end up and who you will meet.”

Take in the Montana Bale Trail, Hobson to Windham

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Launched in 1990 as a hay sculpture “competition” between two neighboring ranchers, the “What the Hay” contest Montana Bale Trail now covers about 21 paved miles and includes some 50 whimsically sculpted and stacked hay bale creations.

“Some locals work for weeks on their entries and are very secretive about their theme,” says Central Montana Tourism executive director Gayle Fisher, a former Bale Trail judge. “People who really want to win will make their bale art in a barn and then move the structure out on a flatbed trailer in the middle of the night before the event.”

The good-natured competition celebrates rural Montana farm life and gives visitors the opportunity to see the tiny towns of Hobson (eastern end), Utica (midpoint), and Windham (western end). Although all of the bales are viewable from the road, pull off at the Utica Women’s Club craft fair for a grilled burger and homemade pie, and again at the temporary Mid-Way Café (erected in a hayfield east of Utica) to navigate the Hay-Maze. If you can’t make the September 7 event, there’s still about a week to drive the route. Most ranchers keep their bale art intact for at least seven days.

Celebrate Annual McIntosh Apple Day, Hamilton

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Don’t let the name fool you. This fall favorite (celebrating 35 years in 2014) is all about the made-from-scratch apple pies. Billed as the “biggest bake sale under the Big Sky,” Ravalli County Museum’s annual fundraiser serves up 600 baked and frozen pies made by museum staffers and a host of volunteers using local handpicked McIntosh apples. Hamilton business owners help store and bake the pies since the museum doesn’t have the freezer or oven space to handle the annual pie mania.

There’s also sliced apples with handmade caramel dipping sauce, fresh apple cider, roasted pork with apple chutney, and the centerpiece attraction—a huge cauldron of apple butter bottled fresh on the spot. “You can smell the fresh apple pies and apple butter from blocks away,” says museum program coordinator Sarah Monson, who helps coordinate the event, which honors the Bitterroot Valley’s “McIntosh Apple Boom” (late 1800s-early 1920s).

New starting in 2014: Liquid Apple Night, a post-festival (4–8 p.m.) soiree featuring food, live music, and hard ciders from some of the area's finest cider makers, including the Bitterroot Valley’s own Montana CiderWorks.

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