HELENA – With lots of room to roam and backdrops of incredible fall colors against mountaintops, fall in Montana is an outdoor lover’s dream. Crowds dissipate, temperatures cool, and landscapes transform to a sea of crimson and gold. Those visiting can take in all the glory of fall in Montana with these awe-inspiring outdoor adventures.
Skip the national parks and head to the state parks instead. It’s no secret that the National Parks are amazing, but not everyone realizes that Montana’s 55 state parks are just as beautiful with the big bonus of having fewer crowds.
Big Arm State Park on Flathead Lake in northwest Montana provides an amazing opportunity to enjoy a crisp fall day in the outdoors. Filled with mature Ponderosa pines and juniper trees, the park sits on the “big arm” of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. The 2.5-mile hiking trail provides excellent vistas of surrounding mountain ranges and high peaks with abundant watchable wildlife opportunities.
In southwest Montana, visitors to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park can walk in the footsteps of legendary explorers. Hop on the easy to moderate hiking and biking trails that lead to picturesque limestone caverns full of history and adventure. Guided tours of the caverns are offered until Sept. 30. After the park adventure is complete, travelers can take an easy drive to nearby towns of Anaconda, Butte or Bozeman for a charming small-town experience.
For those heading to the eastern region of Montana, Makoshika State Park in Glendive is Montana’s largest state park. It features beautiful pine and juniper trees, along with badlands formations that include the fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops and other prehistoric life. Travelers won’t want to miss the Full Moon Hike on Sept. 20 from 9-11 p.m., at which they can hike by the full moonlight under the night sky.
Travel a bit farther south and visitors will find Medicine Rocks State Park, known for its unique rock formations that people have been visiting for thousands of years. In addition to the unique topography, the park is full of history and culture. Medicine Rocks State Park earned its name because it was a place of “big medicine,” where Indian hunting parties conjured up magical spirits. The park is perfect for fans of photography, hiking and wildlife viewing. It’s also an amazing place for night sky stargazing. In fact, the park was just recently designated as a certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association.
Bike through the fall colors
If bicycling is more your speed, Montana offers unmatched trails and undiscovered country that are ideal for cyclists. Riders staying in central Montana can pedal to Lewistown, which is surrounded by five diverse mountain ranges, each offering its own unique mountain biking challenge, from relaxing two-track routes to the more technical single-track trails.
Riders visiting northwest Montana can enjoy almost 30 miles of lift-accessed downhill and cross-country mountain bike trails on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort. The trails provide gorgeous views of Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley, and plenty of leaf-peeping opportunities. After a day of riding, those visiting at the right time can grab a cold beverage at the Great Northwest Oktoberfest, which runs Sept. 23-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
Head south and you come across the Bitterroot Valley, where roads and highways offer fabulous road biking along pastoral Rocky Mountain scenes. The valley’s paved roads allow you to roll easily for miles and miles.
Get spooked in ghost towns
Travelers seeking spine-chilling thrills this fall should experience one of these spooky haunts, starting with the Bannack Ghost Walks. These live reenactments highlight significant events throughout the history of Bannack, an old mining town once bustling with life—now the afterlife. Those willing can meet the ghosts of Henry Plummer, Joe Pizanthia, Cyrus Skinner, Doctor Glick, Mattie Silks and many more rogues from Bannack’s colorful past.
From Bannack, outdoor enthusiasts interested in learning about Montana’s mining past can head north to Garnet. There’s a self-guided tour of the 30 buildings in this historic mining town, including the J.R. Wells Hotel, F.A. Davey’s Store and two old western saloons. It will give you a glimpse of what life was like during the gold mining boom of the 1800s. You can also hike the surrounding trails ranging from 1-3 miles.
For something a little more frightening, the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge won’t disappoint. Just a short drive from Garnet, visitors can take a guided or self-guided tour through the intimidating Cell House and into the chilling slide bar cells and black box of maximum Security. If that doesn’t sound creepy enough for you, there’s a Ghost Tour from 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 9. There you will experience the hot spots where reports have been made about paranormal activity.
Take a taste of Montana
Travelers in Eastern Montana who are returning to town from a hike or bike ride on the Rimrock Trail should be sure to check out the new Midway Grille & Brews in Billings. Carb load on the rigatoni Bolognese or opt for the lighter fish special of the day — you can’t go wrong. Those visiting can stop in on Sept. 17 for a special Beer Dinner with By All Means Brewing.
A trip to western Montana wouldn’t be complete without celebrating the fall harvest at the McIntosh Apple Day and Liquid Apple Night in Hamilton on Oct. 2. By day, this street festival features live music, vendors, children’s activities and hundreds of apple products, from scratch-made apple pies to apple butter. Later that night, the festival features hard cider companies from all over the Rocky Mountains northwest, along with local food vendors and live music.
Those visiting one week later can savor the local flavors of Montana at Friends of James Beard Weekend at The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough on Oct. 8-10. Not only will you get to hear stories from the kitchens of James Beard Award-winning chefs, but you can indulge in incredible cuisine and wine pairings all weekend. Visitors also can discover the natural beauty and outdoor adventures that put Paws Up on the global travel map, including floating down the Blackfoot River, dipping a paddle into waters once tested by Meriwether Lewis and exploring the wilderness on horseback.
Travelers to Montana this fall should be aware of any local restrictions or mask policies. For travel alerts, go to visitmt.com/travel-alerts.html.
Source: Montana Office of Tourism and Development