Get Out and Enjoy the Colors, Sights and Tastes of Fall

by Rob Rogers

The weather is changing and it’s a perfect time to pull on your favorite sweater and hit the road. Montana really steps into its own come fall. The entire state comes alive as it wraps itself in all its autumnal glory.

Best of all, says Jerry Kessler, a retiree and volunteer with the Billings Chamber of Commerce, most of the tourists have gone home. So hitting the road and getting out to see the best the state has to offer this fall won’t leave you fighting busy highways and big crowds of gawkers.

“Montana comes into its best in the fall,” Kessler said.

Start big

Beartooth and Chief Joseph Scenic Byway: You’re running against the clock here, but if the weather holds out, one last drive up the Beartooth Highway is worth the hassle. Driving up through Red Lodge allows you to see the fall foliage from a great vantage point. But the real fireworks come as you turn around at the top of the Beartooths and take the Chief Joseph Highway back to town.

“There’s simply not a better time of year to drive the Chief Joseph Highway,” Kessler said.

Going-to-the-Sun-Road Fall Colors, Glacier National Park, Montana.

Going-to-the-Sun-Road Fall Colors, Glacier National Park, Montana.

Glacier National Park: Unlike its famous cousin to the south, Glacier National Park is open to cars all year long. And the best fall drive through Glacier is Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile stretch of asphalt that bisects the park east to west and showcases mind-blowing colors and views that can’t be seen anywhere else in the country. Portions of the road are open all year, so you’ll be guaranteed great views whenever you get there. But to drive it start to finish, you’ve got to get there before mid-October.

Flathead Valley: Your drive to Glacier National Park likely will take you through Flathead Valley, which might be some of the prettiest country in the entire mountain west. An autumn drive along Highway 35 along the east side of Flathead Lake and then Highway 93 along the west side will shower you with an entire spectrum of fall colors.

Ruby River Valley: As starkly captivating as Glacier and the Bitterroot Mountains are to the north, the valleys and river lands in southwest Montana, warm and inviting, are arresting in their own way. A drive down State Road 287 south of Butte will take you along the Ruby River Valley Scenic Route. It’s a drive that features everything you see when you imagine Montana in the fall: golden light, shimmering rivers and leaves of every autumn hue. The road stretches through the small towns of Sheridan, Nevada City, Virginia City and ends in Ennis. Most of the mining town-era attractions in Virginia City and Nevada City are closed this time of year, which is fine. It’s the countryside that will be the main attraction on this drive.

Grandiose but on a smaller scale

Blue Creek/Chief Plenty Coups State Park: The drive from Billings down Blue Creek Road into the
Pryor Mountains can be an austere and beautiful fall drive. It ends at Chief Plenty Coups State Park,
which is saturated in fall colors this time of year. The park is a gem in Montana’s state parks system and a great place to stretch your legs and take in some great Montana history, said Karla Field, a retiree and volunteer at the Billings Chamber of Commerce. Heading back to Billings, take Pryor Road west up to Cottonwood Creek Road, which eventually links up with Duck Creek Road just west of Billings.
“It’s a beautiful, 40-mile loop,” Field said.

Pictograph Caves State Park: The caves are a nice destination, but in the fall, the real treat is the drive to the caves rather than the caves themselves. The road winds through a group of small hills dappled with scrub oaks and other deciduous trees, splashing the countryside in lovely fall tones. It’s a short drive with a high reward, Field said.

Fall on the dock at Flathead Lake in Montana.

Fall on the dock at Flathead Lake in Montana.

Pompeys Pillar National Monument: Like the Pictograph Caves, the autumn splendor surrounding Pompeys Pillar is more captivating than the monument itself this time of year. While the visitor center closes at the end of September, the grounds are open year round with paved walkways and interpretive signs. It’s definitely worth the walk about. The Yellowstone River marks the north edge of the grounds, and all around the rock structure where explorer William Clark etched his name are cottonwoods groves and other vegetation. It’s as picturesque a location during the fall as you’re likely to find in eastern Montana.

The Rims: It’s pretty simple. There are seven miles of paved trail that follows the Rims above Billings from Boot Hill stretching west. Walking the path this time of year offers a panoramic vista of the city below and its tens of thousands of trees.

“We have so many trees in Billings, it’s fun to see them all change,” Field said.

There is no better view of the changing trees in town than from a walk along the Rims. And on a brisk fall day, an afternoon on the trail watching the leaves change across town is as satisfying as anything you can do this season.

The leaves are beautiful, but…

Hot springs a plenty: One of the best things about Montana is the geothermal stretch across the bottom half of the state. Chico Hot Springs south of Livingston is one of the state’s more famous hot springs and the perfect place to soak tired bones when the fall chill in the air becomes a bit too nippy.
Fairmont Hot Springs just east of Anaconda offers a more resort-style experience than Chico, which
has its own rustic charm. Fairmont includes two Olympic size pools, two mineral soaking pools and
a spa. Norris Hot Springs south of Bozeman is best-known for its famous wooden pool and surrounding
wetlands. It’s a fun stop in this little wooded corner of the Madison River Valley.

Rocky Creek Farm: Open through Halloween, Rocky Creek Farm in Bozeman is famous for its apple cider and all through the fall visitors can come and press their own cider at the farmhouse. In fact, you can even bring your own apples. The farm also has extensive apple orchards and provides enough apples for you to press as much cider as you want. It’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon in the fall.

Rob Rogers is a freelance writer. He can be reached at u2disco@gmail.com

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