In Fall, We Get Montana’s Jewels to Ourselves

By Rob Chaney

They call Chicago the “City of the Big Shoulders,” but Montana has the Big Shoulder Season.

Hordes of tourists jam Big Sky Country during the peak months of July and August, overfilling campgrounds and turning scenic drives into asphalt slogs.

Few realize that September and October offer Montana’s prime time. The bugs disappear, but the warm weather remains. Rivers cool off and fishing resumes.

Wildflowers go to seed, but the rest of the meadows and stream banks erupt in fall color.

The Clark Fork River on a beautiful Fall day

The Clark Fork River on a beautiful Fall day

Glacier National Park: While the centerpiece of the Crown of the Continent stays open year-round, many consider fall the best time to visit this public treasure. While the historic hotels and lodges inside Glacier Park close for the year in late September, many communities just outside the border remain available for fall visitors. These include West Glacier, Essex, Polebridge, East Glacier, Browning and St. Mary. And don’t forget Glacier’s International Peace Park partner to the north, Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park (remember to pack your passport).

In the past few years, summer visitation to Glacier has numbered between 600,000 and 700,000 people a month in July and August. September remains busy, with about 350,000 people coming through the gates. But October visits tumble to around 70,000, followed by an average of 17,000 in November.

Granted, high-mountain weather can be fickle to fierce in late fall. But those who come prepared for
wet and cold get treated to peaks freshly dusted with snow, rejuvenated streams and waterfalls boosted by fall rains, and prolific mushroom assemblages burst out of the duff. Fall wildlife sightings may increase compared to summer, as mountain goats sport their clean winter white coats and bighorn sheep gather in mating herds. Fall is also the time when grizzly and black bears kick their foraging into high gear in preparation for winter hibernation – so be extra alert.

Fall in Glacier National Park

Fall in Glacier National Park

Fall migration: Waterfowl refuges like Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area and Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge become waystations for thousands of geese, ducks and swans heading south for the winter. The flights peak in mid-fall, with tundra swans moving through in late October followed by snow geese in early November. Mallards and northern pintail ducks also show up in large flocks in the ponds between Choteau and Fairfield.

Sharp-eyed sky-watchers may notice migrating bald and golden eagles following the same continental air currents along the Rocky Mountain Front, especially around Roger’s Pass, Flesher Pass and McDonald Pass between Lincoln and Helena.

At Ninepipes, western, red-necked and pied-billed grebes show off their young broods in advance of
southern migrations. Rough-legged hawks move into the valley between St. Ignatius and Ronan, as do
occasional parliaments of snowy owls. Unlike many public waterfowl refuges, Ninepipe National Wildlife
Refuge is closed to bird hunting in fall.

Fall colors: From the thickets of huckleberry and alder to the ridgelines of western larch, slashes of
red and gold highlight Montana’s mountainsides in fall. Larch trees, also known as tamaracks, look
like conifers but lose their needles like deciduous trees in golden fall showers. The Seeley-Swan Valley northeast of Missoula holds large groves of larch, including some of the state’s largest in the Jim Girard Memorial Grove just north of Seeley Lake township.

A visit to the Seeley Lake Ranger Station will provide up-to-date suggestions of best forest roads to cruise for leaf-peepers.

River valleys such as the Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Flathead also turn awash with color as their
cottonwood and willow groves prepare for fall. Follow the lower Flathead River through steep rock
canyons between Dixon and Paradise on Highway 200 west of Missoula, or trace the Blackfoot River
on the same highway heading east from Bonner to Lincoln. Highway 93 parallels the Bitterroot River
from Missoula south past Florence, Stevensville, Victor, Hamilton and Darby.

Rob Chaney writes for the Missoulian at rob.chaney@missoulian.com

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