Under the Big Sky in Autumn
As every local knows, crisp days and cool nights make fall the best time to explore Montana
Fall is prime time in Montana. The tourists thin, the fish bite, and the landscape softens into golden hues. Those are all good reasons to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but that's just the start. The country's fourth-largest state is also home to 55 state parks, 18 national wildlife refuges, 10 national forests, and at least one homegrown brewery or distillery in every major town. No matter where you land under this state’s big sky, there's plenty of options—whether you're staying a weekend or a month. Here are six ways to maximize your stay.
Southeastern Montana: Bighorn History and Hiking
Ninety miles south of Billings, the 120,000-acre Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is best known for its world-class trout fishing in the Bighorn River. But this striking region—with canyon walls that rise to 1,000 feet—also has 15 hiking trails, four historic ranches that illuminate the history of the American West, and a human history that dates back 12,000 years. Visit the recreation area by day then hunker down in Billings at the Northern Hotel, a beautifully restored downtown hotel within walking distance of six breweries and the Western Heritage Center, a museum featuring artifacts from the Yellowstone River Valley housed in a former library built in 1901.
Missouri River Country: American Safari
Sitting on the north shore of the 382-square-mile Fort Peck Lake and the edge of the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the town of Fort Peck is named after a colonel who built a trading post here in 1867. Today, it's a haven for wildlife-lovers of nearly every stripe. Fish for walleye, smallmouth bass, or northern pike on the lake, or drive the dirt roads of the refuge on an American safari in search of bighorn sheep, coyote, Swainson’s hawk, and dozens of other critters. Stay at the Fort Peck Hotel, a sprawling historic lodge built in the 1930s with rocking chairs on the front porch, and venture down the street for a show at the equally-historic Fort Peck Theater.
Yellowstone Country: Ultimate Fly-Fishing Road Trip
One of the most stunning drives in the United States is the 68-mile stretch of twisty S-curves on U.S. Route 212 from Red Lodge over 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. In addition to views of high-alpine lakes and snow-covered peaks in every direction, the road provides access to some of the best trout streams in Montana, including the Gallatin, Yellowstone, and Madison rivers. Stop in at Trout River Fly Shop in Cooke City to buy a license and flies. Near Red Lodge, stay at the Blue Sky Cabins, a cluster of five luxurious hideaways on a serene 44 acres with easy access to a trail that leads to 12,799-foot Granite Peak, Montana’s highest mountain.
Southwest Montana: Helena Bike and Brew
Helena, the state’s capital, also has one of its most easily accessible hiking and mountain-biking trail systems that radiates from the south and western edges of the city. The crown jewel in this 75-mile network is Mount Helena Ridge, a flowy, 14-mile trail overlooking the city and sprawling foothills, accessible via a steep, short 900-plus-foot climb that starts less than a mile from downtown. Downhillers can get a gravity assist via a free shuttle that drops cyclists or hikers off near the top and, after a short climb, is a 2,000-foot thrill ride or hike back down. Just a few blocks from the trailhead is Blackfoot River Brewing Company, where the IPAs are so fresh it’s nearly impossible to stop after just one. The clean, recently-updated rooms at the Helena Great Northern Hotel are within steps of the town center.
Glacier Country: Solitude and Maximizing Sunlight
Come October, visitors to Glacier National Park decrease substantially from the busy summer months. That means that there’s plenty more space on the park’s 745 maintained hiking trails to see the million-acre park’s 175 named peaks, 762 lakes, 563 streams, and more than 200 named waterfalls. Be sure to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road from east to west in order to maximize diminishing daylight hours. In Whitefish, stay at the Good Medicine Lodge, whose owners Betsy and Woody Cox were recent finalists in a nationwide contest for their Montana Morning breakfast, a corn pancake topped by a trout cake topped with a poached egg.
Central Montana: Fort Benton Basecamp
The entire town of Fort Benton is a National Historic Landmark. The hamlet of 1,400 residents on the banks of the Missouri River sits along the Lewis & Clark and Nez Perce national historic trails and was the terminus for the 642-mile-long Mullan Road, the first wagon trail to cross the Rocky Mountains from the Pacific. It’s also the gateway to the Wild & Scenic Upper Missouri River, providing easy access to the 107-mile stretch known as the White Cliffs: so-named for the 300-foot-high white vertical sandstone walls that line the river. Adventure Bound Canoe and Shuttle Company rents canoes and arranges shuttles. Stay at the beautifully rehabbed Grand Union, Montana’s oldest continually operating hotel.
The Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development markets Montana’s spectacular unspoiled nature, vibrant and charming small towns, breathtaking experiences, relaxing hospitality and competitive business climate to promote the state as a place to visit and do business. For more information, go to VISITMT.COM.