A guide to enjoying Northwest Montana’s stunning fall transformation

Story and photography by Kay Bjork
Unlike so many things that slowly decline and fade as they near the finish line, nature throws one last colorful party at summer’s end before slipping into winter slumber. Fiery reds, neon oranges, and sunny yellows are set against velvety evergreens, which eventually rule the forest once the deciduous trees shed their leaves and stand like naked skeletons waiting for their winter cloaks.

The autumn landscape appears to be the result of nature’s audacious imagination, with its bold, colorful fall palette, but the brushstrokes in her artwork are just science, the biochemical process of leaf pigment responding to waning sunlight as days shorten. Weather also plays an important role, especially in a year like this one that saw early spring, record-breaking heat and low levels of rainfall. There were already hints of fall popping up in August in tinder-dry forests and bleached-out fields.

Finding fall colors can be a treasure hunt with the different terrains and elevations of mountain country affecting how and when autumn arrives. The fireworks of fall foliage along with more temperate weather – and less traffic, people and insects – make it a fine time to get out and explore the area. Take a road trip combined with a casual stroll through yellow aspen or a vigorous hike into torches of subalpine larch rising above slopes of red huckleberry shrubs and fireweed.

Mountain ash frame a view to Hungry Horse Reservoir on a stormy October day

Mountain ash frame a view to Hungry Horse Reservoir on a stormy October day

Places of Color

Glacier National Park

Fall is an extended season in Northwest Montana, where you can discover different stages of autumn beginning in August and well into October. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a perfect way to experience this phenomenon, with the road starting at 3,153-feet elevation at Lake McDonald and rising to 6,600 at Logan Pass. This spectacular road winds through yellow aspen, above green slopes brindled with golden larch, to meadows warmed with blond grasses and crimson groundcover. It’s also a great time to get out on the trails as tourist season winds down but before the closure of the highway from the west side, which is predicted to be sometime in the third week of October.

Up the North Fork you will find cottonwood, larch and the bright colors of plants that thrive after fire in some of the old burns. Western larch present a great show on the slopes that hug Bowman Lake. Get a clear view by hiking to Numa Lookout.

Visit the other side of the park along U.S. Highway 2 where you can take a hike along Firebrand Trail through aspen trees topped with yellow tresses. Continue on up through slopes carpeted with ruby-colored huckleberry bushes set against sprays of green bear grass. The drive through East Glacier is rimmed with golden aspen with a backdrop of mountains dusted in snow as temperatures drop in the high country.

Hungry Horse Reservoir

This 34 mile-long reservoir is wrapped by 115 miles of a seasonal and mostly gravel road. You can get outstanding views of the reservoir and surrounding mountains along the drive and by taking a hike up one of the trails reached by spur roads off the main road. The first 15 miles are paved, making this wild and wooly backcountry more accessible.

The trail to Firebrand Pass in the east side of Glacier is ablaze with red huckeberry bushes

The trail to Firebrand Pass in the east side of Glacier is ablaze with red huckeberry bushes

Jewel Basin

Jewel Basin’s summer majesty is rivaled by its stunning autumn display. You might think that the blaze of fireweed scattered along the road from the parking lot is named for its fall color, but it actually earns its moniker as one the first plants to appear after fire. Take a hike to Birch Lake trail for a particularly spectacular view of mountain slopes and creek bottoms washed in shades of orange, red, and yellow and studded with glistening emerald lakes and pastel-colored rocks. Continue on to In-Thlam-Keh and Crater lakes where the trail passes by slabs of rock and offers expansive views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Swan Nature Trail

Bigfork’s nature trail takes off from town or the bridge on Highway 209, an old road bordering Swan River that has been handed over to nature – and the locals. The trail is horse, bicycle and walker friendly and continues for two miles from Bigfork to where it intersects Swan River Road at the bridge, where you can enjoy fall’s colorful show and the sights and sounds of the river.

Flathead Lake North Shore

Walking from one of several Northwest Montana Waterfowl Production Area accesses located along Highway 82 leads you to the north shore of Flathead Lake, where brightly hued willow and native grasses accent the rocky shoreline. Expect to share the shore with bird hunters in this popular waterfowl hunting area. Watch for WPA signs at the access roads along Highway 82.

Seeley-Swan Scenic Highway

The timbered corridor of the Swan Valley is strewn with golden larches and lakes, with Swan, Summit, Alva, Inez, Seeley, and Salmon all just a stone’s throw from Highway 83. Take a drive down the Swan on Oct. 10-11 when the larches are usually peaking and to catch the Tamarack Festival and Brewfest in Seeley Lake featuring artisan booths, food vendors and a brewfest.

Bigfork also celebrates the changing of the larch trees with the Tamarack Festival on Oct. 10. The downtown festival starts at 1 p.m. with a cooking contest and tasting, Birds of Prey display, and entertainment, followed by a customer-appreciation celebration with free brats and beer at the Garden Bar.