Fall Drives In Montana

 

What do you like to do on a crisp fall day when the leaves are turning color and your sweaters come out of hiding? Hiking and other outdoor activities are plentiful in Montana—but if you want a nice drive to drink in the scenery, we have plenty of options for you.

 

Mountains and Field in Glacier
Montana, USA. Glacier National Park, landscape, autumn

Northwest Montana has an early fall foliage season: it begins in late September and runs through early to mid-October. Peak color varies depending on weather conditions, elevation, and other factors.

Though we enjoy a wide variety of trees and colors in the Northern Rockies, the aspens and tamaracks are the showstoppers.

Aspens begin to turn early, and range from bright yellow, to orange, to red, to copper. You will find stands of aspen ablaze with color as early as mid-September in some areas.

A surprise to most visitors, the tamarack (also known as larch) is our unique fall-color treat. A conifer tree, the Tamarack’s lush green needles turn a brilliant golden-yellow in late autumn. For visitors and locals alike, the startling bright bronze against bold, dark trunks is a welcome October scene along Montana highways.

Whether you’re looking for a day-long road trip or a short afternoon drive, there are ample opportunities for viewing the colors of fall all over the Flathead Valley.

Flathead Lake Tour

A trip to Northwest Montana would not be complete without a trek around Flathead Lake. A beautiful drive any time of year, the landscape around the lake becomes magnificent with fall color.

The largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, the drive around this big lake is a long one! Plan for a full day adventure to enjoy 150 miles of autumn splendor, stopping for lunch and views along the way.

Begin on the east side of the lake in the morning, heading from Bigfork down towards Polson. You will enjoy the variety of fall foliage along the lakeshore, keeping sun to your left and sparkling Flathead Lake to your right.

A stop in Polson for lunch will position you on the west side of the lake for your drive back in the afternoon, keeping the sun to your left and the lake to your right for ample photographic opportunity.

 

Swan Lake

For a colorful autumn drive enjoyed by locals, head down Hwy 83 from Bigfork towards Swan Lake. Known for its dense forests and beautiful lakes, the Swan Valley provides brilliant color and one of fall’s most pleasant drives.

After admiring the golden tamaracks against the beauty of Swan Lake, continue your scenic drive south. Stop at the recently refurbished Mission Mountains Mercantile for a deli lunch to go, and motor on towards Holland Lake. Once there, you’ll find several Forest Service roads for easy travel in and around the recreation area; enjoy a picnic lunch at the lake while you admire the fall foliage!

Be especially cautious on this drive early in the morning or at dusk: the deer here are plentiful, and notoriously careless about the highway.

 

Jewel Basin

When driving from Bigfork to Kalispell, take a little detour to see the foliage along Foothill Road. This rural community is nestled into the base of the famed Jewel Basin hiking area. A winding but well-maintained road, it is bright with color in the fall.

From Bigfork, head down Hwy 83 to Echo Lake Road. From there, navigate along Foothill Road as you wind through the trees, rising slightly in elevation and back down again. This simple side-trip will bring you back to Hwy 35 again to resume your drive to Kalispell.

If time is on your side, you may enjoy an extra jaunt off the paved road to explore a short way up Jewel Basin Road, or Peter’s Ridge Road. These are both rough and primitive Forest Service roads, so be prepared!

 

Downtown Kalispell

Another easy opportunity to drink in the beauty of autumn: fall foliage abounds right within the city of Kalispell. Skip the Hwy 93 bypass and when driving through town, take a moment to get off the main road!

The historic east side of downtown Kalispell is simply stunning in the fall. Lovely old homes lined with brilliant red and orange deciduous trees will transport you to a Rockwell memory.

 

Lone Pine – The View from Above

Perched high above Kalispell, yet minutes from downtown and easy to access, is Lone Pine State Park. From overlooks in this remarkable spot, you can take in all the varied colors of the area at once! On a clear day, you can see Flathead Lake, Big Mountain, Jewel Basin and Glacier National Park.

While this foliage view requires exiting your vehicle, you will find it a short and easy walk. Take the Foys Lake Exit from Hwy 93 and follow Lone Pine Road to the top. Park at the Visitor’s Center and walk across the small bridge, following a short ADA accessible trail to the overlook.

If you do fancy a bit more exercise, Lone Pine State Park has miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding throughout its 270 acres.

 

Evening light at city beach in autumn along Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, Montana, USA

Whitefish to Eureka

The charming town of Whitefish has ample scenic drives and foliage viewing, and the drive up to Whitefish Mountain Resort is beautiful any time of year. But if you’re looking for a remarkable fall road trip that the locals love—head towards Kootenai Country!

Drive North from Whitefish on Hwy 93 towards the Canadian border. You will enjoy the Kootenai National Forest on your left and Flathead National Forest to your right as you amble North through the Stillwater Lake region. Admire the bright blue Dickey and Murphy Lakes dotted with golden trees. You will pass through the tiny towns of Fortine and Olney, and will be ready for a stop in rustic little Eureka in the heart of beautiful Tobacco Valley.

From Eureka, take a side trip down Hwy 37—you don’t want to miss Lake Koocanusa during fall foliage! Enjoy the sights along the southern shore as far as you wish to drive. You may choose to turn and come back the way you came, or loop up the West side of the lake if you have time. If you are feeling truly adventurous, continue all the way to the south end of the lake, head West to Libby, and return to the Flathead Valley via scenic Hwy 2—a stunning leaf-peeping trip of its own.

 

Stormy clouds in autumn tamarack forest above Hungry Horse Reservoir in the Flathead National Forest, Montana, USA

Hungry Horse Reservoir

Tourists intent on seeing Glacier National Park often miss this jewel, driving right by the diminutive turn to Hungry Horse Reservoir and Dam.

The trek around the entire reservoir is not for the faint of heart: the 112-mile round trip is primitive gravel road with no services, few people, and rarely a cellphone signal.  Don’t let this deter you from venturing at least a few miles up the west side of this massive body of water, however, to see the glorious colors of fall.

Hungry Horse Dam itself is a fascinating landmark, and the South Fork of the Flathead River is sparkling clear on a crisp fall day. This drive has all the yellow tamarack, golden aspens, and other brilliant colors of the famed Glacier Park, with far less people and traffic.

Heading East on Hwy 2 from Columbia Falls toward Glacier, watch for signs from within the town of Hungry Horse. Turn right on Forest Service Road 895 and follow the signs to the Visitor Center. You will then drive right across the dam and continue up the road as far as your wanderlust takes you.

Stop for an espresso and goodies from any of the terrific shops in Hungry Horse before you go—you will find it a welcome treat as you savor the views at one of the overlooks on your scenic drive.

 

Glacier National Park

When you live in Montana, fall is the time to visit world-famous Glacier National Park. The crowds have thinned, the air is clear, and the Glacier Park Aspens are putting on a show. Cottonwood and larch add to the amber and orange mix. At higher elevations, some of the grasslands will turn a vivid red like the Alaskan tundra.

 

The most stunning views of the fiery aspens are along the entire east side of the park.  This includes places like Two Medicine, East Glacier, Looking Glass, the St. Mary Area, the east side of the Going To The Sun Road, Many Glacier and the Chief Mountain Scenic Highway.

Weather and conditions change rapidly in the fall, and some roads and trails close early due to snow. Grab a map, plan in advance, check current conditions, and remain flexible!

 

Whether you are here in beautiful Northwest Montana for a visit, or recently moved to the area, you are sure to enjoy our most spectacular season as much as we do.  Fall in love with some of the gorgeous places on your fall foliage drive? Check out our local listings and you can visit them with us, year after year!