Southwest Montana’s Amazing Autumn Adventures!
Surrounded by national forests and state parks, Southwest Montana is home to some breathtaking views. With Yellowstone National Park bordering it on to the south and Bitterroot National Forest stretching across to the west before giving way to Flathead National Forest in the North, its an outdoor enthusiasts dream. Southwest Montana is beautiful at all times of the year, from the snow-capped peaks of Winter to the lush green hills of Summer. However, one of the most beautiful times of the year is upon us, but don’t worry you won’t have to journey to the East Coast to get a glimpse of some vibrant fall foliage. Explore some of Southwest Montana’s most amazing fall foliage drives while also getting a chance to experience some traditional fall fun!
Lone Mountain Loop
Big Sky, Montana is a stunning city nestled in the mountains of Gallatin County. Anyone would enjoy spending time surrounded by the mighty mountain peaks and deep river valleys. The area surrounding Big Sky is said to have some of the best fall foliage in the state of Montana and is the ideal starting place for the Lone Mountain Loop. Kick off your Autumn road trip with a zip line tour over Lone Mountain, getting the chance to see the beautiful scenery from a new perspective! Or maybe you would prefer to test your courage on the Big Sky High Ropes course or challenge your friends to a game of paintball under the vibrant colors of Big Sky. From Big Sky, the Lone Mountain Loop follows US 191 through the northern corner of West Yellowstone. Vibrant fall colors line the way as you drive through America’s first national park.
Photo courtesy of Thousand Wonders
After getting your (temporary) fill of Yellowstone’s gorgeous sites, the Lone Mountain Loop leaves US 191 for US 287. US 287 runs alongside several lakes near the Beaverhead - Deer Lodge National Forest. Stop and admire one of Southwest Montana’s best fishing lakes, Hebgen Lake, or visit the lake that was formed after an earthquake shook the earth. Quake Lake (formally known as Earthquake Lake) and Hebgen Lake are located along US 287 and offer spectacular views on your drive. Before you get to Ennis you should take the turn off at Mile Marker 10 and check out the Hidden Lakes of the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest. Cliff and Wade Lakes are breathtaking lakes that are crystal clear and surrounded by amazing fall foliage, pine trees dominate the sky while the ground is set ablaze with fall colors. Rent paddle boards or canoes and explore the far shores of the lake or enjoy some soothing fishing while watching the osprey hunt.
Photo courtesy of John Batdorff
Hop back onto Route 287 and make your way to Ennis in time for the annual Ennis Hunter’s Feed! Participate in a truly Montanan fall experience at this cooking competition featuring wild game! To kick off the hunting season the small town of Ennis, Montana hosts a citywide cookoff featuring the wild game meat preserved from last years successful hunt! Continue to follow 287 along the Madison River up to Norris and take US 84 to the local favorite, the Norris Outdoor Hot Springs. Continue the gorgeous drive along the Madison River on the Madison River Road as it snakes its way up to I-90. Once you’re back on the interstate you can get to Belgrade, Bozeman or back to Big Sky. But don’t forget to stop in the small town of Manhattan for some fun fall activities such as a haunted corn maze, hay rides, and pumpkin picking!
Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive
Photo courtesy National Parks Traveler
Are you looking for a beautiful drive that won’t take you days to complete? Are you interested in spending some time in America’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park? Or maybe you just had the time of your life exploring the beautiful national park and are looking for your next adventure? No matter what your reason the Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive is one that’s worth your time! The Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive is a three hour trip along S. Valley Rd and stretches from West Yellowstone to the tiny town of Monida. Monida is a small community located at the top of Monida Pass and right on the Continental Divide as well as the state line.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Lee
Monida is a fantastic fall destination if you love the spooky aspects of the season. Why? Maybe it has something to do with it being off of Exit 0, an exit number few have ever encountered. Maybe it’s because there are only seven permanent residents despite the many old buildings that litter the streets. I mean, that makes Monida only seven residents away from being a genuine ghost town. But why visit an almost-ghost-town when Montana is known for places like Virginia City, Bannack, and Garnet? Unlike the ghost towns that offer tours and reenactments, Monida has been left to preserve itself. Buildings built in the 1950’s stand tall and proud because they withstood the tests of time despite the fading paints. Treasures from the past litter the shelves of stores and the alleyways. Tour a ghost town with people dressed as the ghosts, or visit the almost-ghost-town and listen to the wind carry the ghost’s whispers.
Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway
Photo courtesy of Only In Your State
One of the best ways to celebrate Fall is by taking a hike through the breathtaking fall foliage! And what better place to do that then through the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest in Southwest Montana? Take one of Montana’s most beautiful scenic drives along the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway. This stunning road connects the small town of Polaris, Montana to the beautiful town of Wise River. The two towns are surrounded by the arresting Pioneer Mountain Range, multiple headwaters and bountiful lakes. The Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway weaves through the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest where you can find hiking trail after hiking trail, campsite after campsite, and fishing access after fishing access.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Handlin
The Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway Loop connects Wise River to the beautiful town of Wisdom along US 43. After exploring the exciting sites of Wisdom follow US 278 down to Polaris. The adorable small town of Polaris is located just eighteen miles north of the ghost town, Bannack. Celebrate the spookier part of fall by touring Montana’s old capital and is now one of the most popular ghost towns in the state. After getting your fill of thrills, follow the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway back up to Polaris and to the Elkhorn Hot Springs waiting just seven miles past it in the national forest. The beautiful Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway Loop is just three and a half hours but is full of beautiful fall foliage that will still your breath.
Bitterroot Valley Scenic Loop
Photo courtesy of Visit Montana
Beginning in the beautiful town of Hamilton, Montana the Bitterroot Valley Scenic Loop is considered one of the most beautiful drives in Southwest Montana. The Bitterroot Valley Scenic Loop begins by heading south along US 93 towards Sula, Montana. Route 93 weaves through the Bitterroot Valley and offers some of the most beautiful fall foliage in all of Montana. As you journey you may want to stop by the beautiful Medicine Creek Hot Springs, maybe even stay the night at the beautiful Warm Springs Campground while you're there! The Bitterroot Valley is surrounded by the mighty Bitterroot Mountains on one side and the alluring Sapphire Mountains on the other. Running alongside US 93 is the Bitterroot River, offering plenty of fall colors. Continue the journey along the Bitterroot River by turning off onto US 472 and follow it deeper into the Bitterroot National Forest. After you pass several mountain peaks you can follow Guide Creek Rd even further into the forest. Let the Guide Creek guide you on your journey as you make your way through a series of twists and turns before coming to Rye Creek Road. At Rye Creek, you can cut your loop short by turning left and following it back to US 93 or meander through the woods a little longer by turning right and following Rye Creek as it turns into Skalkaho Rye Road. The Skalkaho Rye Road will lead you through more of Montana’s vibrant Autumn colors before depositing you at the Skalkaho Highway. Turning left will bring you right back to Hamilton while turning right will bring you to the small town of Anaconda after more scenic driving.
Photo Courtesy of Visit Bitterroot Valley
Starting in Missoula or want to head that way? The Bitterroot Valley extends for eighty miles all the way from Missoula down to Sula. US 93 is a beautiful scenic drive with several small towns full of fun. Stevensville is home to the Mountain Butterfly Hot Air Balloons, an invigorating way to admire the fall colors like never before. A little farther south is the town of Corvallis, home to the Mountain View Orchards. Mountain View Orchards is a delicious source of fresh-picked apples and home-brewed cider. Farther north is Lolo and the Lolo Hot Springs, or visit in the charming town of Darby in the south. Wherever your heart and feet take you, the Bitterroot Valley Scenic Loop has something for everyone!
Hyalite Canyon Road
Photo Courtesy of Friends of Hyalite
Located just south of our very own Bozeman, Hyalite Canyon Road is beloved by locals and visitors alike. Hyalite Road is located just south of Bozeman and can be easily reached by following South 19th Ave. Hyalite Canyon Road follows the Hyalite Creek all the way back to its source, the Hyalite Reservoir. With hundreds of miles of hiking trails and several campgrounds, Hyalite Canyon has something for everyone. Fish in the No-Wake reservoir or along the many rivers and streams. Take a backpacking trip to admire the fall colors or hike up to the many waterfalls that can be found in the area. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, take a biking trip along one of the old logging roads that connect Hyalite Canyon to Sourdough Canyon on the other side of some mountains. Hyalite Canyon and Sourdough are both nestled in the Gallatin Mountain Range and are some of Bozeman’s most adored treasures.
Photo courtesy of Bozeman Real Estate Group
Southwest Montana Fall Foliage Loop!
If you’re having a hard time choosing just one of these gorgeous roads to follow, why not do them all? For the ultimate Southwestern Montana Autumn road trip simply pick any of the above scenic drives and follow them along the connecting roads. Start in Big Sky and follow the Lone Mountain Loop down to Cliff and Wade Lakes, but instead of turning north head south and follow the Centennial Valley Backcountry Road to Monida. From there follow I-15 up to US 278 and head for Polaris and the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway. Once you follow the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway to Wisdom hop onto MT 43 over to US 93 and follow the Bitterroot Valley up to Hamilton. From there you can take the Skalkaho Highway to Anaconda and back to I-90, where you have all of Montana at your fingertips! See all of the beautiful fall colors that Southwest Montana has to offer this autumn!
Photo courtesy of Angela Jamison
By: Issa Rabideaux
Maps are courtesy of Google Maps