One of the most frequently asked questions by tour operators and travel agents is, “When is the best time for my clients to visit Western Montana’s Glacier Country?” Without hesitation, I always answer, “The fall.”
While every season in Montana is notable and offers its own distinct offerings, there’s something special about fall in Glacier Country, especially when it comes to creating a memorable visit for your clients. To help plan the perfect fall itinerary, here are my top three reasons to visit Western Montana in autumn.
Glacier National Park
As Montana’s top attraction, Glacier National Park offers stunning scenery year-round, with fall colors adding an additional “wow” factor.
More benefits to a fall visit: Our national park is less crowded than the peak summer months of July and August, and the average temperatures are comfortable with daytime highs in the low 70s F (21 C). Plus, many of the activities available during the summer months are still offered in the fall, including interpretive tours with Sun Tours and the iconic red bus tours provided by Glacier National Park Lodges. Both companies take visitors over the Going-to-the-Sun Road until mid-October, weather permitting. Travelers can enjoy a leisurely cruise on one of the parks historic wooden boats with Glacier Park Boat Company through mid-September.
Remember Glacier National Park is open year-round (even after the closing of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in October) and welcomes visitors to explore the flora and fauna and see local wildlife, like elk, moose, mountain goat and bighorn sheep as well as black and grizzly bears.
Check out additional suggestions for fall activities in Glacier National Park and Western Montana here.
Spectacular Fall Colors
With wide open spaces, minimal traffic and well-maintained highways in Montana, taking a fall drive is a must. If your tour is part of a larger regional itinerary and you have the chance to get off the main interstates and take the road less traveled along our scenic highways, do it. Just pick one of the scenic byways or scenic travel corridors and sit back and enjoy the views.
A couple of my favorites and not to be missed include, the Bitterroot Valley framed by the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Sapphire Mountains to the east, with beautiful fall foliage in every direction. As you cruise along Highway 93, stop in and visit the charming Montana towns of Darby, Hamilton, Victor and Stevensville. Stroll through their idyllic main streets and experience western hospitality as you browse through boutique stores and art galleries. Afterwards, please your palate with a stop at one of the local restaurants or breweries.
The northwest corner of Montana is a bit off the beaten path, but with its expanse of old-growth forests and wilderness it’s a showstopper when it comes to fall foliage. The spectacular hues of the western larch—also known as the tamarack—are stunning. Take State Highway 37 along Lake Koocanusa with a stop at the Libby Dam Visitor Center and experience the power and beauty of the Kootenai River. Another spectacular drive is State Highway 2 between Libby and Troy. Be sure to stop to see Kootenai Falls and the swinging bridge. Also of note: This is where the movie The River Wild was filmed with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon.
Meet up with the locals in Libby, Troy and Yaak for a taste of small-town Montana. Don’t forget these additional scenic fall drives on these travel corridors that might be incorporated into your Western Montana itinerary.
Notable Fall Events
Events are often the best way for group tours and international visitors to get to know the flavor of the place they are visiting. There is no shortage of fall events to choose from in Western Montana. A few to note: Montana Dragon Boat Festival, Great Northwest Oktoberfest, McIntosh Apple Day and Liquid Apple Night and In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean Festival.
Held in Bigfork on the shores of Flathead Lake, the Montana Dragon Boat Festival takes place every September and welcomes teams from around the world. In addition to teams racing on the water, this event is fun for spectators and includes live music and vendors selling unique Montana-made products.
Great Northwest Oktoberfest runs over two weekends in Whitefish—the last weekend in September and first weekend in October. This festival is all about fun and includes traditional food, music and quirky competitions like keg hurling, log sawing and stein holding.
McIntosh Apple Day and Liquid Apple Night take place in Hamilton in October. This festival is all about apples, with highlights including live entertainment and a giant bake sale featuring homemade apple pies, caramel apples and apple butter.
Last but not least is the In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean Festival, a literary festival held in Seeley Lake and Missoula Montana, celebrating the work of outstanding western authors, including the works of Norman Maclean and his notable writing of A River Runs Through It.