Montana — the very word struck adventure and excitement in my veins when I first heard it at age fifteen.
My dad had just gotten a new job in the land of Big Sky Country, and we were moving to a state where maybe cowboys still did ride to school on horses. A place where homesteaders had staked land, miners fought in dank tunnels, and to a city that once produced more than a quarter of the world’s copper.
It was enough to make my romantic heart sing.
At the very least, Montana gripped the lingering spirit of the Wild West in its jutting mountains, huge sky stretching overhead, and space to roam miles without encountering another soul.
The time to visit Big Sky Country is in the fall. Let me tell you why: summer is fleeting in Montana. Blink once, and you’ll miss it. As a result, the tourists cram into this gigantic state for a few quick weeks.
While your chances of flurries increase with every passing day, September and October are your best times to visit Montana. Fall means fewer tourists, children are in school, more locals on the road, and the space to enjoy that enormous sky all to yourself.
Be prepared to drive and savor the feeling of road trips while exploring Montana. Clocking in at about 560 miles east to west, Montana is USA’s 4th largest state.
Part of the state’s allure lies in her sweeping interstates and the blissful feeling of driving alone for long stretches at a time.
Where to Fly
Missoula, Billings, or Bozeman are Montana’s biggest airports.
Lewis and Clark Caverns
Some of the largest limestone caverns in the Northwest, these caves are about 30 minutes west of Bozeman on I-90. Explore the otherworldly stalagmites and stalactites, marveling at the crazy beauty that lies right beneath a very unassuming crust above. The cavern entrance takes a little hike to reach, but once you hit the cool underground air, you’ll be grateful for your jacket.
Park is open May 1 through September 30, and for special, spooky candlelight holiday tours in December.
Yellowstone National Park
Technically, Montana can lay claim to only a little sliver of Yellowstone — the rest belongs to Wyoming. But since Yellowstone’s West Entrance is one of the park’s main entrances and Bozeman’s airport is less than 2 hours away, we’ll let it slide.
Home to the largest concentration of geysers, this park is guaranteed to blow your socks off. Bonus: famous Old Faithful Geyser is closest to the park’s West entrance.
This is definitely a must-see.
Copper King Mansion
Don’t miss Senator William Clark’s stunning mansion in Butte’s former bustling metropolis. This mansion was built in 1888 when Clark was Montana’s senator and Butte’s copper mine was booming. If you missed the news a few years back, Huguette Clark (his daughter) recently died, leaving his $300 million fortune and multiple various houses around the country — not including his spectacularly opulent Gilded Age mansion which was demolished upon his death — still unresolved in probate court.
Bonus: the mansion also operates as a B&B and is rumored to be haunted. While touring it, I felt some strange, unsettling vibes in certain rooms.
Glacier National Park
This park’s highlight is the 50 mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road connecting St. Mary to West Glacier via the 7,747 foot high Logan Pass. This drive was rated one of the most beautiful mountain roads in North America. It overlooks the Triple Divide (watershed of three drainage systems to the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and North Atlantic) and gives you a stunning view of St. Mary Lake (one of the most photographed in the park).
Visit during the fall to avoid the massive summer crowds and enjoy this gorgeous national park with space to roam.
Go dig up unique quartz crystals in Montana’s Pioneer Mountains like my husband did as a boy. This unbeatable destination (where else can you mine for crystals?) is located outside Dillon (about 2 hours west of Bozeman). The park is open May 15 through September 30.
Cross your fingers to find a pocket of quartz crystals. And there’s a campground so you can really dig in (pardon the pun) for a few days if you’d like.
Little Bighorn Battlefield
Site of the 1876 battle between the US Army and Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Also, where the infamous General Custer died, along with his two younger brothers. Located off I-90 about 60 minutes east of Billings, this is one of the best-known historical landmarks in the US — and a battle peppered with controversy.
Montana has unpredictable fall weather. One day it can be sunny and 75F. The next it could be snowing. I’ve heard tales of surprise snow storms in July when BBQs and lemonade drinking should be happening.
That being said, I’ve seen snow as early as September and as late as May.
So, pack with the possibility of snow in mind and bring layers for the chilly mountain nights.
Here’s what I typically bring to Montana in the fall:
- Zip-up fleece
- Light weatherproof hard-shell jacket (like FlyLow Gear’s Vixen)
- Two short sleeve shirts
- Three long sleeve shirts
- Two tank tops for layering
- Two pairs of jeans (no need for shorts here unless you love goosebumps)
- Sturdy, weatherproof shoes for impromptu hikes
- Warm ear-covering hat (like this one from North Face)
- Sunscreen: at higher altitudes, you can burn more easily
- Warm wool socks for cool nights
- Cotton cardigan from Target
Montana is the west’s last unexplored frontier. Grab a chance to explore it in the fall when the tourist flow dies down and you have the space to enjoy its majesty and mountains.
Be prepared for some solid road trips while traveling between the must-see destinations for Montana is a big state. And, when you pack, be ready for an early winter snow that could happen in September or October.
Photos: American State Parks; National Geographic; Wikipedia; Historict Amarack Lodge; Southwest MT; ScenicUSA, David Sorich, Flickr