Come autumn, Montana’s forests come alive as unassuming groves of aspens, cottonwoods and willows trade in their summertime green attire for brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red. The contrast of these colors against the dark evergreen canopy that dominates our local hillsides makes for an electrifying visual that you’ll have to come see to believe. On top of having some of the best vistas for foliage viewing, the Bozeman, Big Sky and Yellowstone areas also boast some of the best access to these wild lands that will give you a front-row seat to the show. You can’t go wrong at any of our area’s numerous trails, but here are a few to get you started:
South Cottonwood Creek
The South Cottonwood Creek trail is located just a stone’s throw from downtown Bozeman, in the aptly named Cottonwood Canyon. This stretch of single track meanders through a thick, deciduous forest as it follows Cottonwood Creek to its origins in the foothills of the Gallatin Range. Its pitch is moderate, and the foliage is incredible on this family-friendly hike. In its entirety, the South Cottonwood Creek Trail is 12 miles out-and-back, and more adventurous leaf peepers can link it up with several other drainages that connect to the Hyalite Canyon area for a multi-day foliage-filled extravaganza.
This popular summertime hike is conveniently located halfway between Bozeman and Big Sky. The trail’s substantial elevation gain provides views of many different stages of foliage: From the trees that have just started to turn near the river (yellow), to others that are almost finished (orange, red) closer to the summit. Other than a breathtaking alpine vista, hikers who reach the summit are rewarded with a birds-eye-view of a network of golden foliage paths that weave through an otherwise dark, cool landscape.
Travel just two miles south of Big Sky on Highway 191, and you can’t miss the Porcupine Creek Trailhead. This unassuming gem of a trail follows a babbling brook as the landscape changes from riparian meadows, to high foothills, to subalpine old growth forest. These three ecosystems contain multiple species of flora that don’t hold back when it comes to showing off their fall outfits, making it a prime zone for leaf peeping. The Porcupine Trail itself can be as long or as short as you want it to be: Use it for a quick out and back stroll, or park a shuttle car down the road at the Twin Cabin Trailhead to make for a great 5.5 mile day trip.
If you don’t have the time or energy to take a hike, a drive up Hyalite Canyon is the next-best thing. This road parallels Hyalite Creek, a riparian zone chock-full of willows and aspens that put on a luminous show during peak foliage season. The drive culminates at Hyalite Reservoir, where snow-capped peaks dotted with fluorescent fall colors serve as an amphitheater to the pristine lake that quietly reflects it all.