Autumn in Montana is the season that locals relish... and a time of year that savvy travelers take advantage of the state's amber hues and wide-open byways. Warm, Indian summer days are followed by crisp, nip-in-the-air evenings. Set against a backdrop of river-carved valleys or lofty - sometimes snow dusted - peaks, Big Sky Country serves up five iconic driving tours for travelers seeking a kaleidoscope of leafy colors.
They don't call it Paradise for nothin'. Winding along the storied Yellowstone River - the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 - head south via Highway 89 from the offbeat, artsy community of Livingston. Two hulking mountain ranges, the Absaroka-Beartooths and the Gallatins, flank the valley. Yellowstone National Park is just south. Stop for breakfast at the quirky Pine Creek Café, gaze at the Cottonwood trees as they turn to gold and make a few casts for rainbow trout. At the end of the day, book a room at historic Chico Hot Springs Resort and settle in for a calm, evening soak.
Nestled among the jagged peaks of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, this 63-mile route begins in mineral-rich Anaconda and winds its way up to Georgetown Lake via Highway 1. Nearby you'll find the charmingly restored community of Philipsburg where its gold and sapphire mining past has kept it teeming with a well-preserved Western history. Be sure to sample some fudge at the Sweet Palace and stay at the kitschy Broadway Hotel where you'll find themed rooms like "Route 66" and "The Andes Suite."
Rolling through the Swan Range and the scraping summits of the Mission Mountains, Highway 83 is a tunnel of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and larch...not to mention pristine alpine lakes. Bring your canoe and enjoy the Clearwater Canoe Trail just north of Seeley Lake and then settle for a few starry nights at one of the ruff-hewn cabins at the Double Arrow Resort.
71 miles of Big Sky Country await you on this winding ribbon of Highway 89. This route travels through the untrammeled Little Belt Mountains and scenic Lewis and Clark National Forest. Bring your road bike to experience this lonely highway or your mountain bike to partake in the area's "super secret" singletrack. You can also stretch your legs on the short walk to Memorial Falls.
Upland bird hunters will be in winged heaven in this section of northeast Montana during the autumn months. Game birds like pheasant, grouse and Hungarian partridge abound in the khaki-colored, wide-open fields and the fishing on Fort Peck Reservoir may well result in landing a lunker walleye. Don't forget a stop at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center & Museum, featuring Pecks Rex (their complete T-Rex skeleton) and other dinosaur exhibits in this paleontological rich zone.
Highway 212 winds you through the wind-swept plains, which were the scene of many famous battles between Native American tribes and American soldiers between 1865 and 1877. Little Bighorn Battlefield, Rosebud Battlefield, and the Reynolds Battlefield Monument are slivers of preserved history along this scenic byway. Bring your hiking boots and a keen eye for elk and coyotes that also call this stretch of the Wild West home.