Blazing Trails

Hiking the hallowed halls of fall.

Hiking in the fall can be tricky. One week it’s steamin’ hot outside and the next week everything is covered in snow. But autumn is one of the best opportunities to check out a new trail, or return to an old favorite with a change of scenery. The crowds are thin, you’ll see fewer people than during summer, the temps are generally cooler, and, if you know where to go, you can find some amazing fall foliage among droves of burnished aspens and cottonwoods. Here are some of our favorite fall hikes, complete with one in the drier regions, to keep you scratchin’ that itch all the way till winter.

Already one of the Bozone’s most iconic trails, Sourdough comes to life in the fall with towering cottonwoods and dense thickets of willow turning red, orange, and yellow. The trail winds gradually uphill alongside Bozeman Creek, with a wide gravel path that’s an easy surface for walking, running, or biking. As an out-and-back, you can make it as long or as short as you’d like.

South Cottonwood
Heading over a few canyons to the west, you’ll find even more of this trail’s namesake tree as you make your way to the high country on a gradual, though sometimes technical, ascent. It’s not difficult to walk up by any means, but rock patches and small creek-crossings call for heads-up if you’re running or biking.

Stone Creek
Officially the Bangtail Divide Trail from the Stone Creek trailhead, this path winds up switchbacks to the Bangtail Ridge through stands of alder, aspen, and cottonwood. Up on the ridge, rolling meadows take you to a turnaround after three miles. Or, extend the trek to one of several other trailheads along the Bangtail Divide.

Lava Lake
Another icon. You’re unlikely to find the hordes of people on this trail that you would during the summertime, making fall a great time to wander up this Gallatin Canyon classic. Plus, the aspens surrounding this lake will light up the water’s reflection with a blaze of yellow hues—a sight you’re sure to remember, no matter how many times you’ve hiked this trail.

Ousel Falls
If you’re up in Big Sky, a trip down to Ousel Falls makes a great way to kill an hour or two—who knows, you might end up staying all afternoon to relax by the creek. Extremely popular in the summer, this trail will be near empty in the fall after Big Sky’s turned to a ghost town for the shoulder season.

Lewis & Clark Caverns
A different type of autumn gem, the trails at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park will stay dry well after the first snowfalls of the season, letting you keep the feet moving or wheels spinning as you wait for skiing coverage to fill in. The sagebrush isn’t quite as dramatic as changing cottonwoods, willows, and aspens, but a few trees down by the Jefferson will break up the otherwise drab surroundings, as will shrubs in the moister drainages. Regardless, heading out to these drier parts helps alleviate the shock of our rapid transition from fall to winter.