Fleet-Footed Fall

Autumn trail runs.

For many Americans, the term “fall foliage” induces thoughts of an endless sea of red, orange, and yellow throughout the mountains of the Northeast. Montana’s deciduous plants, like many of its people, are more understated. The loss of chlorophyll here creates a humble, subtle beauty. Montana’s nuanced color changes combine with boundless open space to provide the viewer with a depth and variety of tone that is crisp, inviting, and uniquely ours. For those of you wishing to explore fall color by foot, here are some trail runs to try out.

South Cottonwood
The hottest days of summer lure Bozeman runners to the shade and water of South Cottonwood Creek. But don’t to allow the trail’s reputation as a summer oasis to overshadow its autumn beauty. As you travel the gravel road toward the trailhead, bright gold leaves of the creek’s namesake trees dominate the view. And though the trail itself snakes through a primarily coniferous forest, wide spacing between trees facilitates the growth of shrubs, berry bushes, and grasses that provide a beautiful contrast in fall color. As you continue up the trail, take a minute in one of several small meadows to enjoy the golden aspen leaves and the sound of the nearby creek.

Bear Trap Canyon
Just as runners see South Cottonwood as a summer venue, we often run Bear Trap in the spring as it provides some of the first dry ground of the year. However, autumn’s colors juxtapose beautifully with the dark width of the Madison River and the sheer gray walls of 1,500-foot cliffs. Aspens dot the hillside to the east along the first few miles of trail. Further on, the trail becomes rocky with views down onto the Madison River and the flora of its shores. On one fall run here, I looked down on a bald eagle gliding below. This rare bird’s-eye view of multicolored plants, river rapids, and a hunting raptor keeps me returning to this trail, which seems to offer a new visual treat on every visit.

South Fork Spanish Creek
Longtime Bozeman trail runner Tom Hayes cites plentiful aspen trees and bugling elk as evidence for the South Fork’s supremacy in fall running options. The first 4-5 miles of this trail follow the creek along an easy grade, providing a great warmup for the serious elevation gain you will encounter if you choose to complete any of several possible loops here. My favorite is the nearly 25-mile circuit, which includes Indian Ridge. Though Indian Ridge Trail leaves the colorful leafy plants in favor of higher elevations, the views along the crest are spectacular year-round. In completing the course along Little Hellroaring Creek, bright fall color will surround you once again, welcoming you home from a day well spent. 

Cherry River
Like many Bozeman runners, I train on town trails when my time is limited. The trails off the Cherry River fishing access are my favorite for fall color and sound. Here, chokecherry leaves turn a burgundy purple, dogwoods show their red branches, and still-green grasses provide contrast. Cattails along the water, devoid of showy color, add texture to the scene, while several bird species chirp, honk, and sing around you. Just beyond your immediate surroundings, this open riparian area looks onto golden-leaved aspen and cottonwood trees along the river in the foreground and the Bridger Ridge farther to the east. And for a longer run, simply follow the connector trails toward Bozeman Beach and Story Mill. 

Last August, I volunteered to work an aid station for Rampage the Roots, the only ultramarathon in the Tobacco Root Mountains. The Hollowtop loop section of this course uses trails 6302 and 6301 to begin and end a roughly 10-mile loop through open fields, forests, and along the small, but quick-flowing North Willow Creek. One can choose from several variations on the main loop here, and even take a spur trail up to Hollowtop Lake where steep, high mountains on three sides dwarf this relatively large alpine water. If you choose to race or volunteer at Rampage the Roots, be sure to return about a month later to experience the changing beauty of a wide variety of deciduous trees and shrubs along these trails.

Nikki Kimball is a Bozeman ultra-runner. Learn more about her story as a world-class trail-running competitor at findingtractionfilm.com.