Montana Fall Colors Near Prime Time

Golden cottonwoods along the Big Hole River. The black specks against the sky are falling leaves – not a dirty lens.

When fall colors come, they often come in a hurry. A week ago we made an overnight jaunt to Helena, and coming back, after a little more than 24 hours, my wife and I were struck by how the aspens along the mountainsides had changed colors virtually overnight.

In Montana, we don’t have a lot of variety in deciduous trees, compared to the Midwest or Eastern parts of the country. Consequently, we don’t have such rich variety in fall colors that are found to the east. Still, what we have is spectacular, so we might as well enjoy the beauty of our area.

In southwest Montana, our predominant fall colors come from quaking aspen. Here in Butte, we can look at the panorama of changing colors on the East Ridge or on Timber Butte for examples of fall aspen colors.

As ruffed grouse are almost synonymous with aspen forests, I search out aspens for many of my hunting outings, and I get great enjoyment from looking around at fall colors around me. Aspens are kind of unique, in that they primarily spread by sending out roots, and new aspen growth is, essentially, a clone of other trees. You can see the different clumps of aspens by color changes. Some thickets change color early, and shed leaves early, while others hang on long after other thickets have lost their leaves. You might also see other aspen stands with fall foliage that appears more orange than the usual golden yellow.

Cottonwoods are another source of fall colors, especially along rivers, such as the Big Hole, Jefferson or Yellowstone Rivers. Cottonwoods also hold on to their leaves later than other trees, so that a river bottom in late October will be a brilliant yellow in contrast to the brownish drab of the rest of the landscape.

If you want to take a trip to look at fall foliage, an easy afternoon outing could be to go west to Anaconda and take the Mill Creek highway over the mountains to the Big Hole River and returning to Butte. Aspens dominate the mountainsides on the north side of the Divide, and typically the week around the end of September is when aspen colors are at their best.

If you want a longer drive, or a weekend getaway, a special place, to my mind, is Loma, the little town in the Marias River valley about 20 miles north of Fort Benton. Both the Marias and Teton rivers converge at Loma, about a mile upstream from the Missouri River, so there are actually two long wooded river valleys that are a blaze of color in autumn. The Missouri River riparian area is dominated by cottonwoods, so the river bottoms will be in their glory in early October.

It might be a bit late to plan a long trip right now to New England for the annual fall color tour. Leaf peepers, as they’re called, are a big chunk of New England’s tourist economy, worth billions of dollars every year.

Looking back to past years, we lived in eastern Iowa for a few years and the Mississippi River bluffs were spectacular in autumn. A drive along the river, and a picnic in some scenic spot was a great afternoon jaunt.

Looking at autumn colors from the air can be fun. I can recall several instances of flying into Minneapolis/St. Paul during the peak of fall colors. Another memorable trip was to Washington D.C. in late October and fall colors in the Appalachians were a riot of yellow, orange and red splotches of colors.

All these fall colors are because our days are getting shorter every day, and with less sunshine, the trees slow down and finally stop producing chlorophyll, the substance that makes leaves green. This allows the underlying pigment in the leaves to come through. Alas, Jack Frost has nothing to do with fall colors.

Enjoy these fall colors while they last. All too soon the leaves will fall and we’ll be looking at bare trees until next spring, when we again start the process.

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