Autumn’s Crowning Vistas

As I chattered my way up the Jewel Basin Road in a rented Ford Focus, the realization suddenly dawned that I probably looked like an ill-prepared tourist. Surely no local would attempt this gravel road up the flank of the steep Mission Mountains in a low-riding compact car. What was I thinking?

But when I finally arrived at the trailhead in the shadow of the high, rocky ridgeline, I was greeted by the sight of a half-dozen family cars intermingled with about the same number of trucks and SUVs. Maybe I didn’t look like a tourist after all …

And that’s when I realized I hadn’t brought any water or food. Oops. There went my plan for a day spent hiking to the pristine alpine lakes that make the Jewel Basin one of Montana’s most popular backcountry areas.

As I stood in the dusty parking area wondering what I should do, I turned and looked back down the valley. The view, which I’d only caught fleetingly in my rear-view mirrors, took my breath away. Down the long valley, deep reds, golds and greens splashed the forested mountainsides with color. In the distance I could see the flat expanse of the Flathead Valley, its alfalfa fields glowing under the afternoon sun.

I may not have gotten my planned hike, but I got what I really came for in the first place: That soul-expanding sense of the bigness and beauty of Montana. Here are a few other easily accessible spots around Kalispell where you can find your own sense of autumnal bliss:

Glacier National Park

Okay, this one’s kind of a gimme. Who wouldn’t want to visit Glacier, the aptly nicknamed Crown of the Continent, at its most colorful time of year? In autumn, the blanket of deep green that drapes over the soaring peaks of the park suddenly takes on a brilliant new cast, as the tamarack trees turn luminescent gold. Cottonwood trees along rivers and streams turn golden as well, contrasting with the apple-red sumacs. Needless to say, the turnouts are especially scenic; at this time of year they are also remarkably uncongested.

Lone Pine State Park

When you’re sitting in a café in downtown Kalispell, it’s easy to forget that much of the surrounding Flathead Valley is still primarily used for agriculture. But just a few minutes west of downtown you can put it all back into perspective. Paved roads lead directly to the short trails at this nicely maintained state park, where you can look out over the amber expanse of the Flathead Valley and the north end of Flathead Lake.

Kalispell’s Eastside Avenues

For a more urban sense of seasonal beauty, head just a couple blocks east of Main Street. That’s where you’ll find some of the oldest homes in the whole Flathead Valley — and plenty of even older maple trees that canopy the neighborhood in rich reds, yellows and greens. Make sure you get out of your car and walk around for a while; you’ll likely end up making a new friend or two along the way.

Woodland Park

This little urban oasis has everything you’d want out of a city park: Ponds full of ducks and geese, playgrounds and a seasonal water park for the kids, and lots of open space where one can find quiet respite … and just a couple of blocks away from the busy buzz of downtown. With its well-maintained gardens and wide variety of tree species, Woodland Park is a beautiful place to spend a relaxed fall afternoon.

Yellow Bay State Park

As the weather turns cooler, sunsets seem to take on a more profound sense of beautiful melancholy. And you won’t find better sunsets anywhere in the Northern Rockies than the long light across Flathead Lake. For the best of the best, stake out a comfortable log on the rocky shore of Yellow Bay State Park, located on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake. The view is great. And some evenings, when the clouds and weather conspire just right, the view is astounding.

Great Northern Rail Trail

With 22 miles of paved trails, the Great  Northern Rail Trail extends from the town of Somers on the north shore of Flathead Lake to Kila. Soak in epic views – including the Swan, Mission, Salish and Whitefish mountains – along the way, while taking time to check out the five murals painted on tunnels along the trail system. All, or part, of the route is perfect for walking, running or biking.

Herron Park & Foy’s to Blacktail Trails

A short 10-minute drive from downtown Kalispell will take you to Herron Park and Foy’s to Blacktail Trails. From the trailhead at Herron Park, users can access over 30 miles of trails that extend through timberlands to Blacktail Mountain. The trails are open to mountain bikers, horseback riders, hikers and cross-country skiers. Leashed dogs welcome.