Unlike the mountains of the east coast, or even the Rocky Mountains further south, Glacier National Park is not a popular fall color destination. Witness how long it even took me to undergo this trip! This may be because by the end of September, all concessions (lodges and park stores) and many park services such as campgrounds and visitor centers have closed down. I was a bit surprised that so many amenities were closed, because the weather was just perfect, and the park beautiful at the beginning of October. I was told that the reason for those relatively early closures is that the NPS needs to prepare the park for the long winter by removing infrastructure that would otherwise been damaged by the snow.
Those closures mean that you need to be a bit more self-sufficient to visit Glacier National Park during the fall than in the summer. I wasn’t able to find a cartridge for my stove nearby, so I ended up eating uncooked Ramen noodles for several days. On the other hand, most of visitors have gone home. While in early September, it is common for all the campgrounds to be filled, in early October I never had any problem to find a site in the evening. In the more remote areas of the park, I sometimes had the impression that I had the park to myself.
The park is magnificent in the fall. Fall foliage can be found in all sides. It is particularly rich thanks to a larger variety of trees than in other Rocky Mountain parks. Besides the usual aspen and cottonwoods, they include including birch, Rocky Mountain maple and Western larch. The west side of the park changes color starting in mid-September, while the change on the east side occurs in late September. The larch trees growing at higher elevation are the last to change, in mid-October.
The West SideThanks to the abundant rain, the West Side of Glacier is characterized by extensive old growth forests reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Deciduous trees mix with them, so foliage displays the brilliant golds juxtaposed against the greens of the conifers. Look for it along the shores of Lake McDonald, and along the Going-to-the-Sun road. Even on a quiet walk in a pure evergreen forests, I found color on the undergrowth.
The North ForkGlacier is renowned for its wildness, and the wildest part of Glacier is the North Fork. I saw many larch trees in the region, but in early October they hadn’t turned yet. A mid-october visit to Bowman Lake or Kintla Lake should be spectacular since they line up the shores. Like for the North Cascades Larches, a separate trip is required to capture the color of larches. On the other hand, at lower elevations, such as along the North Fork of the Flathead River, aspen were bright yellow.
St Mary LakeThe hillsides that form the North shore of St Mary Lake had an abundance of color, often solid gold. Taking advantage of a cloudy day, I parked on the side of the road and wandered uphill to find intimate forest scenes with aspen. However, my favorite images of the area contrasted the color of lakeshore cottonwoods with the greys of a burned forest using the same light (a sunny afternoon lended a very different character to that area).
Many GlacierThe road leading to Swiftcurrent Lake was lined up with trees in autumn foliage, although at even slightly higher elevations, such as around Apikuni Falls, the color was more sparse. Further north, the Chief Mountain International Highway (outside of the park) is also a prime fall color destination. Generally speaking, more aspens grow along the east slope of the Lewis Range than on the west side.
Two Medicine LakeWhile the shores of Two Medicine Lake are dominated by conifers, I found color along the lower part of Two Medicine Valley, including the shores of Lower Two Medicine Lake. Along the south route around the park, Highway Two, miles of golden aspen lit up the foothills.
I hope those images have inspired you to plan a trip to Glacier National Park in the autumn. I am certainly planning to return one of those years, likely in mid-October to see the larches with hopefully fresh snow!