Four great ways to savor September in southwest Montana

By Katie Alvin Explore Big Sky Contributor

September – it’s the locals’ month. The summer tourist season winds down, the weather is cool and crisp yet tempered by warm sun, and the fall colors explode, providing beautiful vistas and space to unwind before the snow arrives. Take advantage of summer’s last breaths and autumn’s entry with these great adventures:

Celebrate the simple life in the verdant valley

Despite its short growing season, the Gallatin Valley produces an abundant harvest. Fall is a festive time to visit the Rocky Creek Farm at the northeast edge of the valley, east of Bozeman on Frontage Road.

You can pick your own fruits and vegetables, press apples into cider, take a hayride to the pumpkin patch, or climb around their hay bale playground.

For a more educational experience, visit the Museum of the Rockies Living History Farm and see how homesteaders lived and worked the land in the 1890s. Make sure to catch their annual Farm Festival on Sept. 7 for a bigger celebration, where costumed interpreters will demonstrate farming, cooking, blacksmithing, quilting, weaving, basket making, and more. Music, fun and games run from 1-5 p.m.

Witness the elk rut in Yellowstone

You haven’t fully experienced fall in Montana unless you’ve heard the haunting bugle of a bull elk during the fall “rut” mating season. The rut begins in late August, when more mature elk establish their territory, and runs through September with younger elk following suit. Bull elk round up a “harem” of cow elk to breed with, calling to one another to protect their territory or challenge one another. The eerie bugling can be heard any time of day, though morning and evening are typically more active periods for the animals.

Look for bulls with their harems of female elk along the Madison River as you drive east from West Yellowstone, and take some extra time to visit nearby Old Faithful while crowds are thinner.

From the park’s north entrance, head to Mammoth, where elk literally take over the village. Extend your adventure by taking a dip in the Boiling River, a natural hot spring that mingles with Gardner River waters to create a series of warm to hot water pools. There’s nothing like a hot soak on a brisk autumn day.

Go birdwatching – and bag a peak – on Bridger Bowl’s ridge

From late August through October, up to seventeen species of raptors (birds of prey) can be seen migrating south along the spine of the Bridger Mountain range. During this period, Montana Audubon volunteers set up a counting station on the ridge’s helipad. Spectators are welcome any time and are encouraged to bring binoculars for prime viewing.

Migrations peak in late September and early October. Time it right and you could see up to 200 Golden Eagles in a single day. But you’ll have to work for it to see the spectacle. From the Bridger Bowl ski area parking lot it’s a strenuous 2,100-foot climb to the top of the ridge. While you’re up there, hike an extra two miles south along the ridge and bag Saddle Peak.

Fall fishing is fantastic – but not for the feint of heart

Some of the best dry fly fishing of the year happens during September’s worst weather days. When it’s cold and wet, between 3-5 p.m., small blue winged olive mayflies hatch like crazy, creating a feeding frenzy for hungry trout. Gearing up for the weather is key: Wear long underwear and ski socks under waders, pack your best rain gear, and don’t forget a warm hat – try a full brimmed rain hat over a lightweight warm liner cap. Don’t forget to tuck some hand warmers in your pockets to revive icy cold fingers. With all the fish you are sure to catch and release, you’ll need them!

No matter what you do this fall, remember that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. If you are prepared for the changing conditions that fall can bring, you will enjoy everything you do. So gear up and get outside!

Katie Alvin has lived in Big Sky for more than 20 years and owns East Slope Outdoors with her husband Dave. With degrees in Environmental Studies and Soil Science, she has been involved with environmental and outdoor education for 25 years.