While Montana is known for epic backcountry adventures, expansive wilderness, and rugged terrain, there is a lot to be said for taking a leisurely stroll at a scenic spot close to town. Fall is an ideal time to get out and hit a mellow trail, as Montana has a short window for autumn hikes. Snow accumulates in the higher elevations beginning in early September, and frequently dusts in-town trails by the middle of the season.
There are more local hiking options than you can shake a stick at, so we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites across the state to get you started. These trails are all under five miles and can be hiked throughout the fall by people of varied ages and abilities. Whether you’re looking for a quiet walk along a river, a hike to a nearby lake, or a recreation area you might not have seen before, you’ll find it here.
Closest Town: Superior
Distance: 2.6 miles
Heart Lake is the largest lake in this area, with several trail options depending on time and distance desires. The trail climbs through trees, gradually gaining elevation until reaching the payoff at Heart Lake. The trail is nicely graded the whole way, making it a rewarding hike for the effort. Motivated hikers can link up with the Pearl Lake trailhead around the east side of the lake, continuing up to the top of the Divide for a 7.5-mile round trip. This is an out-and-back hike, so be sure you have enough time to reach the lake and then retrace your steps. Looking to make it a full-day outing? Pack your fishing rod and take advantage of the cool fall air for a quiet day casting on the water.
Four Dances Recreation Area
Closest Town: Billings
Distance: 1.5 miles
The Four Dances Recreation Area is a 765-acre open space located just a few miles from downtown Billings. This lovely area is protected from cooperative efforts between the Bureau of Land Management, the Yellowstone River Parks Association, and local landowners. Located just a few miles east of downtown Billings, this space is perfect for a short loop hike around scrubby sage followed by lunch at an established picnic area. Visitors can hike around the edge of the plateau and admire the Yellowstone River rushing by on the west side, peering over the edge of dramatic cliffs.
Swan River Nature Trail
Closest Town: Bigfork
Distance: 2.5 miles
The Swan River runs 95 miles from the Mission Mountains, flowing through the western part of the state before draining into the Flathead River. This scenic, mellow nature trail takes hikers along a two-and-a-half mile stretch of the Swan River, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. The trail was built in the early 1900s as a route between Bigfork and Swan Valley, and was turned into a nature trail in 1995. The path is nicely graded and well shaded, with eye-catching rock formations to look at along the way. This is a great spot to bring a picnic lunch and spend time outdoors, and once the snow flies, visitors are welcome to take cross-country skis and enjoy the trail throughout the winter.
Closest Town: Great Falls
Distance: 3.6 miles
Just 20 minutes from Great Falls, Sulphur Springs is an excellent choice for taking the family on a day trip to an accessible, scenic hiking trail. The trail around this area is just over 3.5 miles long, along on a wide gravel path for its entirety. Walk through a variety of native prairie grasses, high-desert cacti, and along a quiet stretch of river. Interpretive signs along the path offer a history lesson detailing how water from Sulphur Springs was critical in aiding Sacajawea during an illness during a portage at Great Falls in the early 1800s. Signs throughout the rest of the area offer an additional glimpse of this time in history, along with the significance of the region during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy near Sulphur Springs before heading back to town.
Closest Town: Hamilton
Distance: 2 miles
Bitterroot Valley River Park is a charming park encompassing 65 acres of calm meadows and cottonwood stands along the Bitterroot River. The path around the park is paved and accessible, offering visitors a lovely afternoon stroll just a few minutes from downtown Hamilton. Visitors can expect to see owls, ducks, and osprey along the quiet paths. Keep your eyes (and camera) peeled for moose as well, but be sure to keep your distance should you come across one. Extend your outing by taking a jaunt to Kiwanis Park, which adjoins River Park and offers more facilities and walking trails.
Limekiln Overlook Trail
Closest Town: Lewistown
Distance: 4.5 miles
In just a few miles, the Limekiln Trail offers the chance for wildflower identification, butterfly viewing, and bird watching. The trail is well maintained and has good tread, and it is well marked the whole way up. Hikers on this trail will climb through a mixture of deciduous and pine forests until reaching an outlook with expansive views of Lewistown and the surrounding county. From the well-sized parking lot, the trail follows Burnett Creek before turning onto a dirt road that quickly becomes singletrack through an open meadow, before diving into the trees. The first part of the trail is relatively mild, becoming steeper and switchbacking as hikers near the overlook. In the two miles up, the trail climbs just under 1,000 feet, a steady incline but well worth the view. The trail offers breaks in the trees with views looking out over Limekiln Canyon…which can also be used as an excuse to stop and catch your breath. Stop for lunch or a nice long break at the top, where the trees open up and views of the surrounding countryside and buildings of Lewistown are spread out below.
Closest Town: Missoula
Distance: 4.4 miles
Hikers will gain just over 1,000 feet during this hike, making this a moderately rated trail that climbs steadily for several miles. Wildflowers abound if you hit it during late spring, and the trees turn brilliant hues to reward hikers during fall outings. Woods Gulch trail can link up to numerous other hikes and trails, making it a great option should motivated hikers decide to extend the outing. Sheep Mountain can be connected from this trail, and can even be made into an overnight adventure by linking together connector trails.