Photographing Fall Color in Glacier National Park
For most people Glacier National Park in Montana is a fabulous destination for hiking, photography, and family vacations. But as summer ends and the crowds disappear the park gets ready to put on another show. Autumn here is a season that is not to be missed. The colors are just as good as many other popular destinations like the Colorado Rockies and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. And as a bonus there are two separate displays of color a couple weeks apart. The first comes in late September or early October and the second display arrives in mid to late October.
The first color show is the aspens turning gold in the lower elevations and the plants of the meadows changing at higher elevations. Some of the most spectacular displays of golden aspens is found along the Eastern slopes of the park, and extend into the prairies. From Many Glacier all the way up to and including Waterton National Park in Alberta there are countless groves of aspens. The two best spots are between Many Glacier and St. Mary. Then further north along the Chief Mountain Highway towards Babb. Be forewarned though, all these locations are subject to very high winds. Aspen leaves are often stripped from the trees before they can even turn color. A couple of years ago I arrived in early October at what I thought would be peak color, however trees were still in summer green. A few days later snow storms settled in to blanket the entire park in an early winter, never giving the trees to put on a show. It’s always best to contact the visitors center for current conditions before heading out.
The second show of color comes on the western half of the park from the stands of Western Larch (Larix occidentalis). Not to be confused with the Alpine or Lyall’s Larch (Larix lyallii), which are found at higher elevations. These are conifers that shed their needles every fall after they turn a brilliant golden color. Photographing Larches is a bit easier than the aspens. Their color change is more predictable and the color lasts longer too. In Glacier Park the best places to find dense stands of these trees is along the southern border of the park along Highway 2 west of Marias Pass. Other good locations are along the North Fork of the Flathead River on the western border of the park. Camas Road is also worth checking out. At the same time the Larches are at their peak the Cottonwoods are also turning color. One of the best places for these deciduous trees is along the shores of Lake McDonald. Beautiful photos can also be made during this time along McDonald creek where the leaves sprinkle the colorfully eroded rocks along the waters edge.
Another bonus to visiting this time of year is that the Going to the Sun Road may be closed. The absence of cars allows you to leisurely walk along the road. You can photograph scenes that were not possible when the road is open. If you’re lucky there will be some fresh snow higher up on the mountains. This will add a dramatic element to the fall color. If all this isn’t enough to keep you busy don’t forget this is also prime time to photograph Elk during the annual rut. They make a great evening serenade while your reviewing your days work in an empty campground.