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The Lochsa River Scenic Byway in Idaho & Montana

Middle Fork Clearwater River Outside Kooskia, Idaho
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The Lochsa River Scenic Byway is a 134-mile paved route between Kooskia, Idaho and Lolo, Montana. The route follows US Highway 12, which is in excellent condition. Within Idaho, this scenic byway goes by the name of The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway and is part of Idaho’s Scenic Byway System. Although most of this route is within Idaho, I’ve included it in this section of Big Sky Fishing.Com since the eastern starting point for the drive is in Montana. Moreover, the best fishing on the Lochsa River is quite close to the Montana border as are some of the best hiking trails in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, the northern border of which the byway follows quite closely.

To avoid confusion for visitors who travel this route, Idaho’s Northwest Passage Scenic Byway runs between Lewiston, Idaho and the Montana border at Lolo Pass – essentially crossing Idaho. This article only covers the Kooskia, Idaho to Lolo Pass portion of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. I chose a different name for the route covered in this article to avoid confusion and because the Lochsa River Scenic Byway is much shorter than the full Northwest Passage Scenic Byway that crosses Idaho.

The Lochsa River Scenic Byway is a beautiful drive, but it’s not for everyone. The route travels through thick forests for almost its entire length, with scant views of towering mountains. In short, the views on this route are limited. Normally, I tend to dislike forested drives. However, the combination of the very remote location and the beautiful waters of the Lochsa and Middle Fork Clearwater Rivers overcame, at least for me, my dislike of being “hemmed in” by thick forests. Still, this drive is far from being my favorite in Montana (or Idaho for that matter).

Lochsa River & The Bitterroot Mountains
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Highlights of a trip on the Lochsa River Scenic Byway include crossing Lolo Pass, the Lochsa River, side trip possibilities along the Selway River, the Middle Fork Clearwater River, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, excellent camping spots, superb fishing and the town of Kooskia, Idaho.

Beginning in Kooskia, Idaho, the Lochsa River Scenic Byway heads east on US Highway 12. For the next twenty-five miles, the road closely follows the Middle Fork Clearwater River, a wide, beautiful river that begs to be floated and fished. Initially, the countryside is a mix of open grass and forest, but as the route continues to the east, the route enters heavily forested terrain. Although there is scant elevation change, the thicker forests are due to more precipitation falling since the route is drawing closer to the larger hills and mountains of the Bitterroot Range.

After twenty-five miles, the route reaches the tiny town of Lowell, Idaho, where perceptive travelers will notice that two large rivers meet to become one. The Middle Fork Clearwater River actually forms here, at the confluence of the Lochsa River (which comes in from the northeast) and the Selway River (which comes in from the southeast).

The Lochsa River in Idaho
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The Selway River is a beautiful river. A gravel road, called the Selway Road, closely follows the Selway River for eighteen miles before ending at the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area border. Those with extra time in their schedules should make time for this side trip. Numerous campgrounds, both developed and primitive, lie along the road. The fishing in this part of the Selway River is excellent, and access is unrestricted. Finally, this road also leads to Selway Falls, a large and scenic waterfall. The views of some of the higher peaks of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness are quite nice from this side trip, too.

When in Lowell, a visitor who is continuing east toward the Montana border better be sure to check their gas gauge, as well as determine if they need any other supplies. The reason? Lowell is the last town on the Byway until it ends in Lolo, Montana, a distance of over 100 miles!

From Lowell, the Lochsa River Scenic Byway heads to the northeast as it follows the Lochsa River, a federally designated wild and scenic river. For the next 50 or so miles, the road twists and turns as it follows the Lochsa River, but is wide and in excellent condition. Numerous pullover spots exist, allowing for excellent access to the river and for photographing the heavily forested but scenic countryside.

As the Lochsa River Scenic Byway continues to the east, it slowly gains elevation. Then about twenty miles from the Montana border, the Byway leaves the Lochsa River, follows a small feeder creek for a number of miles, and then begins a rather lazy climb up to Lolo Pass, which is at the Montana-Idaho border.

From Lolo Pass, the byway begins a long descent into the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. The thick forests found along the Byway first give way to a mixture of fields and forests, before the forests disappear completely once the Byway reaches the floor of the Bitterroot Valley just outside of Lolo, Montana.

Quick Facts

  • Length: 134 Miles
  • Highlights : The Lochsa River, Bitterroot Mountains, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, Selway River, Middle Fork Clearwater River
  • Road Type : Paved.
  • Nearby Towns : Kooskia, Idaho and Lolo, Montana.
  • 4wd needed? : No
  • Traffic : Light to Moderate.
  • Trailers? : Yes
  • Season : Year-round, weather permitting.

Map of the Lochsa River Scenic Byway

Shown below is a Google Map of the Lochsa River Scenic Byway that runs between Kooskia, Idaho and Lolo, Montana. I used a Google Map (instead of creating one of my own), due to the sheer 134 mile length of the Byway. None of my limited map making skills produced something suitable for this particular drive.

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Photos of the Lochsa River Scenic Byway

Beach Along the Middle Fork Clearwater River Lochsa Wild & Scenic River Sign Small Rapids on the Lochsa River in Idaho

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Where to Stay & Other Services

Except for in Lowell, there are no services of any kind along the Byway. Or, to put it another way, there is absolutely nothing for 134 miles other than a tiny little store located in Lowell that sells very expensive gas and almost certainly has limited hours. So...the moral of the story is, if you want something, be sure to get it in Kooskia, Idaho or in Lolo, Montana (depending on your starting point), because if you need something along the drive you are, well, out of luck.

The same applies for lodging, too. Along the Lochsa River Scenic Byway, camping rules. Happily, there are campgrounds located all along the river. Additionally, for those who don't want to pay the expense of developed campground fees, there is plenty of primitive camping spots, too. For those with RV's or Trailers, there is also many pullover spots for overnight use as well.

Fortunately, for those seeking lodging, it is readily available in Missoula - which is just nine miles from the eastern starting point of this scenic drive.