A few years ago I saw a list of the Top 75 Things All Idahoans Should Try At Least Once. As an Idaho native, I was curious about the list and scrolled through the 75 different things I should try. One of which was driving along the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.
Last spring I was at the tail end of an epically long road trip, 3800+ miles (6115 km) in just over a week of time. I was set to arrive home around 2 pm on a Sunday. Logically that would give me time to unpack and rest for the work week ahead. But why be responsible, right?
As I approached the highway junction of 95 and Highway 13 near Grangeville Idaho I veered right instead of left. Left would have taken me home at a reasonable hour. The right would take me on a journey through the Nez Perce, Clearwater, and Lolo National Forests, adding another 120 miles (193 km) to our trip.
The start of this byway had me questioning what I had done. Rolling hills of farmland was not what I had expected. I carried on and followed the highway as this “top 75 list” couldn’t be wrong, right? The highway led down a steep hill and met up with Highway 14. It was here that I felt a sigh of relief and got a glimpse of what made this byway so special. The highway traced along the south fork of the Clearwater River. The name of the river was not ironic and is filled with some of the clearest water I have ever seen.
The highway then led to the junction of Highway 12 and 13 at Kooskia. The scenic byway continued along Highway 12 following the Clearwater River. I stopped shortly after the junction at a roadside picnic area and let the dogs out to play in the water. They needed a little play time since they were not responsible for adding more time and miles to the trip. I also took the dogs on a few short hikes that were found along the byway. Many of the trailheads had impressive bridges crossing the Clearwater River.
The Clearwater River, along with the National Forests create a picture perfect setting for a lazy Sunday afternoon. While we were driving along the highway we passed by several people sitting in camp chairs watching kayakers and rafting boats traversing the rapids. It was a beautiful sunny day so there was lots of activity on the river. Being that it was as busy as it was in April, I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer months. Hopefully, it’s not bumper to bumper boat traffic.
In addition to being part of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, Highway 12 also serves as part of the Lewis and Clark Trail. The Lewis and Clark Trail starts in Hartford Illinois and ends at the Oregon Coast. Apparently, this trail has been long traveled by dogs. Captain Lewis brought along his dog, a Newfoundland named Seaman, while they were finding their way to the Oregon Coast. Seaman was the only animal who set out on the expedition who came back alive. I will spare you the details as to why some of those animals did not come back alive, but leave you with it wasn’t pretty.
This byway is educational as it provides several learning opportunities along the way with roadside signs. These informative signs are found along most highways in the state of Idaho. The signs give travelers a brief history lesson or highlighting points of interest. Many of the signs along Highway 12 revolved around the Lewis and Clark expedition, outlining their trek to the coast.
Probably the high point, pun intended, of the byway is Lolo Pass. The summit reaches 5,233 feet (1,595 feet) and provides you alpine views of the Bitterroot Mountain Range. The road crossing the pass was built in 1962 but historically dates back to 1877. The Nez Perce Indian Tribe were on the move in 1877 and used the mountainous terrain to their advantage. The tribe was trying to prevent themselves from being placed on a reservation by the U.S Army, after having their land drastically downsized. The Nez Perce were able to allude the army at the pass, however later found themselves in trouble with the Army at The Battle Of The Big Hole, near highway 43 in Montana.
The Byway ends at the junction of Highway 12 and Montana Highway 93. Located at the junction is the Traveler’s Rest State Park. I have never been successful in getting into this park as it has always been closed when I pass by. The area was used as a point of resting for the Lewis and Clark expedition before crossing the Bitterroot Mountains. This spot was used again on their return trip. The state park is open year-round. It is important to note that the visitors center does close between 4 and 5 pm MST depending on the time of year.
Although I added another 100+ miles to my already lengthy spring trip, I was pleased with the outcome. The Bitterroot Mountain Range is one of the prettiest in the area. The end of the byway drops off near my beloved Missoula Montana. Unfortunately, it was late in the day and there was no time to stop for a beer at one of their many tasty breweries!
And if you are curious about the list of 75 things all Idahoans must try, I have only done 14 of the 75. Looks like I’ve got some work to do!