Explore the Lochsa Country in North-Central Idaho; it’s plum full of cool things to do

Written by guest blogger Steve Stuebner

A quick drive to Missoula, Mont., last weekend reminded me how much I miss the Lochsa River Country in north-central Idaho. To be totally honest, I feel a huge tug in my heart when I go there — a feeling that comes from many wonderful trips in which I felt absolutely awe-struck by the beauty, power and majesty of the Lochsa region.

As a University of Montana student many moons ago, I frequently went backpacking in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, often via Elk Summit or other trailheads along the Lochsa River. I used to visit Jerry Johnson Hot Springs in all seasons — at all hours of the day or night — and even went winter camping and backcountry skiing in the vast mountains around Lolo Pass.

Later, I went whitewater rafting on the Lochsa and the Selway rivers, traced the Lewis & Clark Trail by mountain bike, went canoeing on the lower Selway, and survived an epic mountain bike loop featuring more than 5,000 feet of climbing in the high mountains above Lowell for my book Mountain Biking Idaho.

So for this week’s tip, I’m going to share a few suggestions for recreation outings in the Lochsa Country. It’s all in the spirit of the Idaho stay-cation, where you can enjoy an inexpensive trip relatively close to home over a long weekend and explore some hidden parts of Idaho that perhaps you’ve never seen before …

How to get there: Take Idaho 55 north to U.S. 95 in New Meadows. Follow U.S. 95 to Kooskia on the Clearwater River. Turn right and take U.S. 12 east to Lowell, where all of the fun begins! It’s about 4-5 hours of drive time to the Lochsa.
Here are some cool trips to try:

  • Canoe the lower Selway River. The whitewater season is over on the Lochsa River, and all but the die-hards are done on the Selway. But low water means a smooth non-threatening trip on the lower Selway River. The cobalt blue water coming out of the wilderness is crystal clear and pure, so you see fish swimming below, and of course, if you’re into fishing, you can fish along the way! Go upriver on the Selway River Road from Lowell. Launch the canoe at 23-mile Bar campground and float 12 miles to Lowell and take out at the bridge. The Class 1 to Class 2 rapids on this section make it ideal for inflatable kayaks and small rafts as well.
  • Mountain Bike the Lewis & Clark Trail. Go east on U.S. 12 to Powell Junction, and take Forest Road 569 to Pappoose Saddle (elev. 5,680). Park there, and ride FR 500, the “Lolo Motorway,” to the west and trace the route that the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery took over the mountains to reach the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s. There are interpretive signs along the way that explain various tidbits of history regarding Lewis & Clark and also the Nez Perce Tribe. You should map out what part of the trail you want to experience before you go. I did a three-day, 75-mile trip on the Lolo Motorway with vehicle support, and it was a blast! Lots of up-and-down riding on a single-lane rocky dirt road. If you don’t have multiple days, drive to a point where you can ride to landmarks like “Sherman Peak,” “the Smoking Place” and “Indian Post Office.” You’ll need a hardy 4WD rig to drive the 500 Road. Guided hiking and biking adventures are available through Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures. This ride was listed by Outside mag as one of the Top 25 trips of a lifetime.
  • Hike Warm Springs Trail to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs. Watch for a big cable-and-wood pack bridge on U.S. 12 that leads to the Warm Springs Creek Trail. Cross the bridge and hike up trail to the hot springs. It’s a little over 1 mile to the springs. Easy hike. Huge western red cedar trees greet you alongside the trail. I used to walk into the springs barefoot at night during a full moon. Too cool! Clothing is optional at the springs. The Forest Service closes the springs at 10 p.m. at night. Not sure how they enforce that. Warm Springs Trail is also great for a longer hike and backpacking. The trail enters the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and goes for many miles into the interior.
  • Try conquering the Coolwater Ridge Epic Jungle Ride. Ride mileage is 25 miles, but it’s a demanding full-day ride. Starting from Lowell, climb the Coolwater Ridge Road #317 more than 5,400 vertical feet to Coolwater Lookout, follow a high ridge overlooking the Selway River country, and then descend more than 5,000 feet through jungle brush on the East Boyd Trail (singletrack with rock water bars) to the Selway River Road. Then grind back on the road to Lowell. (I arranged a partial shuttle). It’s a 6- to 8-hour ride. The ride is detailed in my book Mountain Biking Idaho.
  • Stay at Wilderness Gateway Campground. Wilderness Gateway is a high-quality developed campground right next to the Lochsa River. Across the river is the Lochsa Historic Ranger Station. There’s a hiking trail that goes to the west from the ranger station and travels above the river corridor. Thimbleberry plants will tower over your head. Side activities include fly fishing on the Lochsa or other streams that feed into the Lochsa near the campground.

More lodging ideas. If you’d like to get a room, the Western Motor Inn in Kooskia, River Dance Lodge, run by River Odysseys West, one of the best oufitters in Idaho, and the Lochsa Lodge in Powell are your best options. Because lodging is so scarce in the area, be sure to call ahead for reservations. ROW has guided trips available in the vicinity.

Have fun!
– SS