Explore Northwest Montana on your own four wheels
BY MYERS REECE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY LIDO VIZZUTTI & GREG LINDSTROMMontana is a big state. To see it, you need a car. Unlike urban areas where some people go their entire lives without learning to drive, or at least without owning a car, driving is as much a residential rite of passage as it is a fundamental necessity here. What’s more, there are only two interstates. So to really see the state, you have to hit the smaller highways and byways, the backroads and hidden mountain passes, the capillaries that give Montana its Big Sky pulse.
There may be no greater time to explore these roads than fall, after summer’s heavy traffic and construction have diminished but before winter has arrived. The landscape is transitioning, with larches turning gold, deciduous trees shedding their multi-colored autumn leaves, and the air’s crispness beckoning you to get out of the car, absorb the smells and sights, and remember just how magical this state is.
These five suggested Montana road trips can be viewed as trips in their own right or passageways to further adventures. They take you to nearly every corner of Northwest Montana, though they represent only a tiny sliver of Montana road trip potential. Try one of them, or all five, or map out your own trip. Or throw out the map and just get in the car. Whatever you do, take some time this fall to hit the asphalt and explore. There’s so much to see, right here in your own backyard.
Looking Glass RoadGoing-to-the-Sun Road is the sightseeing crown jewel of the Crown of the Continent, but a stretch of Highway 49 and 89 along Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary is a worthy alternative. At times, in fact, it feels and looks like Going-to-the-Sun, with less bumper-to-bumper traffic. And it doesn’t require a park pass.
Tourists and locals who favor the east side are often vehement in their adoration. After you take this drive, which overlooks the gorgeous Two Medicine area, you’ll understand their vehemence. If you’re a disciple of western Glacier, take a trip east and you might just convert.
This 30-mile stretch is located between East Glacier and St. Mary. To get there, you can either go through the park on Going-to-the-Sun, exiting Glacier at St. Mary, or around the park’s southern border along Highway 2 to East Glacier, paralleling the Middle Fork Flathead River for much of the way.
Taking the Highway 2 route from Kalispell, you travel 90 miles to East Glacier, where you turn left onto Highway 49 and into the village. Northbound out of East Glacier, you drive along the valley floor until you hit a fork. Left takes you into Glacier Park, but right is what we want. That takes you up a mountainside where you enter the most memorable leg of the trip.
This stretch of Highway 49 is known as Looking Glass Road, named after the 19th century Nez Perce leader, Looking Glass. It’s an apt name. As it gains elevation, the road offers spectacular vistas of
the Two Medicine Valley, including Lower Two Medicine Lake. Impressive geological formations loom over you on the opposite side of the highway.
The drive isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart, nor for large vehicles. It’s curvy and narrow with infrequent guardrails. But its potholes have been patched up over the years and everybody is traveling at sightseeing speeds. There are pullouts along the highway.
The area is densely populated with grizzly bears. You also have a good chance of seeing elk, moose, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
Eleven miles north of East Glacier, 49 runs into 89. Continue north on 89, through aspen-lined hills and meadows, to the tourist hub of St. Mary. Here, you can cut over to the Flathead through the park on Going-to-the-Sun, if it’s still open, or follow your footsteps back south. You can’t go wrong either way.
PIT STOP: World’s Largest Purple Spoon
This well-known landmark is located in East Glacier, a popular tourist hub at the southern end of Looking Glass Road.
Highway 28 and 135If you’re seeking a scenic cruise, it might feel counterintuitive to veer in the opposite direction of Flathead Lake’s lovely blue waters. But intuition is often overly rooted in habit, and we all need detours in our lives to break the cycle of routine.
The 80-mile strip of highway between Elmo and St. Regis fits the bill perfectly. It takes you past the funky hippie enclave of Hot Springs, along the meandering Lower Clark Fork River or Flathead River, and to the doorstep of Quinn’s Hot Springs if you desire a soothing mineral water soak. By the time you hit Interstate 90, a detour might have just become a new habit.
Traveling south from Kalispell on Highway 93, turn right onto Highway 28 at Elmo. Motorists have been known to hit bighorn sheep on 28, so keep an eye out. After about 30 miles, you’ll see a sign for Hot Springs. You can turn right to check out the town or continue heading south.
Shortly after Hot Springs, you have the option of turning onto Highway 382, which takes you along the lowest section of the Flathead River just before it flows into the Clark Fork. When the road meets up with Highway 200, take a right and travel west until you turn left onto Highway 135 to head toward St. Regis.
If you don’t take 382 and instead continue on 28, you’ll hit 200 at the small community of Plains, where you can gas up or grab a snack. Unless you’re heading west to Idaho or Washington, you
want to turn left on 200 and head southeast along the Clark Fork River until you reach the intersection of Highway 135, where you turn right.
Highway 135 slices through a steep canyon with picturesque views of the Clark Fork River. The fishing is good along this stretch of river, and it’s far less crowded than the waters near Missoula. Quinn’s Hot Springs is also tucked away here. Quinn’s offers soaking pools, a restaurant, bar, and lodging.
The canyon dumps you out at St. Regis on Interstate 90. Altogether, it’s about two hours from Kalispell to St. Regis. If you’re traveling west, this is actually a shorter route than 93. And if you’re going to Missoula, you only have another hour east on I-90, which means you lost one hour on your detour. That’s a pretty small sacrifice for what should be one of the nicest fall road trips you’ll take.
PIT STOP: Quinn’s Hot Springs
Tucked away off Highway 135, Quinn’s offers dining, lodging and warm mineral pools for soaking.
Highway 83Anyone who travels east frequently has likely taken Highway 83 through the densely forested Swan Valley. And while it is indeed a useful straight route to central and eastern Montana, its purpose shouldn’t be diminished to a mere shortcut. It’s a destination in its own right, as a place to travel to or through for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Few stretches of road in Montana offer so much nature in so few miles: dozens of lakes, two rivers, thick timber, grassy meadows, steep walls of mountains, all at the doorstep of one of the country’s most impressive wilderness areas. If you’re just driving through on a hurry to somewhere else, you’re missing out.
The roughly 90-mile Seeley-Swan highway connects the Flathead and Blackfoot valleys, running southeast between the Mission Mountains and Swan Range past a series of mountain lakes, including Swan and Seeley. Traveling south from Kalispell, you turn left onto Highway 82, briefly head south on Highway 35 and then cut east onto 83 just north of Bigfork.
A word of caution: Highway 83 is notoriously crowded with deer in the mornings and evenings, and the trees come right up to the road in many places. But the deer are sparse during the day.
Following along the Swan River, the first major lake you hit is the Swan on your right. It is the largest of hundreds of lakes scattered throughout the valley. At the lake’s southern end is a national wildlife refuge.
There are wildlife viewing areas, pullouts, trailheads, and water access points all along the road. The region has a wide array of wildlife, including numerous
waterfowl species, elk, moose, and a diverse assortment of fish for anglers. It’s also a habitat corridor for threatened grizzly bears. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex parallels the highway to the east.
Holland Lake is a popular stop, with hiking trails, boat launches, a campground, a lodge and other amenities. Shortly after Holland, you hit Seeley Lake, both the body of water and the community. The town is the busiest hub on the highway, offering opportunities to dine, shop and gas up.
You come to the end of the road when you see a massive cow at the intersection Highways 83 and 200. But the bovine sculpture, perched outside of a gas station, is only the end of 83. From there, you can head toward Missoula, Helena, Deer Lodge, take your pick. The Seeley-Swan, after all, is a gateway to the rest of the state, just as much as it is a landmark destination on its own.
PIT STOP: Stoney’s Kwik Stop
This large cow sculpture signifies the end of Highway 83, and a chance to refuel and grab a snack.
Grave Creek RoadThe term “hidden gem” is undoubtedly overused, but the first time you drive the 30 miles from Highway 93 to Big Therriault Lake, you can’t help but feel like you’re uncovering a wonderful secret. And, given its accessibility and close proximity to the Flathead’s major hubs, you realize it was never that hidden after all.
Grave Creek Road, just south of Eureka, takes you to the doorstep of the Ten Lakes Scenic Area, a pristine swath of glacier-shaped timberland full of hiking trails and alpine lakes. Whether you’re venturing into the Ten Lakes backcountry, or simply enjoying a leisurely Saturday cruise, this well-maintained stretch of gravel and paved road has the feel of an off-the-beaten path adventure, though you actually never have to leave the path at all.
From Kalispell, you drive north on Highway 93 for just under 60 miles, where you’ll then turn right onto Grave Creek Road. Within the first three miles is a turn for Homestead Ales, a local microbrewery, and shortly after that is the Grave Creek Campground. Continuing past the campground, the paved road begins climbing elevation at a steady clip, following along a pretty boulder-filled creek.
The road fluctuates between paved and gravel, narrow and wide, but it’s in good shape throughout, with bushes full of thimbleberries lining its edges. There are a surprising number of pullouts with informational signs, providing information on everything from the different species of huckleberries to geological formations to the native Kootenai Indians.
Along the way, you come across trailheads and turnoffs for U.S. Forest Service roads leading to various lakes. The area is home to an abundance of subalpine vegetation and wildlife, including grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and three native cat species: lynx, bobcats, and mountain lions.
Follow the signs for Little and Big Therriault Lakes, two picturesque mountain lakes with superbly maintained campgrounds flanked by glacial cirques and towering rimrocks. The road dead ends at Big Therriault. The Therriaults provide access to a network of trails, some of which wind around the two lakes and others that lead to other lakes in the Ten Lakes Scenic Area.
The Ten Lakes Scenic Area was recommended for wilderness designation in 1984 but never received the designation. Yet, the Kootenai National Forest manages it as if it’s a wilderness, disallowing motorized vehicles. You can use the Therriault Lakes as a launching point into Ten Lakes, or as the final stop on a memorable day road trip.
PIT STOP: Big Therriault Lake
The road dead ends at this lake, which has a well-maintained campground and access to a network of hiking trails.
U.S. Highway 2 WestIn conversation, this remote region is given the mythical treatment, its name accompanied by a definitive article: “The Yaak.” It’s tucked away in the farthest reaches of Northwest Montana, home to rugged people who have earned that definitive article in their name simply by living there year round.
But to understand why they stay, all you need to do is visit and look around. Even in the context of Northwest Montana’s overall beauty, the Yaak stands out as particularly stunning. And yet, despite its close proximity, it’s surprising how few Flathead residents make the journey. It might be mythical, but it’s just around the corner. Go check it out.
From the Flathead, take U.S. Highway 2 West to Libby, a scenic, lake-filled stretch in its own right. In Libby, cut north via California Avenue, crossing the Kootenai River. Then turn left at the sign for “Yaak” onto Pipe Creek Road, which eventually becomes South Fork Road.
The paved road winds its way through a diverse ecosystem of assorted coniferous and deciduous trees that form layered canopies from the densely vegetated ground up to towering crowns above. The road gets narrow and curvy but traffic remains two-way, so we wouldn’t recommend large campers or RVs.
Altogether, it’s 37 miles from Libby to the community of Yaak, but it takes around an hour because of the winding road. Once you reach the small village, stop by the mercantile to resupply, or grab a beverage and bite to eat at either the Dirty Shame Saloon or Yaak River Tavern.
From there, you begin veering southwest along Yaak River Road on a roundabout path back to Libby. This stretch follows the Yaak River. There are various pullouts before the intersection with Highway 2, but the one can’t-miss stop is the Yaak River Falls, where the river tumbles over thick sheets of stone into bubbling pools below.
At Highway 2, turn left toward Troy and Libby. Along the way, you’ll get birds-eye views of the Kootenai River. A popular attraction is the Kootenai Falls and its swinging bridge, which provides breathtaking overlooks of the falls and walking access across the river.
On your way back to the Flathead, you might reflect on the journey and wonder why you hadn’t made it before, when all along it’s been right outside your back door but seemed so much farther, existing only in other people’s stories until you finally decided to tell your own.
PIT STOP: Dirty Shame Saloon
This popular watering hole is a landmark institution in the tiny community of Yaak.