Classic Roads: US 12 Through Montana and Idaho

Classic Roads: US 12 Through Montana and Idaho

This remote section of US 12, between Missoula, MT, and the western border of Idaho, is known as the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. It’s a segment of the cross-country Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and part of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. As the names imply, this route holds a special place in American history. For touring motorcyclists, the road offers one of the country’s most exhilarating riding experiences.

Not far from the Lolo Pass Visitor Center is that iconic road sign advising that there will be a “winding road, next 99 miles.” The Bitterroot Mountains, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition almost foundered, seem just as they must have in 1805, when the Corps of Discovery began its ascent. Soon after cresting Lolo Pass, the road follows a serpentine path along cascading rivers rushing through some of the most beautiful, undisturbed landscape in all of America. It’s a feast for the senses.

The route is approximately 220 miles long one way and offers few roadside services. There are campgrounds in the area, but relatively little in the way of lodging, gas, and restaurants. One notable place to stop for food, rest, and overnight accommodations is Lochsa Lodge in Lolo, ID. Be sure to take ample stores of food and water, fill the tank, and call Lochsa Lodge for the location of open gas stations before heading out.

Points of Interest

Missoula, MT

Located at the convergence of three rivers (Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot) and five mountain ranges (Bitterroot Mountains, Garnet Range, Rattlesnake Mountains, Reservation Divide, and Sapphire Range), Missoula occupies the bottomland of a large geological bowl first inhabited by humans some 12,000 years ago. This town of 73,000 is the state’s cultural center, hosting the University of Montana, trendy restaurants, and a lively arts community.

Traveler’s Rest State Park

The Lewis and Clark Expedition camped here on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and 1806, respectively. This National Historic Site is the Expedition’s only archaeologically verified campsite. Find it at 6717 Hwy 12 W, Lolo, MT, (406) 273-4253

Lolo Pass Visitor Center

This facility is located near where Lewis and Clark crossed over the Bitterroot Mountains during their famous expedition. The facility has an interpretive center and other informative materials. Find it at 44000 US 12, Lolo, MT, at the border between Montana and Idaho, (208) 942-3113

Lochsa Historical Ranger Station

This former ranger station was the Forest Service’s administrative hub for a system of fire lookouts and smoke chaser cabins. The cluster of buildings is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; be sure to take the walking tour. Find it at mile marker 121.5 on US 12, (208) 926-4274

Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center

The visitor center is at the epicenter of the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which consists of 38 sites in Idaho and several surrounding states. The park sites tell the story of the Nez Perce people. Find the visitor center at 39063 US 95, Lapwai, ID, (208) 843-7009

Tsceminicum Public Sculpture

This sculpture, featuring a Native American woman, symbolizes the Earth Mother in Nez Perce legends. Tsceminicum is the Nez Perce word for “meeting of the waters.” Find it overlooking the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers in Lewiston, ID.