The Lochsa River is wild and remote. After Lewis and Clark crossed Lolo Pass they continued westward (generally) following the Lochsa River. The Lochsa River headwaters start north of Lolo Pass flowing to the west. On both the north and the south banks of the Lochsa River there is a dense forest. When Lewis and Clark followed the trail it was only a path used only by Native Americans and wild animals. The Lewis and Clark route was 160 miles long.
Today U.S. Highway 12 goes over Lolo Pass and then follows right next to the river. Highway 12 was built starting in 1916 and took more than 43 years to build. The highway was finally completed in 1962. As an indicator of how many people live along this route, more than 95% of the people left the hundred-mile stretch when the road was complete. Today I would estimate the population to be about 200 starting at Lolo Hot Springs all the way to Lowell Idaho. All these people live along the highway. To the north and south for more than forty miles, it is unoccupied.
Corps of Discovery
Until crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, the Corps of Discovery (aka the Lewis and Clark expedition) had a much more moderate trail to follow. Most of their route consisted of endless miles of sagebrush. Even crossing the continental divide near Butte Montana was more moderate than the Lolo Pass over the Bitterroot Mountains. Sergeant Patrick Gass a member of the party called the Bitterroot Mountains “the most terrible mountains he had ever beheld”.
Highway 12 joins the Lochsa River about five miles west of Lolo Pass. At this point, the river is a series of cascades over rocks. Using boats on the Lochsa River wasn’t an option for the Corps of Discovery. Boats of that era would have been torn apart by the rocks and cascades.
As for the Corps of Discovery, they walked, leading pack animals through snow storms when heading west and over snow at the end of June on their return trip heading east. For them, the trip was 160 hard miles each way. Clark in his journal westbound said, “I have been wet and cold in every part as I ever was in my life, indeed I was at one time fearful my feet would freeze in the thin mockersons which I wore”
The Lochsa River Rough Water
The word Lochsa translated from the Native American language is rough water. Along Highway 12 it is easy to see the reason this name applies. Even when we were there in mid-July we saw very few rafts on the river but in certain sections, it is a prime location for whitewater rafting.
Our first camp after crossing Lolo Pass was at the Powell Campground next to the Lochsa Lodge. The other thing in the area was the ranger station. From our campground, you could explore (in a car, horse, or other off-road vehicles) in three new directions. The forest service roads lace the area in a maze of connections. Of course, you could also explore back up the pass which was the subject of our last post. Across the Bitterroot Mountains
Westward from the Lochsa Lodge, along Highway 12, the Lochsa River is known for great fishing.
To the west of the lodge, there are two suspension bridges for foot travel across the river. One leads to a hot spring. We didn’t need to visit a hot spring while we were there because the temperatures were already quite warm.
Both suspension bridges represent the only way to the south side of the river for more than forty miles west of Lochsa Lodge.
Forest Service Roads
Starting in 1910, after the huge forest fire that burned much of northern Idaho and Montana, the Forest Service started building roads through the remaining unburned forest. This forest fire was the subject of our post: The Big Fire
Some of the newly constructed roads were used for logging but now most of the roads are used only for recreation. The Civilian Conservation Corp connected some of the back roads to build the Lolo Motorway in the 1940s. At the time the Lolo Motorway was the only road that connected Montana to Lewiston Idaho crossing four million acres of untouched forest. The Lolo Motorway is just one of the back roads north of the Lochsa River. Now the Lolo Motorway is a recreational back road north of Highway 12. In our explorations of the Forest Service roads, we never found the Lolo Motorway.
On the north side of Highway 12, there are numerous roads winding through the forest. All the roads except very close to Highway 12 are dirt. The roads we explored were barely wide enough for two cars to pass without one pulling to the side. The further we got from the Highway the rougher the roads became.
Some of the roads had only been free of snow for less than a month. Most of the roads are probably easier to explore in the winter on a snow machine than in a passenger car during the summer. All are open to most off-road vehicles. These 4-wheeled vehicles, jeeps, and bikes would be a fun way to explore the back roads.
All the pictures of the mountain vistas in this blog post were taken from these roads through the forest.
The Lochsa River
As you can see from the pictures, the Lochsa River is pretty and the water is very clear. About forty miles west of the Lochsa Lodge the Lochsa River joins the Selway River. There the name changes and the combined flow becomes the Clearwater River. The Clearwater flows further west to join the Snake River.
Wilderness gateway is a campground on the south side of the Lochsa River and is used by backpackers to access the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness area to the south. No motor vehicles are allowed south of Wilderness Gateway. There is however plenty of room to park your horse trailer and use that historic method of transportation deep into the forest.
After a very quiet six nights at the Powell Campground, we departed westbound to the Wilderness Gateway campground. Wilderness Gateway campground is right along the Lochsa River and our campsite was the furthest west campsite in Wilderness Gateway. As we drove into the campground we started to worry.
Not one campsite, until we got to our campsite would even come close to fitting our RV. All the campsites were way too small. Even at our campsite, in order to maneuver the RV while backing up, I had to tie a tree back out of the way. When I cut it loose on our departure it went back to its original location blocking the road for large vehicles. Perhaps someday the Forest Service will cut that tree back and get it out of the way.
After three nights at Wilderness Gateway, we departed for another campsite Ohara Bar.
While at Wilderness Gateway we drove to Ohara Bar just to check our campsite. Mostly we were just out looking for something to do and this seemed as good as any other option. About five miles from the campground we saw a couple of 500-pound boulders in the road. Rather than removing them, the forest service marked them. They were blocking one side of the road. They were too big to move without tools and more damage to the road.
Our campsite at Ohara Bar looked fine. We would fit in the site without difficulty, unlike Wilderness Gateway. The road in and out was good enough, but not great. A bridge crossing the Selway River looked rough but also looked like it would handle any vehicle, even a tank. Just to be sure, we asked a ranger about it. Our campsite was more exposed to the neighbors than we liked, but other than that it was ok. We wouldn’t be getting any electricity from the solar panels, because they had lots of shade.
The next day we departed Wilderness Gateway on our way to Ohara Bar and never made it to the campground. About five miles from the campground, the road was buried under tons of rock. The road wasn’t passable. The two rocks we saw the day before were the first of many to fall and completely close the road.
So, thankfully we were stuck on the road short of our campground. Had we been in the campground, on the far side of the rock slide we would still be there waiting for someone to dig us out. Even though heavy equipment showed up to clear the road that same day, they never unloaded it from the truck. Small rocks were still falling and much bigger rocks were now exposed. They looked ready to join the pile at the bottom at any moment.
The loader operator decided he wasn’t going to clear the road because any disturbance to the pile at the bottom would most certainly cause a bigger slide. I don’t blame him for not wanting to ride it out.
So the road was closed, and we were parked right next to the Selway River. Instead of trying to find a different place to camp, we decided that this was good enough. We figured that it would be quiet since the road was closed and there wasn’t any traffic going through in either direction. We would leave in the morning and drive to the next town westbound, hoping for cell service enough to find a place to stay for the night.
Starting at the top of Lolo Pass, all the way to Lowell Idaho three things were very apparent. The first thing is that the Powell Campground was by far the best of the three. Second, in the sixty-mile downhill stretch of road, there wasn’t one spot where you weren’t either on a curve or planning for your next curve. Third, there wasn’t any cell service anywhere. This includes the forest roads even when climbing way above the valley floor.
FoxRVTravel Bad Roads for RVs Lolo Pass