Whether the road is a highway or a dirt track, driving tours are one of the most popular ways to experience our incredible National Forests. Thanks to support from Ford’s Bronco Wild Fund, the NFF is helping ensure our National Forests stay beautiful and healthy for all users of our public lands. Through this blog series, we’re highlighting just a few of the incredible routes Bronco owners and all drivers can take to connect with their National Forests. Remember to know before you go by checking with local managing agencies for updates and restrictions. When going off-highway, keep to designated OHV routes to limit impacts on water resources and wildlife habitat. And consider planting trees with the NFF to help offset the carbon footprint of your trip: planting two trees can mitigate 1 ton of CO2 over the trees’ lifetime!
About the Route
Route Distance: 32 miles
Suggested Duration: 5 hours
Nearest Cities: Missoula, Montana
Starting Point: Lolo Pass Visitor Center
Ending Point: Highway 12 10-mile marker
Forty miles southwest of Missoula, MT, sitting at 5,233 feet in elevation, Lolo Pass straddles the Idaho-Montana border along Highway 12. Starting at the top of the pass from the Lolo Pass Visitor Center, Elk Meadows Road (Forest Service Road #373) is a scenic gravel road meandering through the Idaho side of Bitterroot Mountains in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest before reconnecting to Highway 12 near the town of Lolo on the Montana side in the Lolo National Forest.
Lolo Pass is the apex of the historic Lolo Trail that runs between Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and Idaho’s Weippe Prairie. It’s famous for being part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition route, and as the “Nez Perce Trail” (naptnisaqs in Salish) where, in 1877 during the Nez Perce War, Chief Joseph led his people over the pass to flee the U.S. Army. Not long after crossing the pass, the two forces fought at the Battle of the Big Hole in Montana.
Elk Meadows Road is only open to vehicles in the summertime when snow-free, but is available to snowmobiles in the winter months. Warning signs state the Elk Meadows Road is treacherous—and it can be at certain times of the year, like early spring—but small passenger vehicles have been known to navigate it safely. Always check the weather and road conditions with the Forest Service before heading out for a beautiful sunny afternoon drive.
Shortly after leaving the Lolo Pass Visitor Center, Elk Meadows Road passes Packer Meadow, where Lewis and Clark camped in 1805 and became snowbound on their way west. This alpine meadow, slightly forested with towering subalpine firs and western larch, boasts a riot of wildflowers in late summer months. The road dips downhill after about a mile, offering views of the vast Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness with its craggy snow-crested peaks.
Lily Lake Trail
A few miles down from the bridge, at a wide spot in the road, look for a sign for the Lily Lake trailhead. This short out-and-back trail leads through an array of wildflowers, including beargrass, larkspur, Indian paintbrush, and Sitka valerian, to a calm lake encompassed in a large alpine meadow. This spot is excellent for a picnic or just sitting and watching for wildlife. The lake also has a few campsites. Berry pickers can find good huckleberries in the lodgepole forests from mid-July through August.
Continuing the drive, the road grade climbs again for a few miles before Elk Meadows. As the name suggests, this meadow has a reputation for great wildlife sightings like elk, moose, black bears, ospreys, and bald eagles.
Skookum Butte Trail
A little ways down the road, drivers will come to a junction with Forest Service Road #2186. Down this road is a turnoff for Skookum Butte Trail, a 3.2 mile out-and-back trail leads to Skookum Butte Lookout. This short hike winds through a meadow with grand views of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. It crosses a creek and climbs gently uphill before the grade steepens towards more sweeping vistas and topping out at a historic lookout building, built in 1928, at 7,215 feet on a rocky outcrop. This is a beautiful spot to take in lofty views of hundreds of miles of timber-rich mountains of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest to the southwest and the Lolo National Forest to the northeast.
From here, Elk Meadows Road leaves the large open views before scribbling back through forested regions, winding back down towards the town of Lolo, where it rejoins Highway 12.