Lolo Pass is a mountain pass in the Bitterroot mountain range that connects the states of Idaho and Montana. The Pass is also the the highest point on the historic Lolo Trail which saw the Lewis and Clarke expedition in 1805 and Chief Joseph’s tragic journey leading his people home in 1877.
In addition to having rich history, the landscapes are abundant with natural beauty. Clear rivers, thick woods, hot springs – route 12 through Lolo Pass will strike you with breathtaking views all the way from Kooskia, Idaho to the Lolo summit.
Kooskia is a town which sits within the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Nez Perce literally means “pierced nose”, which is a name that was given to the indigenous people of the region by French fur traders. Niimíipuu, as they were originally known, were the original peoples of the land for over 14,000 years before first contact with the Europeans.
The reason I mention this is because the history is really well preserved here and you can’t help but feel a solemness when you read about the tragedies that took place, like Chief Joseph’s famous retreat and surrender.
Back to the journey.
We started slowly in Kooskia because it was happy hour at the Selway Bar. $1.50 cans of PBR? That’s hard to pass up even if you know you have a big ride up ahead! Bellies full of beer, we met up with route 12 for the first time and found ourselves cycling alongside the most clear river you’ll ever see in your life.
A lot of people had told us that the route 12 to the Lolo summit was a really hard climb. From Kooskia to the top it was 4,400 feet of climbing but, because it’s spread over 100 miles, we found it really manageable.
Before I keep talking about how amazing route 12 is to ride, I need to interrupt this positive post with a criticism of the ride: It was pretty scary on the Idaho side at times. There isn’t much a shoulder at all. When you do have a shoulder, it’s chewed up sometimes to the edge line of the road. This means that even though you’re sticking to the shoulder, you’ll have to dip into the road frequently. There’s a speed limit of 50 miles per hour, but we often saw cars going really fast, which made for some nervous moments when combined with the shoulder situation.
When we travelled through here in summer 2018, there was improvements being made to the road. Hopefully this means the shoulder will be better for riding by the time you ride it!
You’ll have a lot of camping options on route 12, as the road takes you through the popular Clearwater National Forest.
If you wild camp, you’ll feel very much at home here. Dispersed camping is completely open at the Clearwater National Forest as long as you’re 5 miles from a recreational campground and 100 feet away from any streams or other water sources.
Our first campsite was Wild Goose campground, which is a paid campground right on the beach of the river. I use the term ‘beach’ because it’s literally a little sandy beach there! When we were setting up our tent, a man in the neighbouring campsite offered us free firewood. “I always try to help cyclists” he said, while shrugging to indicate he hadn’t done anything he wouldn’t do any other day.
We then camped at a great free campground called Colgate Licks. The campground was full but we had multiple offers from RV campers to squeeze us into their spot. It was there we met Steve, Andrea, Arnold and Alicia who were camping there. They invited us to have breakfast with them and stuffed us both full of pancakes. Steve (with the white hat) had been on a bicycle tour of his own across the country and said that he experienced so much kindness on his bicycle tour that he passes it along to other travelling cyclists whenever he can.
Our third night camping was at the Lochsa Lodge. They don’t advertise it but the lodge lets cyclists camp behind the Lodge store for free! The man running the store, Tommy, really looked after us and made us feel at home. The food is a little expensive at the Lodge but you can buy cheap food at the Lodge store and they even light a nice bonfire most nights.
The best part of the Lolo trip for us was stopping at the Warm Springs. It’s easy to miss this stop but just after the Jerry Johnson campground you will see a big wooden bridge going across the river. After you cross the bridge, you’ll have a short hike through lush forests, which will open up to the Warm Springs. You can either sit in a perfect warm bath temperature pool, or sit closer to the river where the warm spring water mixes with the cold water of the river. Sitting in some of the pools you can have a warm upper body and cold feet! It was really interesting and a great treat for the body after a day of cycling.
The last 7-8 miles of the climb gave us a decent work-out. It wouldn’t be a mountain pass without a little bit of hard work, right? Once you’re up the top, though, you arrive at Montana! Or, if you’re travelling the other way, congratulations you’re in Idaho. But wait, don’t miss out on stopping at the Lolo Pass Visitor Centre!
The Lolo Pass Visitor Centre was the best one we’ve been to. You’ll get free coffee, tea or hot chocolate and learn about the history of the indigenous peoples of the area and the Lewis and Clarke expedition. They’ve also got free wifi for you to plan the rest of your trip.
If you’re travelling by bike through the North-West, definitely go through Lolo Pass. You can find information on the Adventure Cycling Association website as the Lolo Pass features on the popular TransAmerica route.