Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (US-12) RV Trip

June 2022 – Traversing the state of Idaho between Montana and Washington, the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (US-12) follows fast flowing and wildly zig-zagging rivers for about 200 miles, paralleling part of the 8,000 mile route that Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery took on their famous out-and-back cross-country expedition in 1805-06.

We had eyed this route on the map several times and had heard how beautiful it is from friends, but we’d never ventured down it with our RV.

What a wonderful RV trip it turned out to be, especially the eastern portion in Montana and just over the border into Idaho!

Camas in bloom in Packer Meadow at Lolo Pass on US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway Montana

Camas flowers in bloom on the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway in Montana

Starting on US-12 in Lolo, Montana, just northwest of Missoula, the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway goes for 200 miles, branching into two forks west of Kooskia, ID, that reconnect in Spalding, ID, and ending at sister cities Lewiston, ID and Clarkston, Washington.

Mark always jokes that if there’s a big straight freeway and a little narrow squiggly road nearby, I’ll always put us on the twisty route. Well, there isn’t a freeway option with this route, and it’s about as squirrely a route as you can find on a map.

I confess, I was a little nervous when we started.

US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway in Montana and Idaho

US-12 is EXTREMELY twisty and made us a little nervous driving a big ol’ RV on it!

But it turns out that what looks like a crazy, kinky and possibly scary road with a big RV is actually a beautiful and wide highway that gently winds steadily downhill if you start at the east end of the Byway in Montana. Towing our 33’ fifth wheel toy hauler on this road was not a problem.

Northwest Passage Scenic Byway US-12 highway in Idaho and Montana

It turned out the Northwest Passage Scenic Drive on US-12 in Montana and Idaho is actually easy to drive with an RV as it’s fairly flat with gentle sweeping turns.

We stopped at Lolo Pass to learn a little about the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. We found out later that this is the only place on the road with information about what lies ahead until you get to some of the big towns near the western end of the Byway. It’s also the last spot for reliable cell phone and internet access. So, if you take this RV trip, stock up on whatever literature you’ll need at Lolo Pass and do whatever online research you need to do before you leave that visitors center!

A ranger mentioned that the Packer Meadow lies out back behind the visitors center and that the famous Camas flower was in full bloom at that moment.

We’d never heard of the Packer Meadow or its famous flower, but we discovered we’d been fortunate to arrive here when the flowers were at their peak. A big flower festival was going to take place there the next day, so right now was the best time to enjoy these flowers by ourselves without hundreds of fellow tourists.

Buddy was thrilled at this news and promptly ran into the meadow.

Sitting in the wildflowers

Buddy ran into the meadow and then stopped to smell the flowers!

The sun was getting low in the sky and we quickly made the most of this incredibly special opportunity.

Photographing Camas flowers Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

We were so fortunate to see Packer Meadow at sunset at the peak of the Camas flower bloom. We’d never heard of either the meadow or the flowers until a ranger told us to step out back and check it out!

B&W Gooseneck Ball for Ram Trucks

We later learned that Packer Meadow is a place where the Lewis & Clark expedition stopped on two occasions.

The first was on September 20, 1805, when the Corps of Discovery met members of the Nez Perce trib. They conversed a bit in sign language and then the Indians offered them some tasty buffalo meat and soup.

The second occasion was on their return trip on June 11, 1806, when the “quamash” flowers were in full bloom!

Lewis wrote a very detailed botanical description of the flower, complete with drawings and the latest in anatomical descriptions according to the botanical books they carried in their portable library. Besides his extremely precise description of this flower, he wrote eloquently:

“The quamash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom and at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could have swoarn it was water.”

And so it was during our visit 216 years later.

Blooming Camas flowers Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

“I could have swoarn it was water…”

In addition to making sure we saw these mesmerizing fields of lavender tinged blue flowers, the ranger had also mentioned that we absolutely had to stop at the Lochsa Lodge about 16 miles further down the Byway because they had the best huckleberry cobbler in the world.

With visions of huckleberry cobbler dancing in our heads, we hustled down the road and found a spot to stay next door at Powell Campground. We were up first thing the next morning to check out the cobbler at the lodge!

Lochsa Lodge is a beautiful rustic log cabin with a fabulous dining and bar area inside and a large porch overlooking the mountains out back.

Lochsa Lodge Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Lochsa Lodge is famous for its huckleberry cobbler.

And the huckleberry cobbler is truly out of this world. They served it with a big scoop of huckleberry ice cream and four big dollops of whipped cream.

Huckleberry Cobbler at Lochsa Lodge Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Nevermind breakfast — this was a feast fit for a king and queen at 7:30 in the morning!

Despite the early hour, we dug in with gusto.

Eating Huckleberry Cobbler at Lochsa Lodge Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Nope, our eyes weren’t bigger than our stomachs. This went down very easily!

Powell Campground is a very pleasant USFS campground with paved loops, reservable sites with hookups and a few first-come-first-serve dry camping sites.

We liked it so much we ended up staying for four days. And we hit the Lochsa Lodge for a piece of huckleberry cobbler every single day!

Kids had a blast riding their bikes all around the campground loops, and there were some wonderful stands of tall fuzzy white flowers in the woods.

Powell Campground Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Powell Campground was full of happy kids riding their bikes on the paved loops.

Unusual flowers Powell Campground Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

These unusual flowers filled the woods all around the campground.

While we were at the lodge one day, we started chatting with a fellow at the next table who seemed to be a regular. It turned out he was in the area getting trained to man a wildfire lookout tower, a job he did each summer.

“My wife does it too,” he said casually.

“That must be really nice to have all that quiet time together in the tower,” I said, kinda wondering to myself how all that togetherness would work out.

“Oh, no, actually, she takes a job in a different tower!”

Well, I guess having lots of quiet time apart can be beneficial too!!

He told us there was a fire lookout tower right across the street up on a mountain, so we took the RZR on the dirt road over there and went hunting for the tower.

Forest road view from a Polaris RZR

We headed out in the RZR in search of a fire lookout tower up some mountain somewhere!

The road climbed up and around and we felt out way at the various intersections, sticking to the bigger trail at each one. Eventually we spotted the tower in the distance.

We were at a pretty high elevation by now, and there was a huge patch of snow on the ground in front of it. Pretty good for mid-June!

Fire Watch Tower Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

There was still a patch of snow on the north side of the fire lookout tower.

Happy Camper Holding Tank Treatment

There didn’t appear to be anyone in the tower, and there was a sturdy metal door blocking the stairway that went up into it.

Fire lookout tower Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway-2

We couldn’t go up the stairs, but the fire lookout tower sure had a great 360 degree bird’s eye view!

The watchman keeps watch in a single room at the top that has windows on all sides. They’re in communication with the other towers in the area and with a central office too. If any of them spots smoke, word spreads quickly.

Fire lookout tower windows have panoramic views

Looking out from this tower, the watchman can let the USFS know if there’s smoke anywhere.

Years ago, I met a man who was spending a summer in a fire lookout tower in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was delighted to have a curious visitor on a mountain bike show up at the base of the tower, and he gave me a tour and told me a little about the job.

It seemed like a pretty lonely job, but he explained there was a real need to have eyes on the surrounding forest at all times. He was working on a novel, and he said that if he couldn’t get his novel written in these gorgeous and utterly isolated surroundings, then he never could!

Today there’s lots of sophisticated technology available to detect smoke and heat sources out in the forests, but in certain places a watchman is still needed.

This fire lookout tower sits at the top of a mountain with views in every direction.

View from Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

The views around the lookout tower went on forever.

Views from Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway


The wildfire tower watchman stays at the tower for extended periods, so there’s a wood stove inside and an outhouse down the hill.

Outhouse on Montana US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

“Hmmmm…what’s in here?”

Unlike most bathrooms, this outhouse had a lock on the outside of the door instead of on the inside.

Outhouse door lock

The outhouse door locked from the outside…

Once inside, we understood why: to keep the wildlife out! The toilet had a special cap under the seat that came with instructions to keep it in place when the toilet wasn’t in use so the critters wouldn’t make a mess!!

Toilet seat instructions in an outhouse

Keep the critters out!

The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway follows the Lochsa River downstream. There had been a lot of snow that past winter, so the spring runoff made the river run fast and furious.

Lochsa Rivder Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

The Lochsa River was running very fast.

Lochsa River on Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway 2

We took little excursions from Powell Campground down US-12 in our truck to catch glimpses of the river and visit some of the pack mule bridges that cross the river. These are historic old suspension bridges that make it possible to get from the highway side of the river to the rough trails on the other side.

Suspension bridge on Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

There are several suspension bridges that cross the Lochsa River

RV Keyless entry door lock
Suspension bridge on Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway 2

The trails on the far sides of the suspension bridges were pretty rugged.

We also hiked the Warm Springs Trail. This easy out-and-back trail took us deep into the woods. Buddy was completely in his element running ahead of us on the soft dirt trail under the towering pines. He had to wait for us slow pokes a lot, but he was okay with that.

Hiking Warm Springs Trail Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Buddy waits for the two slower hikers in our group on Warm Springs Trail.

Warm Springs Trail Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Warm Springs trail was a lovely stroll on a soft pine needle bed beneath ramrod straight towering pines.

Mark was in his element too. What a beautiful place!

Hike Warm Springs Trail Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Mark was in his element.

Sun in the trees Idaho US-12 Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

The sun peeked through the trees every now and then.

Tree tops

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
– e.e. cummings

Here and there we spotted tiny wildflowers blooming too.

Wildflower in Montana

Such perfection. This flower was tiny.

We finally tore ourselves away from Powell Campground and continued down the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway with our trailer in tow.

We caught a glimpse of the Selway River and then made our way through the small towns in the western portion of the Byway until we landed in Clarkston, Washington.

Selway River Idaho

The Selway River branches off near Kooskia, Idaho.

Selway River Idaho 2

The Selway River was a little calmer than the Lochsa River.

Much of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway is simply a winding road between two walls of tall pines, and we stopped in the various small towns at the east end to check them out, but these pretty spots in Montana at the west end were our favorites.

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19 thoughts on “Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (US-12) RV Trip

  1. Amazing! I am always in awe by the beauty of your posts. We have been to several of the places you have visited, and look forward to many more! As a Canadian Snowbirder, I can wholeheartedly agree that there is so much to explore in both of our great countries with an RV. I can’t hardly believe it but my wife and I will have been to all of Utah’s “Mighty Five” by April. If you inspire even one more person to get out and explore, your blog will be worth it. Thanks again for all you do!

    • Wow! Thank you very much, Leonard. You are so right — we live in a beautiful part of the world that is so easy to see by RV. How fortunate we are to have all these glorious landscapes right outside our door to explore. Congrats on seeing all of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks by April (Bryce, Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands for anyone reading this who isn’t sure which ones they are). Those are all truly breathtaking National Parks. I do hope that our blog continues to inspire people to get out and travel. It means the world to us to know it is appreciated!

  2. We happened to be taking this same route, in the same direction last August. We were in a hurry to get to Wallowa State Park. So we did not get to stop and enjoy the sights you saw in this post. It makes me want to go back! Near Spaulding there is a great BLM managed camp with hookups right on the river that was our one overnight stay. It was amazing! A fun and very squiggly route is Hwy. 3 from Clarkston to the town of Enterprise! It is a nail biter but doable. Very pretty!

  3. Took me down memory lane. I worked as a young biologist for the US Forest Service from 1984 to 1988 at Powell Ranger Station right next to Lochsa Lodge. Many trips up there for coffee, lunch and dinner. I got to explore all of the surrounding country as a part of my job as well as enjoying the hunting and fishing. For much of that time I commuted with several people from the town of Lolo to the Station. Never missed a day of work until one winter an avalanche closed the road, unfortunately a skier died that day in a nearby avalanche and I spent the day helping with the recovery. I also traveled frequently to Orofino and Lewiston for meetings and loved that lonely and beautiful section of highway. The Lewis and Clark history is fantastic and I spent a lot of time up on the Lolo motorway where the Corps actually traversed. What a great place…thanks for sharing your travels.

    • What a beautiful trip down memory lane, Dick. Thank you for telling your story! It sounds like an idyllic start for a young biologist, out in a gorgeous part of the country, driving up and down that incredible route, and having the time to study the Lewis & Clark history right where it happened.

      I grabbed a bunch of absolutely fascinating literature about that part of their journey when we were there specifically so I could relay some of the unique and eye-popping tidbits when I wrote this post (which is why it was delayed so long). Unfortunately, I can’t find any of it now, and none of the info I half remember is readily available on the internet.

      That expedition was absolutely incredible, and the fortitude, courage, patience and brilliance of the leaders and their men is very hard to fathom in this day and age and has been way too easily lost or dismissed in the retelling of their story. We didn’t make it to the Lolo Motorway on the ridges above the rivers where they actually traveled — next time!!

  4. Greetings to the three of you! I’ve followed and enjoyed your blog for years. You even drove through my hometown of Harlowton Montana a few years ago. I lived in the Kooskia Idaho area for a short time, what an enchanted area from there going east along the Lochsa River to the Idaho / Montana border. I’m a little confused, though. You said the pretty spots in Montana at the west end were our favorites, but I thought the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway was totally in Idaho? Sorry if I’m mistaken.

    • Thank you for following our blog all these years, Dan. How fun that we drove through your hometown a few years ago too! I sure didn’t mean to discredit the enchantment of the towns at the western end of the route. Kooskia and Kamiah (Idaho) were lovely! However, we were in (too much of) a hurry by the time we got there because we dawdled for 4 days at the beginning of the Byway at the eastern end, so we didn’t have much to share about our experiences in those towns.

      Heading westward, I believe the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway begins in Montana at Lolo Pass (where the Camas flowers were in bloom). I hadn’t noticed until you pointed it out that Lochsa Lodge and Powell Campground are just over the border in Idaho — I thought the Montana border came after passing those landmarks! The rest of the Byway is in indeed in Idaho.

      I’m not sure, but I would imagine the inviting town of Clarkston, WA, is considered a part of the Byway too. So, a small part of it may be in Washington. Afterall, you can’t have tourists go through Lewiston, ID, and not have them take in Clarkston, WA too!

      Thanks for your eagle eyes and happy trails!

  5. Every time I think you two have brought us the most beautiful photos and views, you outdo yourselves!

    I’ll take the small windy, curvy back roads every time! Thanks for another beautiful tour of our great country.

  6. Discovery….the ultimate joy of travel !!! Great narrative and photography, especially for this armchair traveler….love those fields of the blue Camas flower.
    Love, Mom

    • I thought those fields of flowers would be a welcome sight in the middle of this cold snap in January!! Mark and I were joking just yesterday that armchair travel is sometimes the best kind — all the pleasures of discovery can be found on the internet with lovely descriptions, beautiful images and no discomforts!! xoxo

  7. We traversed this road before our SXS days. So serene and beautiful. We had our 21’ Class C and was able to park in little pull offs alongside the road. Awakening to smoke coming off the water was the best morning views I’ve ever seen anywhere! So glad you captured this road perfectly. 😀

    • Thank you, Annie! You sure saw this road in an idyllic way. There were lots of smaller rigs out there with us, and we envied their ease of parking in the pullouts and in the campgrounds. But any way you can get out there is a good way!


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