Going Off-the-Beaten-Path on Elk Meadows Road

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“Come explore me.” Does a dirt road ever call your name? Elk Meadows Road (Lolo National Forest Road #373) has been calling ours ever since Alan and I discovered it on an early spring drive to Lolo Pass. The road starts (or ends) at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center on the Idaho side of Highway 12. Then it meanders through the Bitterroot mountains before reconnecting with Highway 12 near Lolo, Montana.

Starting down Elk Meadows Road on the Idaho side of the Lolo National Forest
We’re finally exploring Elk Meadows Road in the Lolo National Forest

On our first attempt to drive Elk Meadows Road on a sunny April day, snow was about knee high. “We’ll only drive a little way,” Alan told me. But I knew better. If we started on the journey, he’d be determined to finish it. At that time, we knew nothing about the road or the area. I could just picture the Missoulian Newspaper headlines: Local Couple Rescued by Helicopter After a Dumb Decision to Drive Elk Meadows Road in the Snow.

Luckily, we stopped to talk with two men who were parking their car on the side of the road to begin a morning of cross-country skiing.

“How’s the drive on Elk Meadows Road?” Alan asked.

“Do you have a chainsaw?” one of them asked.

“No,” Alan replied.

“There will be plenty of blowdown from this winter. The road might be tough going,” said the other man.

Waving goodbye to the cross-country skiers, Alan continued down the road for a short distance.”We don’t have a chain saw,” I said, giving him my special look.

And so we waited until one of July’s finest days, after the forest service had a chance to clear the road, to go backcountry exploring. Our off-the-beaten-path journey began with a stop inside the Lolo Pass Visitor’s Center to ask about the condition of the road. I browsed the great selection of books—and bought Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and Idaho Road & Recreation Atlas—while Alan confirmed that Elk Meadows Road was drivable.

When exploring National Forest roads, always check road conditions online or at a National Forest visitor’s center (if one is nearby).

Back in the Jeep, the adventure on #373 began as we rolled past Packer Meadows where Lewis and Clark camped on their way west in September 1805. The weather was pleasant enough that we could roll down the windows, letting in the sound of tires crunching on dirt. In a mile or so the road dipped downhill, giving us views of a splendid mountain wilderness (although some former logging was evident). Forest  and old logging roads spread out in several directions, giving us a reason to return for another adventure.

Crossing a creek on Elk Meadows Road in Lolo National Forest
With no cars behind us, we took in the view for as long as we wanted.

Crossing a creek, Alan stopped the Jeep on a bridge. Water tumbled through the thick forest and over stones in the creek bed as we watched for wildlife. But none appeared, so we drove on. At a sign for Lily Lake, Alan parked the vehicle at a wide spot in the road. After dousing ourselves in bug spray and grabbing the bear spray, we walked the short trail that led to the lake. On the way, we were rewarded with a prolific wildflower display.

Bear grass near Lily Lake on Elk Meadows Road in Lolo National Forest, Idaho
Have you ever seen this much bear grass?

Fields of bear grass—more than I have ever seen—waved feathery blooms in the wind. All the while, I was saying loudly, “Hey, bear. Hey, Mr. bear.” There was ample reason for my noisiness. Seeing a black bear walk out from behind a tree was a distinct possibility considering our wilderness location.

Lily Lake on Elk Meadows Road, Idaho
The beautiful scene at Lily Lake

On the edge of the lake, Alan and I marveled at the beauty of this spot. No doubt a moose had been standing in our exact location at some time recently. Unfortunately, no moose were present on this day. Continuing the drive, we watched for Elk Meadows, which has the reputation for good wildlife sightings. Although we never saw a sign, at one point, there was a turnoff to the right. I saw the glint of sun on a car hood as we passed by.

About a mile or so later, the road began to climb again so Alan turned the Jeep around to go back to see if what I had seen was the Elk Meadows campsites. Sure enough, when we pulled in, a family had set up camp with RV and tents plus another makeshift tarp lean-to rested against the trees at another campsite. Not wanting to disturb anyone, Alan and I continued up the road to find our own picnic spot.

Skookum Butte Trail in the Lolo National Forest on the border of Montana and Idaho
Skookum Butte Trail. Are we in Montana or Idaho or maybe both?

At Road #2186, Alan turned the Jeep left and drove until we found a shady spot for lunch, which happened to be by the turnoff to Skookum Butte Trail. After lunch, we walked up the road to the trail and started the hike to Skookum Butte Lookout (3.2 miles roundtrip). The trail meandered through a meadow before crossing a creek and climbing  moderately uphill.

After crossing a road the trail became steep. Not knowing how long the rest of the drive would take us, Alan and I decided to finish the trail to the lookout on another day. But we took time to stand in the meadow and soak in the surrounding mountainous scenery of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

On the Montana side, Elk Meadows Road left the wide open view for a forested ride with lots of curves in the road. After passing several parked cars and viewing people walking around in the woods, we realized that it was huckleberry picking season. Next time, we’ll stop and pick enough for a pie.

Check out our selection of  Scenic Drive articles for more travel ideas.

Elk Meadows Road rejoined Highway 12 near Lolo, Montana. And all of those warnings about Elk Meadows being a treacherous road were not true on this particular sunny day in July. In fact, the drive could have been easily accomplished in a passenger vehicle. But that’s not always the case. If you plan to drive the road, be sure to check the weather forecast and road conditions with the National Forest service.


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