Take an Idyllic Drive on the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway
Out in the wilds of Idaho between the river town of Lewiston, Idaho, and the mountain heights at Lolo Pass, the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway is an idyllic drive along pristine waterways and rolling mountains.
As if pulled inside a Bob Ross painting, the 202-mile scenic road is packed with incredible views, rich history and natural splendor, taking you into the traditional lands of the Nez Perce and the route of the famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Beautiful in all seasons, this tour offers plenty of worthy sights and recreational opportunities for winter adventurers.
Kicking off at Lewiston
Your journey starts in Lewiston, a vibrant city of museums, restaurants, wineries and breweries. While in Lewiston, go see the statue “Tsceminicum” (meaning “meeting of the waters” in the Nez Perce language) at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. It depicts Mother Earth as a Nez Perce woman with water flowing from her fingertips into a fountain. The figure emerges from a block containing carvings of bighorn sheep and other scenes of nature.
Beyond Lewiston, U.S. 12 mirrors the Clearwater River. After passing Clearwater River Casino & Lodge, you’ll reach the junction with U.S. Route 95. Take this turn to go to the Nez Perce National Historical Park and Visitor Center, which is open Tuesday through Saturday during the winter.
Plan to spend at least an hour here as you take in the Nez Perce cultural exhibits, hiking trails, historic buildings and scenery. Backtrack to U.S. 12 and you’ll soon encounter a historic marker where the legend of the Ant and the Yellowjacket took place. This is one of many roadside stops with deep significance to the Nez Perce along their historic trail.
The next must stop is at the Canoe Camp just north of Orofino, where the Nez Perce helped Lewis and Clark carve canoes to take them westward. After that, you can make a short detour off the highway at Orofino and head via state Route 7 to Dworshak Dam, which is among the tallest dams in the U.S. and has created a 54-mile-long reservoir.
From Orofino, it is possible to hop on the 57-mile-long Elk River Back Country Byway, which heads north to the towns of Elk River and Bovill. Elk River grants access to 300 miles of snowmobiling trails and 20 miles of groomed trails for winter fun, while offering camping, boating and fishing during other seasons.
If you proceed from Orofino south on U.S. 12 toward Greer, however, you’ll find another good detour option: the 42-mile Gold Rush Historic Byway. This detour offers the best views of the Clearwater Valley as you head east to Weippe, not far from where Lewis and Clark first encountered the Nez Perce in 1805. Past Weippe, you’ll run into the town of Pierce (site of the first major gold rush in Idaho), a logging museum and other historical spots. In the winter, you can find places to ski and snowmobile on 350 miles of groomed and open trails. Take a day on the slopes on the Clearwater Mountains at the rustic Bald Mountain Ski Area.
Continuing south from Greer along U.S. 12, you’ll soon encounter Kamiah. Near the town, a mound of dirt rises from the nearby flat landscape. It is a Nez Perce landmark that represents the heart of a mythical monster in the tribe’s creation story.
Heading south you reach Kooskia. From here, U.S. 12 veers northeast toward Missoula, Montana. But rather than heading east at this point, consider taking a side trip south to Grangeville via state Route 13, which follows the South Fork of the Clearwater River. The town has breweries, coffee shops and a historic movie theater.
No visit is complete without a stop at Eimers-Soltman Park behind the Grangeville Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center. Here, you’ll find a replica of a mammoth that was found in nearby Tolo Lake. The mammoth stands 14 feet tall and 17 feet in length from tusk to tail. For winter activities, check out Snowhaven Ski and Tubing Area near Grangeville.
Back in Kooskia, grab a bite before nightfall. If you’ve taken your time thus far, stopping here would be wise as you’ll want full daylight to enjoy the next section.
Heading to Lolo Pass
East of Kooskia along U.S. 12, you’ll drive into the wilds of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. For 100 miles, the road weaves with the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River and then Lochsa River toward Lolo Pass. Amenities are sparse, but recreation opportunities abound. Dozens of trails are found on either side of the road, many of which start by crossing gorgeous bridges across the river. Even if you don’t hike, stop for great views of the wild and scenic Lochsa River.
When planning a trip within the national forest during the winter, it is always a good idea to check road conditions and accessibility in advance. Find detailed and up-to-date recreation information by contacting or visiting the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest offices. Selway Falls is located on a detour up Selway River Road by Three Rivers Resort, which closes in late November for the winter.
The falls are quite pretty — particularly during the spring runoff from April through June — although snow makes the mostly gravel Selway River Road inaccessible in the winter. The DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove (also inaccessible during the winter) is near Lolo Pass, showing off breathtaking stands of towering, ancient western red cedars.
As if there wasn’t enough to do, hot springs enthusiasts can find spots to soak. The first hot springs you will come across is Weir Creek Hot Springs. Accessible after a short hike from a trailhead near Elk City, Weir Creek is a local favorite. A few miles away, Jerry Johnson Hot Springs is reached after a short hike from Warm Springs Pack Bridge. At both, nudity is common. For a more amenity-filled and clothed hot spring, Lolo Hot Springs is 8 miles beyond Lolo Pass.
The end of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway is atop Lolo Pass, where the visitors center has information on Lewis and Clark’s journey across the Bitterroot Mountains and the sad story of the 1877 flight of the Nez Perce. The facility includes an interpretive center, bookstore and gift shop, restrooms, as well as picnic tables and interpretive trails.
The pass doubles as a rest stop and a fantastic recreational destination for winter sports enthusiasts. During the winter, there is a fee to use the Lolo Pass trails. From here, you can either head back down the road, retracing the steps of Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce, and stopping at all the spots you missed on the drive up, or continue heading east to Missoula, Montana. The adventure is just getting started.
—Written by Douglas Scott
—Top photo of Bald Mountain Ski Area is from Facebook.
This article appears in the Winter 2023 edition of AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.