Take a Winter Day-Trip to Lolo Pass


How long has it been since you took a day trip to Lolo Pass? Home to one of the campsites of Lewis and Clark, and the location of trails trekked by the Salish and the Nez Perce Indians, Lolo Pass has been a scenic attraction since—well—a long time.

There’s a good chance that your visit to the Bitterroot crest straddling Idaho and Montana occurred during a summer drive when the temperature was balmy and wildflowers decorated the roadside. Or maybe you enjoyed the journey in October to see a bit of fall color.

But I’m a Missoula boomer who likes to travel the road not taken, which is why my husband Alan and I drove Highway 12 to Lolo Pass on a brisk day in late November when snow decorated the crest of the Bitterroots but sunshine and moderate temperatures promised a nice day.

This was our second drive along Highway 12 from Lolo to the Idaho border, the first occurring on a spirited sports car journey to Lolo Hot Springs. In other words, the scenery was a blur as we zigged and zagged our way up the Bitterroots. I didn’t see anything.

Our November drive up Highway 12 was a different story. We were taking it slow in a four-wheel-drive vehicle in anticipation of slippery road conditions. The backseat contained cold weather gear–water, a blanket and a shovel–just in case.

Snow didn’t appear on the shoulder of the road until a little past Lolo Hot Springs. As the curves became sharper and the grade increased, so did the snow depth. At Lolo Pass, we discovered a winter wonderland of white-covered spruce trees and a snow-filled parking lot.

The Visitor Center was closed (it’s open seven days a week from mid-May to mid-September) but the very clean (and warm) bathrooms were open.

We played in the snow and took photos in front of an interpretive display sign detailing the history of Lolo Pass before exploring a spur road that continued into the woods. Elk Meadows Road is a forest road that meanders the backcountry, eventually coming back out onto Highway 12 near Lolo. From our vantage point the road appeared passable as we traveled beside a meadow that looked perfect for cross-country skiing or snowmobiling.

It was tempting to take the long road home, until we thought better of it. Okay, until I put my foot down and told Alan that we were not taking a forest road for many miles without any food or blankets. Not to mention that no one knew where we were and there was no cell service.

So, we continued back to the Visitor Center and on down Highway 12 toward Lolo. Exploring Elk Meadows Road would have to wait until a summer day, but we’re coming back to Lolo Pass for more winter adventure in January. This time, we’re brining snowshoes and a thermos of hot chocolate.

If you go:

Drive south from Missoula on Highway 93 for approximately 25 miles. At Lolo, turn right onto Highway 12. It’s 20 miles uphill from there. Stop for hamburger soup at Lolo Hot Springs on the way back to Missoula.

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Donna L. Hull writes about active travel for baby boomers at My Itchy Travel Feet, The Baby Boomer’s Guide to Travel. She is also the author of My Itchy Travel Feet, Breathtaking Adventure Vacation Ideas, available at Amazon Kindle, Nook and iTunes.