The Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway is a designated 67-mile drive on a paved road that runs through Northwest Montana. The drive stretches between the small towns of Eureka and Libby, following the Kootenai River and the eastern shoreline of Lake Koocanusa.
Participants on the drive get treated to some seriously scenic sights along the way, especially as the route passes through the Tobacco Valley and the Whitefish Range. Sweeping vistas of the lake and its surrounding mountains feature along the way, as do those of Libby Dam and the Kootenai River.
We will take a closer look at the Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway along with the various events and sites you will find along the way.
A Guide to The Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway
Traffic on the scenic byway tends to vary according to the time of year, but it is generally fairly moderate. The regions passed through along the route offer plenty of recreational opportunities like fishing, boating, camping, and hiking.
Scenic Drive Stats
- Length: Approximately 67 miles long
- Time: Around 2-3 hours of continuous driving
- Highlights: Lake Koocanusa, Libby Dam, the Kootenai River, and Tobacco Valley
Starting Out and the Main Attractions
The drive starts out from the scenic and interesting small Montana town of Eureka. After passing the town the scenic byway then heads in a westerly direction along the paved Highway 37.
The highway is surrounded by the expansive and rolling landscapes of the Tobacco Valley which unfold as you drive. The route then leads through another small town by way of Rexford, which is ensconced between the open fields of the Tobacco Valley and the forests and small mountains that begin to indicate the Salish Range.
Once past Rexford and a few more miles along Highway 37, the route comes within range of the eastern shores of Lake Koocanusa. The byway then closely follows the lake for almost another 50 miles, which brings you close to the vicinity of Libby Dam.
This particular section of the route is possibly one of the most picturesque. You can see the lake for a long time, and sweeping vistas of the Salish and Purcell Mountains provide the surrounding backdrops. There are also plenty of pullover spots to stop and capture some of that incredible scenery.
The Koocanusa Bridge across the lake provides an additional highlight along the route. The bridge is recorded as the longest and the highest bridge in Montana, with a length of 2,437 feet and a height over 270 feet according to water levels.
The views over the lake from the top of the bridge are rather impressive. From the highway, you can access a little parking area where sidewalks on the bridge allow passers-by to stop and walk out right into the middle. Here is your best opportunity for a great Lake Koocanusa shot.
After winding gradually along the Lake Koocanusa eastern shoreline for forty miles, the byway comes to Libby Dam. This is a huge dam over 400 feet high and 3,000 feet across, and the site contains a visitor center and a recreation site.
Tours of the dam are available seasonally and the dam is a hot spot for trophy trout in the region. On top of that, the Kootenai River is just below Libby Dam, and this waterway is also home to some of the biggest rainbow trout across the state.
Once you get beyond Libby Dam, the byway starts to wind around the Kootenai River. Between Libby Dam and the end of the route in Libby there are plenty of pullover spots. Some are designated spots and many others are D-I-Y ones that have been formed over the years in particularly scenic stretches of the journey.
Anyone wanting to add more mileage to the Lake Koocanusa Scenic Drive might consider the somewhat more laid-back forest road loop that runs 44 miles around the southern and western sides of the lake.
Recreational Activities along the Scenic Drive
The north end of the Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway provides access to the Tobacco Valley. This is a region with open, gently rolling hills and plains with the Galton Range somewhere in the surrounding regions. The entire route along the drive is through the Kootenai National Forest, which covers more than 2 million acres of the northwest corner of the state.
The national forest in its entirety contains 39 campgrounds and more than 300,000 acres of backcountry recreation options, including 1,500 miles of trail and 3,500 miles of road.
The Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway 2 is close to the recently-designated Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, which follows the route for a section from the direction of Glacier National Park in the east to the western mouth of the Columbia River.
Recreational opportunities abound along the scenic byway route. This includes camping around the lake at numerous primitive sites. There are also four major, developed campgrounds, and boating access to Lake Koocanusa is available via four paved boat ramps.
As it turns out the lake is also known as one of the prime salmon fisheries in the northwest, and to top that the nearby Kootenai River is also considered a blue-ribbon trout stream with trophy-sized rainbow trout.
Libby Dam also presents some outstanding recreation opportunities. The visitor center at the dam offers some interesting exhibitions as well as tours related to the powerhouse behind the project where five massive turbines sit.
Campgrounds in the Vicinity of the Scenic Byway
Rexford Bench Campground
Rexford Bench Campground is a 54-site facility in the vicinity of Lake Koocanusa. This is the most-developed camping facility in the area and within the Kootenai National Forest, and 19 sites can be reserved. The other sites are operated on a first-come, first-served basis.
The camp is close to a recreation area with high and low water boat ramp access, and there is also a day-use area with a beach that is a popular swimming spot.
Boating and fishing on Lake Koocanusa are possible from this spot, and the surrounding forest presents multiple hiking options. Wildlife such as ospreys and eagles are reportedly often spotted fishing in the reservoir.
McGillivray Campground is a 33-site facility also located in the Kootenai National Forest. This campground is slightly closer to the main route of the scenic byway and allows reservations on two group sites within the campground loops as well as a large group shelter within the grounds. The two smaller group sites in the campground can each accommodate up to 25 people.
The large group shelter can accommodate up to 200 people, and a high and low water boat ramp is available at this spot as well. Beach and picnic areas are also available close to the sites.
Trail Routes near the Scenic Drive
The Leigh Lake Trail
The Leigh Lake 132 Trailhead is one of the most well-known and easily-accessible trails close to the Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway. This is a steep and rugged trail up a mountain canyon in the Kootenai National Forest, and it features a waterfall, wildlife and birds, and off-leash areas for dogs.
The Leigh Lake Trailhead leads onto a path that immediately begins to climb quite steeply. It continues up through the forest and into the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness at around mile 0.3. When you get to about the one-mile mark the gradient steepens even more and leads up through a boulder field where a spot of light scrambling may be in order.
At mile 1.2, the path comes to the outlet of the lake where the waterfall is located. Hikers are in for some amazing views and may get the feeling that the slightly arduous climb was indeed worthwhile. Continuing along, you may encounter a few more light scrambles until the trail starts to decline down through the brush to Leigh Lake.
Many hikers turn right to go along the lakeshore, which arguably provides better views across the lake. The trail can get quite well-populated on weekends throughout the warmer months, and although there is a stone table at the trailhead there aren’t any restroom facilities.
To reach the trailhead travel 7 miles south out of Libby along Highway 2, taking a right onto Bear Creek Road for 3 miles after the 40-mile marker. When you come to Cherry Creek Road, take it for about 4 more miles until you see the right turn for Leigh Creek Road. The trailhead is about 2 miles down the road.