Kaniksu National Forest covers a region of Montana in the far Northwest, close to the Kootenai National Forest area. The forest spans Montana and neighboring Idaho border, in a very rural part of the state and the area incorporates Sanders County and Lincoln County.
This is a mountainous forest region with elevations surpassing 5,000 feet above sea level. The Cabinet Mountains are also located within the eastern sector of the forest, which makes it an obvious draw for outdoor and adventurous types.
This is a great area for anything outdoor like camping, hiking, biking, and OHV riding, as well as water sport opportunities during the warmer months and winter activities during the snowy months.
It is worth noting that the snow can be quite extreme in this region and fairly long-lasting, which means that some areas like campsites are closed during the colder months.
Kaniksu National Forest Stats
- Approximately 500,000 acres
- Limited year-round access
- Highest Mountain 8,800 feet
- Ten or more campsites and RV amenities
Most of the attractions in the Kaniksu National Forest are related to outdoor pursuits. However, if you fancy visiting a few attractions closer to civilization you’ll find a few in the vicinity of a couple of places like Thompson Falls and Libby.
The town’s former jail, like many in Montana, is open for visits and tours. It has various levels, with the upper one being the former living quarters of the sheriff and his family. The basement was the location of the prisoners’ cells. The jail also documents the history of the local area in detail to interested parties.
This is a high bridge that crosses a dam on the local Clark Fork River. It has an accessible walkway that crosses the dam, which facilitates some amazing views year-long. There is a fish ladder for fish to climb the dam as they migrate up the waterway in the warmer months, and the bridge is also a prime spot to look out for osprey and various other birds that frequent the area.
The small Montana town of Libby is also an attraction point in the national forest region. It is a very scenic little town surrounded by mountains with some great hiking and fishing opportunities, as well as some scenic drives.
As this is a remote rural region of Montana, the main attractions are focused on natural outdoor pursuits. This can come by way of alpine lakes, scenic drives, snowmobile trails, or some fairly extreme hiking at significant elevations and gradients.
Guided tours are offered in the area for various pursuits such as snowmobiling, horseback riding, and fishing to help you get the best of the action.
The Birdland Bay RV Resort in Thompson Falls opens between May and September. This is a fully-equipped site with bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, and Wi-Fi, and the camp caters to both short and long-term stays. You can book RVs in Sanders County if you need to hire one.
If you fancy something a bit more remote and rustic and scenic, there are various other campgrounds dotted around the forest, but they offer very little in terms of amenities.
They are usually only open during the summer months as well as they are more remote. There are at least ten campgrounds and RV resorts in the region of Lincoln County and Sanders County worth checking out.
Trail Routes in Kaniksu National Forest
There are numerous trails in the region that can vary quite significantly in length and difficulty level. Some pass through forests and run along local waterways, while others traverse more extreme mountain terrain.
Most of the trails are used for hiking and biking during the summer and then transition into winter trails when the snow hits for activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It is also worth noting that grizzlies do frequent the area. Here are a few examples of what’s on offer.
Star Peak #999 (Cabinet Mountains)
Star Peak is one of the famous points of the region and is easy to access via MT-200 from Clark Fork. Not an easy one by any account though, with elevation gains up to 4,000 feet.
This is a 7.5-mile hike with an unbeatable view right at the lookout tower viewing point, which is the highest elevation point on the trail at over 6,000 feet.
The hike starts at the Big Eddy #999 Trail, and passes some scenic views of forests, Clark Fork Valley, and the surrounding mountains.
Wanless Lake Creek Trail #924 (Libby)
This is a steep and challenging 12.5 km trail that has switchbacks up through the forest. The trail is steep in both upward and downward directions but does provide some impressive views of lakes including Wanless Lake and a few others surrounded by mountains. The maximum grade reaches 38%.
The highest elevation point reaches 1,954 m and the lowest is 888 m. The trailhead is accessible with a vehicle, but there aren’t any facilities there as such.
Star Gulch Trail #1016 (Libby)
This trail spans just 8.5 km but still provides something of a challenge with a maximum grade of 45% and elevations between 700 and 1900 meters. This trail ranked number 3 in 2019 for the Kaniksu National Forest region.
Engle Lake Trail #932 (Trout Creek)
A Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Class 3 Trail that is fairly steep and leads up to Engle Peak. Some great mountain views can be had from this trail, and parking is available at the trailhead.