Yaak Valley, Montana

The Yaak Valley is a census-designated place in Montana’s northwest region of Lincoln County.

The name is Kootenai Indian in origin and means arrow, apparently in accordance with the bow and arrow shape of the valley caused in part by its intersection with the Kootenai River.

The visible peaks and the surrounding rocky mountain terrain comprise the Cabinet Mountains, the Whitefish Range, the Purcell Mountains, the Bitterroot Range, and the Salish Mountains.

The small community of around 250 in the valley is located along the Yaak River, in a region with much of its rugged and remote landscape nestled in the lush green expanse of the Kootenai National Forest.

This is one of those places where you can really get away from it all amidst a rich landscape that is home to an amazing range of wildlife and old-growth forests.

The Yaak Valley is in fact often referred to as Montana’s only rainforest due to its high precipitation and low elevation conditions. The region covers close to 200,000 acres of remote, undeveloped, and roadless areas that serve as biologically-rich habitats for a very broad range of plant and animal species.

The majority of this former logging region is now designated public land. That said, anyone apt to make use of the land can expect to find grizzly and black bears roaming freely as well as wolves, deer, mountain lions, lynx, and plenty more wildlife species both big and small.

Needless to say, Yaak Valley is one of Montana’s best undeveloped outdoor recreation spots, with plenty of year-round activity options on offer for those willing to venture up to these parts.

Traveling into the Yaak is unlike any other place you’ve been—it’s easy to access, but mostly wild and untouched by human development.

Yaak Valley Stats

yaak valley stats
Image: U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region
  • 180,000 acres
  • Accessible year-round
  • 5 developed campgrounds

Main Attractions

main attractions
Image: David Taylor

The Yaak River Scenic Drive

This entire region is so wild and remote that it’s no surprise that the attractions here are largely related to the outdoors and the various types of terrain and scenery it has to offer.

So what better way to get familiar with some of the area than by taking the Yaak River Scenic Drive.

yaak river
Image: Troy Smith

This is a twenty-nine-mile route running between Highway 2 and Highway 508 that leads right into the remote and wild Yaak region of Montana.

Highlights of the drive include some very impressive vistas of the heavily-forested surroundings of the Yaak River and the very scenic Yaak Falls.

While the views from this scenic drive may not compare in terms of color and diversity to some other drives in Montana, this is still worth doing for anyone already close to the region.

The drive starts out at Highway 2 and Highway 508 junction and heads north with a steady mountain ascent. The vertical rise of the mountains may appear steep due to the valley but this entire region is actually one of the lowest elevations in the state.

The scenic Yaak Falls is an obvious must-see sight along the drive, and it is easy to find according to the many road signs that point the way.

Soon after the falls the Scenic Drive ventures through gentler terrain along the clean and clear waters of the Yaak River. Much of this section of the drive is in the deep forest but there are also stretches of open meadows and pullovers.

The route ends up in the tiny town of Yaak where nothing much exists other than a post office, a general store, a bar, and a restaurant. From the town, you can either turn and head back the way you came or venture south on Highway 567 toward Libby for more stunning scenery.

Recreational Activities in Yaak Valley

recreational activities in yaak valley
Image: David Taylor

The Yaak Valley region is renowned for its broad range of wildlife which includes grizzly bears, black bears and a healthy population of moose. The river offers some decent trout fishing both above and below Yaak Falls, and in the lower stretches of the waterway, intrepid floaters can find some great rafting or kayaking opportunities.

The fun doesn’t end when the snow starts to fall though, and activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling become the order of the day. Theirs is even a little-known, locally-operated ski resort at Turner Mountain

The Yaak is a rugged area with minimal available services. It does provide endless recreational opportunities for the more adventurous though. 

The Forest Service has three different seasonally-available lookout rentals in this area—Yaak Mountain, Baldy Buckhorn and Garver Mountain. The Upper Ford Cabin is available year-round for rental and is set along the Yaak River.

Fishing the Yaak River

Use of the Yaak River is generally quite low, with most of the fishing and floating pressure coming from the local population. On top of that, surprisingly small numbers of out-state fishermen make their way up to this remote and isolated section of Montana.

Yet the Yaak River is a prime stretch of remote Montana fly fishing well worth seeking out if you lean more towards the isolated, remote regions with very low fishing pressure.

The river contains some average-sized rainbow and cutthroat trout along with decent populations of brook trout which tend to be on the larger side. The majority of fishermen around the area are locals, although the Yaak River can certainly provide any visiting angler with some great opportunities to fish a very un-crowded river in a remote, quiet setting.

Floating & Rafting the Yaak River

The Yaak River is diverse enough to be an option for both beginner and advanced floater levels. Above Yaak Falls and extending up to the East and North Fork confluences of the Yaak, the flows are reasonably gentle and moderate.

The width of the river varies from above Yaak Village and below. Due to the narrow width in some stretches along with the odd swift turns here and there, large rafts are not recommended above Yaak Village, and canoes or kayaks are the far better option. Below Yaak Village the river starts to get wider again and becomes more suitable for larger rafts from around the Pete Creek Campground.

The river can change character in some stretches like below Seventeen Mile Bridge. The four miles that leads to the Yaak Falls contains a current with quite a bit more velocity which makes the river terrain more exciting with Class II-III rapids.

Yaak Falls must be portaged, and there is no real easy way to do this aside from transporting the boat down a steep and wooded embankment.Below the falls, the river flows through a canyon with even more white water. Here there are a fair few Class II-III rapids along with two Class IV-V drops, although this depends to some extent on the flow of the river. This section is really for more advanced rafters and kayakers only.

Camping in Yaak Valley

There are 5 developed campgrounds in the Yaak, and you can find them all along Highway 508 northwest of Troy.

  • Yaak Falls Campground is a 7-site fee-paying facility with tables, fire rings, and a vault toilet. Fees are around $10.00 per day with concessions.
  • Red Top Campground is a 3-site facility where all campsites all have tables and fire rings. Vault toilets are available, and this is a pack-in, pack-out free campground.
  • Pete Creek Campground is a 13-site fee-paying facility that includes a host site. All sites have tables and fire rings. Amenities include potable water, vault toilets and easy access to the Yaak River.
  • Whitetail Campground is a 12-site facility with one host site, tables, fire rings, potable water, and vault toilets. There is also an undeveloped access site to the Yaak River here for small packable boats.
  • Caribou Campground is a free, 3-site facility best used in the summer. You can find it north of Troy on forest road 92. The campground has tables and fire rings as well as a vault toilet.

Trail Routes in Yaak Valley

The Yaak Valley is within the region of the 2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest, and with rugged wilderness areas containing more than 1,400 miles of trails, there’s ​something for every level around here hiking route-wise.

The Northwest Peaks Scenic Area located in the very northwest corner of the valley is as good a place as any to begin. This is a very scenic spot with several hiking trails and plenty of surrounding plant and wildlife species. 

You may even happen across disused lookout towers and old mining and logging equipment in these far-off regions. Here are a couple of examples of what’s on offer hike-wise.

The Caribou Trail

This 3-mile route runs through the heart of the Yaak, starting out from an old logging road. It then leads uphill through a lodgepole pine stand until the Caribou Mountain side hills begin to fade out near the border. There are plenty of natural openings along this trail which provide some impressive views of the valley and up into Canada.

​Flatiron Mountain Trail   

To get a birds-eye view of the Yaak and Kootenai areas, the very rustic yet short 1.5-mile Flatiron Mountain Trail is easy enough for anyone to navigate.

The route has an open ridge that is easy to access and provides some impressive views of the Yaak and Kootenai. This trail starts at Rainbow Ridge and winds up at the top of Flatiron Mountain, with elevation gain of not more than 1,000 feet. Overall this is an ideal hiking trail for families in the Yaak Valley.

Vinal/Mount Henry/Boulder Trail & Impressive Lookout Point

If you still want to do yet more exploring there’s an 8-mile option by way of the Vinal/Mount Henry/Boulder Trail, which is one of the Kootenai National Forest’s five designated National Recreation Trails in the area.

This route starts out from Pipe Creek Road in Yaak and ends up at the Mount Henry Lookout. The trail is another good family hike as there are limited elevation gains. The route traverses to Mount Henry as the grade increases, and at the Vinal and Turner Creeks junction you get panoramic mountain-top views.

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