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Lochsa River, Montana

The Lochsa River (pronounced ‘Lock-Saw’) starts out its journey up in the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho, near the Powell Ranger Station and deep in the wilderness of the Clearwater National Forest.

The closest point in Montana to the origin of the river is Lolo, which is less than 50 miles west of the ranger station.

The Lochsa heads towards Lolo Pass as it flows west for 70 miles before connecting to the Selway River, which forms the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River, and the Lochsa is shadowed by Highway 12 for the whole distance.

This lush river is a well-known recreation spot featuring some great white-water rafting runs which are one of the main attractions along this river, aside from the calmer stretches ideal for fishing.

You can easily reach the Lochsa River from Missoula, Montana by heading southwest on Highway-12.

The History of the Lochsa River in Montana

history of the lochsa river

The area was traversed by the famous Lewis & Clark expedition as they found their way along the original Lolo Trail long-used by the Indians in the area.

The trail was traveled by Lewis and Clark in 1805 & 1806, and it parallels Highway 12 along the upper ridges as does the Lochsa River.

The Lochsa River was included by the U.S Congress in 1968 under the National Wild and Scenic River Act.

The Lochsa and its tributaries all have unregulated flow due to there being no dams, which is why in late spring, mid-May to mid-June, the Lochsa River is rated as one of the world’s best for continuous white-water.

White-water Rafting on the Lochsa River

So with no dams in sight, this fast and free-flowing river is renowned as one of the best stretches of prime white water in late spring, which is somewhere around mid-May to June time.

However, tackling the Lochsa River in a raft or kayak is no mean feat and is not necessarily for the faint-hearted.

Put it this way—‘Lochsa’ is a Nez Perce word that means “rough water”—which is mirrored by the fact that this river contains a fair few Class 3 and 4 rapids.

There are even some Class 5 rapids in there at some point, with a total drop of over 2000 feet throughout the 70-mile course of the river.

white-water rafting

The Lochsa comprises two main sections by way of the Upper and Lower Runs. The Upper is the most technical and can be continuously challenging, requiring precision and wits to avoid potential hazards.

Lost Creek and Castle Creek are the stand-out rapid runs that require careful negotiation.

The Upper Run put-in is at White Pine–mile marker #138, and you can get out according to your nerves and stamina either at Nine Mile at mile #130, the Wilderness Gateway at mile #122, or Fish Creek at mile #120.

The Lower Run is way more relaxed and fun without too much adrenaline, although the odd surges may be triggered by rapids like Grim Reaper and Lochsa Falls.

A popular option is to put in at Fish Creek and take out at Split Creek, which allows for roughly ten miles of downstream rafting.

Anyone considering indulging in some rafting along these waters might first consider that only highly-experienced floaters and guides attempt to navigate this river.

The names of some of the rapids like “Keep Moving,” “Eye Opener,” “Grim Reaper,” and “Bloody Mary” all give out subtle clues and hints. 

raft flipping on the lochsa river

The white-water season typically runs from May through early July, and there are various outfitters located in nearby towns along the river.

As the road runs parallel to the river, day trips are common and easy to find. The fast-moving and thrilling waters of the Lochsa bring in multitudes of rafters and kayakers each year from late spring through early summer.

Camping on the Lochsa River

There are numerous campgrounds located along the river, in Clearwater National Forest and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Camping and hiking near the Lochsa in these regions is popular and there are two National Forest campgrounds right on the river by way of Knife Edge Campground or Powell Campground.

A number of National Forest campgrounds are located along Highway 12 and the Lochsa River, and some of the Montana campgrounds closest to Missoula include:

Most of these are fee-paying sites; they feature amenities like potable water and RV hook-ups, and there is also a campground near the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs and Trail.

Alternative Accommodations

If you are looking to stay in a nearby town/city to take advantage of the amenities and other tourist attractions, the closest town is Lola. You can browse available accommodations here.

The river is also easily accessible from Missoula, which has plenty of options to suit visitors’ needs.

Hiking along the Lochsa River

You could find yourself spoilt for choice when looking for trails near the river depending on what kind of distance and challenge you prefer.

You can try the Hot Springs Lookout Trail to Hot Springs Point where you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic views. You begin at the Warm Springs Trail (which leads to the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs) and the trail splits so you can continue to the lookout. You may even want to enjoy a soak in the springs on the way back down.

The Snowshoe Falls Trail #2A is a day hike that can be accessed on Highway 12. This is only a one-mile round trip and is gentle and easy-going aside from the initially steep first section.

If you are seeking something altogether more challenging lengthwise then consider the Seven Lakes Trails, #211 and #219. This is a 15-mile hike (one way) that starts out at the Wilderness Gateway area along Highway 12.

The first third of the route is all uphill, and some areas along the route have little shade. A total of seven, highly scenic lakes are featured along the way, and there are a few campsites with special restrictions within the trail’s vicinity.

Fishing the Lochsa River

footbridge over the lochsa river

In the sections with slower-moving water, the Lochsa River is a prime location for trout, salmon, and steelhead fishing.

Trout fishing on the Lochsa River typically opens on the last weekend in May, and west slope cutthroat trout are commonly found in the river’s cold, deep holes away from the white water sections.

Above the Wilderness Gateway Bridge, fishing is catch-and-release only.

Wildlife on the Lochsa River

Anyone who is fishing might also want to keep their peripheral vision attuned to any potential wildlife sightings.

It’s not uncommon to glimpse herds of deer, elk, and black bears wandering these open slopes, and there might even be the odd moose encounter, as these animals are usually hanging around meadows near rivers and other wet areas.

Birders commonly report sightings of eagles, swans, Canada Geese, and Great Blue Herons.

The Lochsa River Scenic Byway

Highway 12 turns into a scenic drive along the region of the river and becomes the Lochsa River Scenic Byway. It joins Lolo in Montana and stretches to Kooskia in Idaho—and eventually even the east side of Washington.

The scenic road follows the Lochsa River and offers some impressive views of the river canyon although except for in Lowell, there are no services of any kind along the Byway, so be sure to get well-stocked before taking off.

Other Attractions near the Lochsa River

The Jerry Johnson Hot Springs/Trail

jerry johnson hot springs

The Jerry Johnson Hot Springs are some of the most popular natural hot springs around and can be accessed easily at the end of a trail.

There are two primitive natural pools, and the hiking trail in the Clearwater National Forest is easy to find and follow.

Technically these springs are located in Idaho, and they are easily accessible from the Bitterroot Valley.

Highway 12 over Lolo Pass will bring you here from Lolo, and the trailhead is located at the Warm Springs Pack Bridge, between the 152 and 153-mile marks.

This spot is about 25 miles west of Lolo Pass, and the trail is across the highway and the pack bridge.

The hot springs are open year-round, between 6 am and 8 pm. The pools are at their best and their busiest throughout the late summer, although the pools can be reached by using snowshoes in winter.

The springs are also free to visit, so you are expected to clean up after yourself and follow the local protocols.

Conclusion

The Lochsa River in Idaho and Montana blends with the rugged, natural, and awe-inspiring surrounding landscape in unique ways.

It is probably still best known as a white-water recreation hotspot, which is unsurprising considering that the river has a power that has tested some of the most experienced explorers.

The river continues to attract hordes of thrill-seekers on an annual basis from both sides of the border and is a fantastic scenic haven for more peaceful pursuits like camping and hiking.

 

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