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A Guide to The Yaak River Scenic Drive   

Following Route 508 for 29 miles of exquisite northwestern Montana beauty, the Yaak River Scenic drive runs from Montana’s Highway 2 to the quaint hamlet of Yaak.

But as is common in Big Sky Country, this route is something of a 2-for-1, as it guides road warriors out onto an impressive 96-mile scenic drive complete with jutting rocks, a cascading waterfall, numerous campgrounds, fishing sites, and remote wildlife viewing.

Read on for the history of this gorgeous area, its main attractions, and the best recreational activities this Lincoln County route has to offer, from sleeping under the twinkling stars to fly-fishing on a warm summer day.

The Yaak River Scenic Drive – A Guide

Yaak is a derivative of the Kootenai word ‘yahk,’ meaning ‘arrow’ or ‘bow,’ a nod to the river’s smooth curves. The Route is open all seasons of the year, this paved road is popular in spring, summer, and fall for camping and fishing. As a scenic car ride, the Yaak Valley Route is ADA-accessible and friendly for wheelchair users

yaak river scenic drive info
Image: Troy Smith

Scenic Drive Stats

  • Length: Approximately 29 miles in length (scenic drive); a full 96 miles for the full loop
  • Time: Depending on length and time spent outdoors, this route could take 45 minutes to 2 hours – or broken up into an overnight camping trip
  • Highlights: include the Yaak Falls, overnight camping at Yaak Falls Campground, wildlife viewing
  • Traffic: Traffic may be slower in the summertime, so be mindful of other drivers!

Where is the Yaak River Scenic Drive Driving Route?

The Yaak River Scenic Drive starts at the junction of US Highway 2 and Montana Highway 508 just north of Troy, MT. From this point, the road travels north, with a noticeable accent into the mountains.

Along this part of the drive, you’ll notice many signs indicating access points to view Yaak Falls.

Once you pass Yaak Falls, the road levels out and you’ll follow the Yaak River through the forest and occasional meadows. There are plenty of pullouts along the drive for those who wish to enjoy the views.

The official scenic drive route ends 29 miles north of the Highway 2 junction at the tiny hamlet of Yaak. From this point, you can either turn around and return to Highway 2 the same way you came, or you can continue on Highway 508.

Continuing on Highway 508 will lead you to the town of Libby on Highway 2, south of Troy. From here you can either return to Troy or travel on from Libby.

The Highway 508 loop is one way that you can make this drive a loop. There are other possible loops that take you deeper into the Kootenai National Forest and lead to Lake Koocanusa, the Kootenai Scenic Drive, and back to Libby.

History Along the Yaak River Scenic Drive

history along the yaak valley route

This northwestern epicenter of vibrant, dense forests, rivers, and wildlife has remained mostly undiscovered and remote, beyond its numerous spots to stake a tent. But before European settlers ventured into the area, the Yaak Valley was home to numerous indigenous tribes – particularly the Kootenai.

Interestingly, “yaak” is a derivative of the Kootenai word “yahk,” meaning “bow” or “arrow,” a clear nod to the swiveling curves of the nearby river. And when visiting the quiet wilderness of the Yaak Valley, it’s easy to imagine indigenous life before settlers, before mining, and before industrialization.

Shifting from the Kootenai to its next inhabitants, Canadian settlers emerged in the area by the 1860s, making some contact with the then-troubled Kootenai who now live on the Flathead Reservation.

The first homestead was built in 1906, and it took decades for this untouched area to receive any modern amenities. We actually prefer it this way: while “The Last Best Place” is one of our great state’s mottos – all you have to do is look around to understand why.

How Long Does It Take to Drive the Yaak River Scenic Drive?

how long yaak river drive

While the Yaak River Scenic Drive is only 29 miles long, for the explorer, this scenic drive can provide hours of adventure.

If you start your drive at the junction of Highway 2 and Highway 508, the Yaak River Scenic Drive will take you 40 minutes of drive time. Road speeds on this highway are slower due to the twists and turns of the valley.

Many visitors to this scenic drive actually take much longer than 40 minutes to complete the drive to the town of Yaak. There are plenty of places to pull off the highway and enjoy the views of the Yaak River Valley.

The Yaak River Scenic Drive can be turned into a loop for those that want to experience even more of the remote northwest part of Montana.

The full loop using Highway 2 and Montana Highway 508 will take approximately two and a quarter hours.

When is the Yaak River Scenic Drive Open?

The Yaak River Scenic Drive is accessible all year. As Montana Highway 508 is the only access road to the hamlet of Yaak, it is kept open as best as possible throughout the year.

The best time to enjoy the Yaak River Scenic Drive is during the warmer parts of the spring, summer, and fall. This time of year allows you consistent access to the Yaak River Scenic Drive, without the worry of closures due to snow or ice.

In the winter, Highway 508 may close periodically due to heavy snow, and impassable road conditions. While this part of Montana is exceptionally beautiful during the winter, visitors that are not experienced with driving on snow-packed or icy roads should not travel the Yaak River Scenic Drive.

Is It Safe to Drive the Yaak River Scenic Drive?

is safe to drive the yaak river

For the most part, the Yaak River Scenic Drive is safe to travel. Highway 508 is a paved route and is maintained by the Montana Department of Transportation.

There are a few considerations that you need to keep in mind while driving this route to improve your safety and make the drive more enjoyable. 

Weather Conditions

Weather can rapidly change in the northwestern part of Montana. In the Yaak River Valley, and along the Yaak River Scenic Drive, the weather is the one thing that can make driving this route precarious.

During the winter, this road may frequently have packed snow or ice on the road. These conditions can make driving the Yaak River Scenic Drive a bit challenging.

During the warmer months, rain can create slick conditions on the road. Rockslides from heavy rains are also possible through the valley.

If you’re driving the Yaak River Scenic Drive during a rain event, it is a wise idea to slow your driving speed and watch for falling rocks.

Wildlife

The remoteness of the Yaak River Valley and the northwest portion of Montana makes for ideal wildlife habitat.

Deer, elk, moose, and bears are frequently seen in this area. During dusk and dawn when these animals are most active, you’ll need to be prepared to stop for animals on the highway.

Wildlife on the road or crossing in front of cars is a frequent occurrence on the Yaak River Scenic Drive.

Slower Traffic

During the warmer months, this road is fairly popular with tourists that are looking to get away from the busier parts of the state.

The draw to the Yaak River Scenic Drive is the views of the lush valley with dense forests and the beautiful river. Many people drive much slower than the posted 70 MPH speed limit.

Watch for slower traffic when you’re driving this route to avoid an accident. If you are the slower traffic, make sure you are aware of vehicles traveling behind you, and pull off the highway when possible, to avoid being a safety hazard on the road.

Winding Road

The Yaak River Scenic Drive follows the path of the Yaak River fairly closely. The road does wind and has some twists and turns which can be tricky if you are traveling too fast.

Traveling at the speed limit is the easiest way to avoid safety issues while on the Yaak River Scenic Drive.

What are the Highlights of the Yaak River Scenic Drive?

highlights on the yaak river
Image: U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region

While you are driving the Yaak River Scenic Drive there are some great features that you’ll want to take a bit of time to enjoy. There are plenty of places along the road to pull off and take pictures or just enjoy the view.

Yaak River

The Yaak River is the main attraction on this scenic drive. The Highway follows the path of the river fairly closely, and for most of the drive, the river is visible from your car.

There are places along the highway where you can pull off and experience the river up close.

The Yaak River is well known for its Class III to V rapids, making this a popular river for whitewater rafting and kayaking. This also means that the river is quite powerful. There are spots where wading is possible, but swimming in the river is not recommended.

The river flows at its peak during the spring snow melt, making the river an impressive site in the valley.

Yaak Falls

yaak falls
Image: Keith Ewing

The most popular highlight on the Yaak River Scenic Drive is Yaak Falls. This dramatic waterfall is located approximately 6.5 miles from the start of the drive off US Highway 2. Just before reaching the falls, there is a turn-off to the Yaak Falls Campground.

This is a good spot to turn off to get a closer look at the falls. From the campground, there is a nice trail that leads to the base of the falls.

If you’re not excited about taking a hike, there is a good-sized pull-out at the falls where you can park your car and experience the falls from the road. The falls are quite obvious and can be seen from the Highway.

Kootenai River

Just north of the Town of Troy, the Yaak River joins the Kootenai River. The Kootenai River travels south from Canada through northwest Montana, then back into Canada.

This beautiful river passes through the communities of Troy and Libby. The river is popular for recreational activities including rafting, kayaking, and fishing.

Kilbrennan Lake

Kilbrennan Lake is extremely popular come late spring into late summer, and it makes sense why: this 55-acre lake is ideal for a quiet day of fishing, non-motor boating, or swimming.

Lake hair, don’t care! We’ll go over it and its accompanying 7-unit campground a bit more under Recreational Activities, but you don’t want to miss the opportunity to rest and relax at this spot near Yaak and Troy if you’re traveling along the beautiful Yaak Valley Route.

Yaak Mountain Lookout

This lookout was once used to spot forest fires and offers spectacular views of the Kootenai National Forest and neighboring Troy, but we love it because it offers safe, warm shelter with epic views.

Sitting at the top of a 45-foot tower, the Yaak Mountain Lookout can accommodate up to four people – but be careful going up and down those stairs, especially using the vault toilet in the middle of the night!

If you’re just hiking through the forest, this is a great landmark to get your bearings, but we highly recommend reserving at least one night at the top of this minimalistic, no-frills lookout. Reservations pop up on a 6-month rolling basis, so you’ll want to scoop one up quickly!

trail routes

Trail Routes

Beyond these trails, the Yaak Valley is home to numerous hiking trails that branch off like capillaries into the great wilderness. Enjoy the valley’s many options to wear yourself out before a campfire dinner.

  • Flatiron Mountain Trail –1.5 miles – To expand on this family-friendly route, the Flatiron Mountain Trail offers expansive views of the Yaak Valley and Kootenai National Forest. Less of a stated trail and more of a path across the mountain base, we’ve been known to utilize it as a quick snack break and stretch of the legs before venturing on further.
  • Caribou Trail- 3 miles – Deep in the jeweled center of the Yaak Valley, the Caribou Trail makes for an epic hike, gaining gradual elevation with sights of Canada off in the distance. We love Caribou Trail for its adjacent campground on Caribou Creek; you can’t beat the intimacy of its three primitive sites.

Is the Yaak River Scenic Drive Worth Visiting?

While this scenic drive is a bit off the normal tourist routes, it is one of the most spectacular drives in Montana. Much of Montana is now developed and there are few places in the state that aren’t accessible by roads.

The Yaak River Scenic Drive allows you to view the lush forests of the state and experience a nearly pristine environment that hasn’t existed for nearly 200 years in the rest of Montana.

This drive is definitely worth the detour from normal tourist spots.

Final Thoughts on The Yaak River Scenic Drive

yaak river outside
Image: Jeff Durbin

Though the Yaak River Scenic Drive is outside of the normal tourist areas in Montana, it offers a unique experience for visitors. This beautiful drive, located in the northwest corner of the state, takes you from Troy, MT to a place where Montana looks like it did in days gone past.

The Yaak River Scenic Drive is a short 29-mile route that is a not-to-be-missed drive and is well worth the 40-minute detour. With beautiful views and an amazing waterfall, this scenic drive is the perfect Montana experience.

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