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Yaak Valley Route Scenic Drive, Montana

Following Route 508 for 29 miles of exquisite northwestern Montana beauty, the Yaak Valley Route 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.

Yaak Valley Route, Lincoln County – A Complete 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

Scenic Drive Stats

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!

History Along the Yaak Valley Route

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 – we especially see strong parallels with the Yaak Valley and its associated driving routes.

Where to Start?

where to start
Image: U.S. Forest Service- Pacific

What’s the best way to enter this biologically diverse habitat? As a smaller route with a loop expansion pack, we have a couple of options for you.

For the 29-mile route, we suggest starting at the junction of Highway 2 and 508, traveling north, and stopping for a picnic at the falls before saying hello to the tiny town of Yaak in Lincoln County. (Don’t forget to check out the Yaak River Tavern & Mercantile, especially if they have a band playing!)

Or, if you’re heading into Idaho, enter the roadway from Yaak and exit at that same junction before heading further west on Highway 2 into the “Gem in the Mountains.”

But here’s where it gets interesting: once in Yaak, you can either turn back around as we suggested or head down 567 into nearby Libby for a visit to Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company before jutting back up Highway 2.

Alternatively, halfway between Yaak and Libby, you can also head up Seventeen Mile Road for that perfect picnic at Yaak Falls.

You have a few options depending on time, but we always recommend stopping overnight for a unique camping experience along the scenic route. Kootenai River or Yaak River? You decide.

Main Attractions along the Yaak Valley Route

main attractions of the yaak valley
Image: Stan Petersen

Yaak Falls

A highlight of the Yaak Valley Route, this waterfall powerhouse is easy to wave to from the road – perfect for wheelchair users – but also a no-brainer for a picnic or launching pad to a great overnight adventure.

Tucked away into the remoteness of the Kootenai National Forest, you may feel like you’ve come across something magical from a Tolkien novel – and you have. Only six miles north of Highway 2, you may not need 4WD to get to the falls, but do be aware of the rocky terrain once off the paved roads.

Parking at the trail entrance, it’s just a short quarter-mile hike down to the falls that was created by the eastward shift of the Pacific plate.

Yes, that means that the exposed rocks of Yaak Falls may be some of the world’s oldest, dating between 800 million to 1.5 billion years old. Wow!

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! Treat this as any temporary resting place and pack-in, pack-out – you know the drill. Also recommended: bring a fishing pole and set up camp at the Kootenai River the next day.

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 Yakt and Troy if you’re traveling along the beautiful Yaak Valley Route.

Recreational Activities along the Drive

recreational activities along the drive

The Yaak Valley Route may not be as large as other Montana routes, but if we’re honest, its smaller scale gives it a powerful edge over spots like Going-into-the-Sun at Glacier.

Less traveled, more remote, more magical, just as lush, and plenty of spots to stake a tent, go on a day hike, swim in the refreshing water, or picnic – away from the grizzly bears, that is.

Hiking, Biking, & Skiing

For such a small region, the Yaak Valley Route plays host to numerous hiking, biking, and skiing trails. While the quarter-mile hike down to the falls is enough for some, there are even more options to get the heart racing.

The Caribou Trail is a good 3 miles long, starting from an old logging road before ascending around Caribou Mountain and spilling out towards the US/Canada border.

Seize it as your opportunity to exclaim, “Hey, that’s Canada!” Also, check out the Flatiron Mountain Trail for an eagle-eye view of the Yaak Valley and Kootenai National Forest – at 1.5 miles, we recommend this one, especially for kids and shakier ankles.

Biking is a well-cherished sport in the Yaak Valley, with challenging, curving trails and wildlife viewing that’ll have you feeling like a warp-speed Disney character.

Looking for something different? Folks in the Libby area participate in the annual STOKR, or Scenic Tour of the Kootenai River, a two-day bike tour on the last weekend of May that promises to provide scenic views and a passionate community.

And of course, many of these hiking trails transform into skiing and snowmobile trails come winter – the more, the merrier!

We also recommend venturing further out towards the Northwest Peaks Scenic Area, offering even more expansive views of Yaak Valley and its omnipresent beauty.

Swimming & Fishing

Looking to fish while passing through? We’ve already hinted at Kilbrennan Lake as a main attraction, but it’s a real breadwinner for those looking to catch eastern brook trout and catfish (Hello, dinner!). The Yaak and Kootenai Rivers also provide easy access to both fishing and toe-dipping, especially once you hop off the main paved access road.

Although the Yaak Valley Route is open in all four seasons, we only recommend exhilarating ice fishing to the experienced – mainly because these lakes can become nearly inaccessible during or after heavy snowfall.

If you need fishing supplies or equipment, our go-to spot is Shoo Fly Fishing Company in Troy – you can’t miss it when you’re passing through.

Interested in taking a lake dip? These same spots are highly popular during the summer months for swimming, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and laying out on the lake shore.

In addition to beautiful lakes and rivers, you can find several streams, creeks, and other waterways to play in, although those are less for swimming and more for cooling off.

Don’t be surprised if you see a few moose, caribou, bears, elk, ospreys, eagles, and more – and keep your distance!

Camping & Lodging

Ah, camping in the fresh Montana wilderness! Check out the first-come, first-serve campground at Kilbrennan Lake, offering seven pristine sites right along the water. Or if you’re closer to Yaak Falls, we recommend the Yaak Falls Campground, which is available year-round and accessible depending on weather conditions.

But since Yaak Falls is something of a main attraction, we typically venture further into the woods to the free Loon Lake Campground, another primitive camping site. Don’t care about remote camping or privacy? You may appreciate the family-friendly Yaak River Campground, with a whopping 45 available sites right on the river.

And of course, we’ve already mentioned the Yaak Mountain Lookout, but we adore this rustic accommodation in the center of all the action.

As for a more upscale experience, our favorite place to drop into nature with modern amenities is the Yaak River Lodge closer to the town of Yaak – especially their Honeymoon Suite – but their own downfall is that they don’t allow dogs. Maybe in the future…

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.

But we wanted to bring it back up on account of its transition into a fantastic skiing trail come wintertime.

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.

But we love Caribou Trail for its adjacent campground on Caribou Creek; you can’t beat the intimacy of its three primitive sites.

The creek itself is fantastic for a few relaxing hours of fishing, but this trail also webs out towards the nearby Vinal-Mt. Henry-Boulder National Recreation Trail.

Conclusion

Although not one of the most popular drives in Montana, this northwestern beauty offers stunning mountain views, densely populated forests, plentiful campsites, miles of fishing, and even more trail paths.

Have you taken the Yaak Valley Route on your way across Montana, or are you planning to go? Let us know!

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