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A long-distance road trip, beautiful scenery, and the thrill of riding the Rocky Mountains. It’s all part of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.

Added June 4, 2019
River running through a woods

For motorcycle riders, exploring mountain roads is a favorite trip. Mountain roads offer a wonderful combination of twists and turns mixed with changes in elevation, creating a rollercoaster of asphalt. The only thing that makes it better is being able to follow a river through the mountains.

No other place in America says mountains and rivers like the northwestern Rocky Mountains. The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway in Idaho combines a fantastic motorcycle riding opportunity in the Rocky Mountains with the history of America’s great explorers, Lewis and Clark.

Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific Ocean

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase was completed, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned an expedition to find a practical water route across the continent. Lewis and Clark’s expedition set off in May 1804 toward the unexplored Rocky Mountains. They hoped to find a river connection between the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. They didn’t find that navigable water connection, but did meet the Nez Perce tribe and learned about the trail they used for generations to cross the Rockies. With the help of Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark followed that trail between October and December 1805, discovering the Clearwater and Snake rivers and following the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.

A passage along rivers

When Lewis and Clark met the Nez Perce and found the Clearwater River, they left their horses behind and built dugout canoes to make their way toward the ocean. Today, the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway follows the Clearwater River and one of its two main tributaries, the Lochsa River.

The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway—also known as U.S. Highway 12 (US12)—covers 202 miles from Lolo, Montana, to Lewiston, Idaho. Along the byway, you find rough rivers in steep, rugged canyons and placid rivers along wider, agricultural valleys. You’ll also pass through the Nez Perce Reservation and find plenty of historic sites honoring both the Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark’s expedition.

Getting there

Starting in Missoula, Montana, on Interstate 90, take Exit 105 and head south toward Lolo. It’s about 12 miles to Lolo, which was known as Traveler’s Rest to Lewis and Clark. In Lolo, gas up your motorcycle and pack some food and water to enjoy at any of the many scenic pullouts along the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.

While in the area…

There are other nearby destinations perfect for a motorcycle ride. Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in North America, making it a route unlike any other.

The route

The road starts at the juncture of Interstate 70 and State Highway 103 (SH103) in Idaho Springs, Colorado. Take SH103 southwest for 13 miles to the juncture of State Highway 5 (SH5). Turn right onto SH5, which is also known as Mt. Evans Road. From here, it’s a 15-mile drive on a winding road to the summit.

Once on SH5, the road becomes as dramatic as the views, with numerous switchback turns. Sheer drops, rock walls, and late-season snow banks define the side of the road. It will take about one hour to make the trip to the top—longer if you stop to enjoy the breathtaking views.

Scenic byway—a ride into the clouds

The Mount Evans Scenic Byway climbs 7,000 feet during the 28-mile ride from Idaho Springs. At this elevation, you’re as high as the altostratus and altocumulus clouds, adding to the feeling that riding a motorcycle is like flying. The air is thinner at this elevation, so take things slow to avoid altitude sickness. Once you hit the highest point that the road can take you, you’re 14,130 feet above sea level, almost to the peak of Mount Evans. On foot, you can reach the actual summit of 14,265 vertical feet.

SH5 is closed to visitors during winter due to weather conditions. The summit is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The U.S. Forest Service collects a $10 fee from visitors for access to parking lot areas. And you’ll likely want to park and take pictures during this journey. There is also a separate $5 fee for accessing Summit Lake Park.

And as you enjoy your motorcycle riding season, have some extra peace of mind riding along with you. Dairyland’s roadside assistance coverage includes:

  • Emergency service to your motorcycle due to battery failure, flat tire, or mechanical or electrical breakdown
  • Immediate supply of fuel, oil, fluid, or water
  • Motorcycle towing services to the nearest qualified service facility, if repairs are required

Till next time, ride safe!

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