When Lewis and Clark were making their push from their winter quarters in Oregon back to the United States, Native Americans in what is now north-central Idaho told the explorers the route they needed to follow over Lolo Pass would still be clogged by snow well into the spring. Lewis and Clark pressed on anyway, only to return after seeing indeed how deep the snow was. Today, this pass at about a mile above sea level, still sees those deep snows – by late winter U.S. 12 over the Montana-Idaho border is usually tunneled through deep drifts. A beautiful national forest visitors center now greets visitors; it’s staffed with helpful rangers, has a gift shop and exhibits, and offers by-donation coffee and cocoa. Starting around mid-November, there is a small fee to park at the visitor center, but for that visitors gain access to miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, as well as snowmobile, snowshoe, and bac-kcountry ski trails. The groomed XC ski trails are generally gentle and suitable for a mellow afternoon of kick and gliding for beginners. Note that dogs are not allowed on groomed ski trails.
Lolo Peak stands guard over the Missoula Valley, and motorists on Brooks Street headed south see it fill their windshield when the peak is out. The mountain is accessible year round, but the Mormon Peak Road (a dirt road passable to all motor vehicles), which gives the best access to the mountain, is only open from mid-May to the end of November. From the end of the road, a trail climbs 4 miles to an overlook of the peak; many turn around here but the trail continues on to a reservoir before tackling the peak itself. Plan on 8 miles one-day to the summit, and note that the true summit is not visible until you are on what you think is the high point – but in fact is the slightly lower north summit. The trail is usually snow free by mid-June; up to then it’s a popular back-country ski trip. Wildflowers are best in July.
Skookum Butte is fun enough just to say – it’s pronounced “Skoo-come” – but it’s also pretty fun to visit, too, and there’s a nice surprise at the top. Butte occupies high ground along the Montana-Idaho line roughly due east of Lolo Pass; you get to it from the Elk Meadows Road off U.S. 12. The trail to the summit is just more than 1 mile long, but it rises about 1,000 feet and in places is steep. As the trail levels out at the summit you see the surprise – an old fire lookout which looks over an impressive array of peaks stretching south. Built in 1928, the lookout has not been regularly staffed since the 1960s, but sees occasional volunteer maintenance. Don’t expect much inside in the way of luxury (and don’t even expect a whole lot of protection from the elements), but the loft is airy and the view good.