Nearly four weeks in Lolo, Montana…
Why we came…
To get Arleen’s back fixed and to explore the Bitterroot Valley and surrounding mountains.
On move day we drove from McCall, Idaho to Lolo, Montana. It was one of our most scenic move days as we were driving through the Salmon River Canyon. We saw folks rafting on the river and we saw a few dip netters trying to pull the namesake salmon out of the clear green water. If we had been there a few weeks earlier it would have looked a lot different. Right now the river, at White Bird for example, is running at 7,000 cubic feet per second compared to a raging torrent of 86,000 cubic feet per second, the color of chocolate milk.
The first time we had ever seen the Salmon River. Near Riggins ID.
The Square Dance Center & Campground in Lolo is the most unique campground we have stayed at. They have “Year 'round dancing with clubs and special dances. Square Dance and Round Dance lessons autumn through spring and summer workshops. A 30 square capacity dance floor, adjacent kitchen and apparel shop.” It is fun to watch the caller improvise the moves and the dance couples choreographed so nicely. It appeared to be a decent workout and a lot of fun.
Barry, Bobbie, Laura, Margine, Mary, and the rest of the crew work very hard to keep the campground running smoothly. They helped adjust our reservations more than once. They do a good job of policing noisy campers or speeders kicking up dust. Overall, it was very quiet and peaceful with just a couple of rowdies and barky dogs on the weekends.
They keep the bathroom/shower areas impeccably clean. They even pick up the pinecones! While we were there they were stringing out over a mile of hose to keep the grass areas watered to reduce fire potential.
There are 26 full hook-up sites and 30 water/electric sites plus a few tent sites. In addition, they have an over-flow, no hook-up area. The campground was usually full on weekends. Some of the sites back up to Lolo Creek (which had good fishing).
Our site was level, hard packed dirt. We had a water/electric site. But they have a honey wagon service for only $10! That was well worth the cost rather than having to tear down and set up every five or six days.
For recreation they have walking trails, whiffle ball golf course, and horse shoes. There are numerous pet areas and the dogs can even play in the creek.
There are tall ponderosa trees that provide shade and relief from the 90o days, but made it impossible for us to get a satellite signal. We had a weak Verizon cell and data signal. The wi-fi worked well during the week but slowed with heavy usage on the weekends.
There were three free cold water washers and clothes lines for drying. We took our clothes into Lolo one week where they have a nice, clean laundromat.
With the monthly long term rate, the cost was very reasonable.
We were very comfortable and would gladly make a return visit.
We liked the Lolo Dance Center and Campground! / Hanging clothes to dry / Tucked under tall Ponderosas
These folks love square dancing!
Lolo, elevation 3,200 feet and population 3,900, is a ranching community nestled between the Bitterroot River and the Bitterroot Mountains. It is home to Travelers' Rest State Park and Holt Heritage Museum.
It has one decent grocery store, a few recommended restaurants, a few gas stations and a Tractor Supply hardware store. Arleen was able to get her nails done there and we both got our hair cut in town. The laundromat was well maintained, clean, and reasonably priced.
Missoula, elevation 3,200 feet and population 70,000, is about 10 miles northeast of the campground.
“Missoula is the county seat of Missoula County. It is located along the Clark Fork River near its confluences with the Bitterroot and Blackfoot Rivers in western Montana and at the convergence of five mountain ranges, thus is often described as the "hub of five valleys".
It started as a trading post. It grew in the mid 19th century along with the lumber industry till the late 20th century. By then the city’s largest employer was the University of Montana which had been established in 1893 and is home of the Montana Grizzlies.
Missoula has 400 acres of parkland, 22 miles of trails, and nearly 5,000 acres of open-space conservation land with adjacent Mount Jumbo home to grazing elk and mule deer during the winter.
We both utilized the Providence medical services available at St Patrick’s Hospital. Arleen had back surgery and we were very pleased with the doctor, the nurses, and all the staff.
Though Missoula is a bit big for our tastes, we liked it. It has most familiar stores and restaurants, and includes the services you’d expect from an area that has roughly a hundred thousand people.
Missoula was on our “Potential Places to Live List”. After exploring the town and area for nearly a month, we agree that we could live here!
Fishing Lolo Creek…
Lolo Creek practically ran through our back yard. The medium sized creek drains a large area and empties into the Bitterroot River just four miles east of the campground. Most of Lolo Creek’s rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout average 6-12 inches long, but occasionally a few big Bitterroot River trout swim up the creek.
I really enjoyed fishing Lolo Creek. Each time I wet-waded in shorts and sandals. The cool water felt great, especially when the air temp was in the 90s. Though the wading was tricky on slick rocks, it was fairly easy to cross back and forth to put myself in the best fishing positions. The stream meandered a bunch and had many good pools, runs, and undercut banks.
Most of the time I just used a grasshopper fly and would get a few hits in each hole. When the grasshopper didn’t work, I dropped a big stonefly nymph about 20 inches below. The biggest fish seemed to like those stoneflies! I had my hands full with a few beefy 16 inchers.
I enjoyed fishing Lolo Creek in my backyard / A rainbow trout that hit a stonefly nymph
Brown trout and cutthroat trout
Fishing the Lochsa River…
I wanted to explore a few streams on the Idaho side of Lolo Pass. I marked a few potential spots on my map and took off.
I was being picky and had hoped to find my ideal stream. I found minor faults with each stream…too fast, too rocky, not big enough, no holding spots, etc. Had I been in a different mood, I probably would have done more fishing and less scouting!
As I drove further west down Highway 12, the Lochsa River looked more and more inviting. The weather was hot and sunny…not good for trout fishing, but I was ready to wet my line.
I finally spotted a deep slow run, right next to the road and pulled off. There was a fisherman and his small dog on the other side of the good-sized river. He was standing on a big rock and staring hard into the water. I found out later that he was trying to spot salmon.
I really enjoyed fishing that long, deep, slow run. Most of the hits came from small cutthroat trout whacking my grasshopper fly. I could see the little guys start their attack pretty deep into the clear water. It made me smile each time! Most of the trout were less than 10 inches long, but I caught two that were about 14 inches long. I’m sure bigger ones swam in that sweet hole!
Fly-fishing the upper Lochsa River in Idaho
Fly-fisherman and his dog trying to spot salmon / A cutthroat trout
Fishing the Bitterroot River…
The Bitterroot River is one of Montana’s classic trout streams. It’s been on my wish list for sometime.
It’s a beautiful river. My first impression was that it was big. It’s much bigger than what I’m used to. It’s loaded with trout so I just wanted to find a small side channel. This makes this big water seem more manageable and more like what I’m used to.
I wanted to get know the sections nearest our campground so I focused on the Lolo and the Chief Looking Glass accesses.
I enjoyed both, but they each had their plusses and minuses. I learned that I needed to be off the water near Lolo by noon to beat the “rubber hatch”. It’s a popular float for many tubers, kayakers, SUPs, and anything else one can lazily drift down a river on. The “rubber hatch” is usually boisterous and marks the end of the productive and peaceful fishing.
The Chief Looking Glass area had some nice holes, but they were a bit of a hike and challenging to fish. I only hooked a couple of trout in the area, but I know there are a bunch in there!
I nearly always hooked a nice trout or two near Lolo. They were strong cutthroat and rainbow trout up to 16 inches long that hit hoppers or stoneflies on top or big stonefly nymphs underneath. There was usually a decent hatch of small mayflies, but I stuck with the big stuff and did ok.
The Bitterroot River near the Chief Looking Glass access
The Bitterroot River near the Chief Looking Glass access
The Bitterroot River near the Chief Looking Glass access
Rainbow trout caught near the Lolo access
Adventure to Stony Lake…
My research turned up very little about Stony Lake. The little lake is situated at 7,100 feet near Shalkaho Pass in the Sapphire Mountains. The main hike route is 10-12 miles round trip, but I spotted a much shorter route on my maps.
The Shalkaho Highway traverses some impressive terrain. It’s mostly a lane and a half wide maintained dirt road that’s a bit tricky to negotiate when scooting by an oncoming vehicle. Much of the west side cuts through an old burn with lots of standing ghost trees. The forest floor is covered with wildflowers and there were some pretty waterfalls, including the impressive Shalkaho Falls.
Near the pass, I turned left on a little forest road. I put the truck in 4-wheel drive expecting the road to suck, but it stayed decent. A little less than two miles from my turn, I parked in a wide pullout, grabbed my gear, and headed towards my goal: Stony Lake.
Initially I walked through a healthy forest that escaped the big fires. My senses were alert for wildlife, but I just saw old signs of deer, elk, and moose. I hopped a small stream about a half mile from my start and immediately stared climbing through the old burn. The footing was tricky, but it wasn’t too steep so I made steady progress. Less than a mile later, I was standing on top of the ridge at nearly 8,000 feet and looking down at the shimmering lake.
I took a lengthy break to pose for pics, eat a snack, text Arleen, and look for a safe route down. I had to drop about 800 feet to the lake and knew it was going to be tricky. Thankfully, I spotted a maintained, but steep and rocky trail. I took my time to descend but seemed to be standing at the lake just a short while later.
Until this point, I had no idea if there were fish in the lake. It didn’t lake long to spot one! But what was it? A trout? What kind of trout? How big? Could I catch one?! It was so exciting!
I worked my way to the southwest corner where a rock fall entered the lake. While I had another snack and strung up my fly rod, I carefully watched the water. I continued to see small rise rings dotted here and there.
I cast my grasshopper fly and shortly after it hit the water, a small fish smacked it…a pretty six inch long cutthroat trout! I had nearly continuous hits from the little guys and managed to catch a couple monster 10 inchers. They were all spunky and very pretty. My mystery was solved and it was extremely gratifying!
The hike back was uneventful, but I stopped a couple of times to appreciate the views and flowers. It was a fantastic day!
Hike route to Stony Lake / The bear grass was impressive
Elephant’s head flowers and bear grass in a lush meadow
About to drop to Stony Lake / Caught lots of small cutthroat trout and had the lake to myself
Adventure to Crooked Fork…
Again I was heading off into the unknown!
I spotted Crooked Fork on my maps and it looked quite enticing. It’s actually an upper fork of the mighty Lochsa River. The section I spied had no road access. I expected a two and a half mile hike mostly on an old logging road.
My adventure began just two miles south of Lolo Pass, in Idaho. I parked in front of a gate, grabbed my gear, and started the gentle descent down the closed road. There were no people tracks, just a bunch of critter tracks: mostly deer, elk, and moose. Well worn game trails continually crossed my route. I was a little nervous about running into a moose or bear, so I occasionally sang to let them know I was passing through.
At about the two and a half mile point, I spotted a game trail dropping steeply to the river. It looked like my best option so I dropped in. Both the top and bottom sections were nearly too steep, but I made it down in one piece. I even slid on my butt on the final drop to the river.
I could see a sweet fishin’ hole just upstream! I still hadn’t seen any people tracks and figured those trout hadn’t been harassed in awhile. The best trout live in the best holes so I knew I was in for a treat!
I worked my way upstream, plopping my grasshopper fly in any likely lie. 3-6 inch long cutthroat trout continually whacked it, but I only hooked a couple of the little guys.
Then I got to “The Hole”. I scoped it out carefully and approached cautiously. Sometimes you only get one or two chances. First, I thoroughly worked the bottom half of the deep pool and was a little disappointed that no big ones materialized. But that changed as I slowly worked further up.
I caught 4 or 5 nice cutthroat trout, the biggest was around 15 inches long. Each one nonchalantly hit my grasshopper fly. I can still picture it in my mind as I type and it brings a big smile to my face!
Things slowed in “The Hole” so I continued to work my way upstream. The going was slow and a little spooky. The rocky stream was lined with thick willows, a favorite snack for moose. There were recently chewed limbs littering the ground in multiple spots. The noisy creek would make it very easy for a moose and me to surprise each other. I was thankful not to have a close encounter, but was a little sad not to spot a critter.
I worked my way around the next river bend and was disappointed to find no more holes. At least the little 3-6 inchers kept attacking my grasshopper fly!
It was time to head back. Of course I had to hit “The Hole” again first. Now I was upstream and fishing my way down. I probed the depths of “The Hole” with a big black woolly bugger. Sure enough, on my first decent cast, something big and heavy nailed the ugly fly. The fish tugged hard a few times and then got off. I think that it was a big bull trout. They inhabit deep holes in similar rivers in the region and get quite large. They feed mostly on small salmon and trout, just like the ones that kept whacking my grasshopper.
I walked downstream a ways and didn’t see any more deep holes. Sadly there was only one good fishing spot along this stretch of river.
I scampered back up the game trail to the old logging road. I felt good and kept a good pace on the gentle uphill route the whole way back.
Hike route to Crooked Fork / That fishin’ hole looks sweet!
Beautiful cutthroat trout hit grasshopper flies
Adventure to Fuse Lake…
Arctic grayling resided in much of the Montana high country long ago. Today there are just a few places in Montana that have grayling, and Fuse Lake is one of them.
The lengthy drive took me up and over the scenic and rugged Skalkaho Pass. I stopped to admire the pretty waterfall and carefully avoided the precarious edge of the narrow winding mountain road.
I was glad to arrive at an empty trailhead, but as I gathered my gear, two couples and two dogs showed up. I hit the trail first and kept a fast steady pace to insure a peaceful walk through the pretty forest. The trail climbed steadily so I got a much appreciated workout too. I arrived at the lake after two and a half miles and a thousand feet of climbing in less than an hour…pretty good!
I spotted small fish rising right away and chose a point on the far side to target them. I fished hard for about two hours and only caught one six inch long grayling. I admired its spots, iridescence, and sail-like dorsal fin, and released it back into the pretty lake. Grayling are usually easy targets, but these guys were quite finicky. They would come up and quickly inspect my fly and turn to disappear back to the depths. Though I only caught the one, it was still fun!
Now there were at least eight other people scattered around the little lake and two of them were encroaching on my point…it was time to go. On my way down, I passed six more people headed up. Fuse Lake is popular!
Hike route to Fuse Lake / The trail was mostly rocky but not steep and went through a pleasant forest
Fly-fishing for arctic grayling. Caught one, and missed a few others.
The Whetstone Ridge Fire burning east of Fuse Lake
Getting Arleen out: Lolo Pass…
We would cross Lolo Pass a number of times, on our route to Lolo and then back and forth on our adventures. However, on one of our “getting Arleen out” adventures, Lolo Pass was the destination.
“The Lolo Pass Visitor Center and Rest Area is located along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.”
“The visitor center displays information on the Lewis and Clark journey across the Bitterroot Mountains and the 1877 flight of the Nez Perce Indians and tells historical, natural, and general information about the area.”
“The facility currently includes an interpretive center, warming hut, 24-hour restroom, snowmobile parking lot, parking for other recreationists, and a 30-minute outer parking lot for larger commercial vehicles and other rest stop vehicles.”
From here there is a spider web of trails including snowshoe and snowmobile trails. We were able to do a mile route that went through a pleasant forest and buggy swamp area.
Walk route at Lolo Pass / We enjoyed the walk in the woods
Hanging out at Lolo Pass
We learned a lot about the Lewis and Clark expedition
Getting Arleen out: Traveler’s Rest…
Traveler’s Rest State Park is just two and a half miles from the Square Dance Center. Its closeness made it a convenient location to “get Arleen out”.
The area was a natural hub for the western native peoples. To the west lay the rivers filled with salmon. To the north were camas and bitterroot fields. To the east were the buffalo plains. To the south, were areas where horses had come from beginning in the 17th century.
“Tipi poles were left through the camping season as community property”. The local Salish were very hospitable to different people moving through the area. So it was natural that they welcomed the Lewis and Clark expedition in September of 1805 on their way west and again in 1806 on their way back east.
“As of 2011, Traveler’s Rest is the only archeologically verified Lewis and Clark campsite in the world.” They rested here and traded for dried salmon and meats. They also collected edible wild plants such as the bitterroot.
The Bitterroot plant was an important food source for the Salish people. The mountains to the west and the valley river are named for it. Now it is the Montana State flower.
There is a wonderful 1.2 mile lollipop route. The wide, packed dirt trail crosses Lolo Creek and moves in and out of the shade of giant cottonwood trees. The displays include tipis, amphitheater, overlook, and a historic kitchen hidden in the tall grass. We nearly had the interpretive signs memorized after our four visits. It was so cool to think that the Lewis and Clark expedition had camped in that exact area over 200 years ago!
Walk route around historic Traveler’s Rest / Tepee
Crossing Lolo Creek
Lewis and Clark camped here in 1805 and 1806
Getting Arleen out: Maclay Flat…
McClay Flat is part of the Blue Mountain Recreation Area. Since it is on the south side of the Bitterroot River, just west of Highway 93, it was an easy stop for us on the way into or the way back from Missoula.
There are two loop options. One is 1.25 miles long or you can add another half mile to that to make it almost a 2 mile long loop. It is a flat, hard gravel trail interspersed with areas of soft pine needles through the trees.
“16 interpretive signs describe the river system, wildlife, vegetation and archeology of this area.” We first walked through the meadows on the south side. During our time here it was very warm in the afternoons…like 95o warm! So the sun was hot with only occasional relief from very tall and thick Ponderosa trees. Then as we looped back to the west near the river and entered the welcome shade of the huge cottonwood trees. Here, we could walk down to the clear cool Bitterroot River and wade in and cool off. There were other people doing the same thing and everyone was having fun.
We enjoyed our strolls around Maclay Flat!
Walk route around Maclay Flat / The interpretive trail is very pleasant
The Bitterroot River is very popular on hot summer days
The Lolo Peak Fire…
On 15 July we had a few evening thunderstorms that we tracked moving across the Bitterroot Mountains and Continental Divide. We found out the next day that lightning had triggered 13 wildfires. We saw helicopters soaring out to drop their large water buckets on them. However, one fire on the west side of Lolo peak was not extinguished and would grow over the following days and weeks. It eventually impacted our plans.
On 21July, following the Inci Web notes, the management of the fire was turned over to an Incident 1 commander team, indicating that it was a major fire capable of causing significant damage to private property.
An example of fire suppression techniques was on 24 July: a successful aerial firing operation with plastic sphere dispensers (PSD) was completed in the southeast corner of the fire near the Bitterroot Divide. The PSD operation reduced the fire’s intensity along the divide in steep inaccessible terrain. Around this time they started holding evening community meetings to keep the public informed. They also set up an information booth at the local Town Pump.
The long range forecast indicated a strong southwest flow setting up around mid Aug which would push the fire quickly towards us. We figured that this would lead to the closure of Highway 12 and the evacuation of the campground so we extended our stay at Saint Regis.
On 29 July the Incident Commander issued the following statement; “A significant heating and drying trend is forecasted for next week. Fire behavior predictions indicate the fire will move north and cross Lantern Ridge. The prevailing winds from the west southwest will push the fire northeast toward the valley floor and Highway 12. We are focusing our efforts with this in mind and feel we can scale our resources appropriately to meet this challenge.” Though expected, it still wasn’t good news for us!
On 1 August an pre-evacuation warning was issued for along Highway 12 just west of us. We will be included in the next one!
We chose to leave Lolo but will stay in the area for medical appointments and truck maintenance. We will move to the little town of Saint Regis, roughly 70 miles west of Missoula, for about three weeks. We hope to return to Lolo for a few weeks in September…we’ll see!
17 Jul: Fire from Traveler’s Rest in Lolo, 59 acres / 26 Jul: Fire from near the campground, 1600 acres
30 Jul: Helicopter with water bucket flying over Lolo. Lolo Peak should be visible but is obscured by smoke, 4336 acres / 1 Aug: Fire spilling over Lantern Ridge about 6 miles from the campground, 6302 acres
Maps of Lolo Peak Fire for 25 Jul, 29 Jul, and 2 Aug (we were near the “R” in “Mormon Peak Rd”). Click any map for a better view.
Arleen had a lumbar microdisconectomy at St Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula. We were very impressed with the professionalism of the doctor, nurses, and staff. The whole process was seamless from getting appointments, to the surgery, to the billing. Most importantly, Arleen is doing great and is ecstatic with how quickly she is recuperating from what has been a nine month ordeal.
19 Jul: First meeting with the surgeon / 27 Jul: Day of surgery
We are in Saint Regis MT and plan to stay for about three weeks. Arleen is doing great! In fact she has to be very careful not to overdue it. Pending the fire, we hope to return to Lolo for a few weeks in September and then we will work our way to the Oregon coast for fall.
We really enjoyed meeting these young-at-heart ladies! / People will float on nearly anything down the Bitterroot River on a hot day near Missoula MT
Skalkaho Falls / Mud Pond near Skalkaho Pass
We had a nice visit from Linda!