click to enlarge Lake Koocanusa in the Kootenai National Forest

Darren Kirby

Lake Koocanusa in the Kootenai National Forest

Comprising almost 2.2 million acres in the northwest corner of Montana (with some 50,000 acres spilling into Idaho), the Kootenai National Forest encompasses some of the most remote country in the lower 48 states. Headquartered in Libby, the forest includes the 93,000-acre Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, the Ten Lakes Scenic Area abutting the Canadian border, the 76-mile Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway, and the grove of ancient western red cedars known as the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area.

The Kootenai National Forest is a recreationalist's mecca, offering canoeing, kayaking, rafting and fishing on the Kootenai River, motorized boating and fishing on Lake Koocanusa; skiing and snowboarding at Turner Mountain Ski Area; snowmobile and cross-country ski trails near Libby; mountain biking and road cycling; rock climbing and peak-bagging; and disc golf and target shooting. Outfitters access the forest for hunting in season.

Eleven fire lookout and cabin rentals, almost 40 developed campgrounds, and more than 20 trails deliver intrepid visitors to the forest's panoramic ridge tops, high meadows, and small lakes. About 90 miles of the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail cross the Kootenai.

The Kootenai's climate is wetter than that of the rest of Montana, with close to twice the rainfall of the state average. In addition to the Kootenai River, the Yaak, Fisher, Tobacco and Vermillion rivers drain the watershed. Grizzlies, mountain goats, wolverines, Canadian lynx, and peregrine falcons roam the remote wilderness, and more than 132 species of wildflower take root in the rugged terrain.

Perhaps the forest's most-viewed attraction is Kootenai Falls, the last undammed falls on the Kootenai River, about 10 miles downstream from Libby on Highway 2. By all means, stop, take a picture, feel the spray on your face. Then park the car and walk away from the road. You've barely scratched the surface.

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