Lake Koocanusa

Live the lake life away from the bustle of Flathead or Whitefish

By Micah Drew
The Koocanusa Bridge over Lake Koocanusa south of Rexford on June 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono

On the heels of a two-week vacation in Vail, President Gerald Ford spent a whopping two-and-a-half hours in Montana where he “flipped the switch” and dedicated the Libby Dam, which had been completed two years prior as a joint project between the U.S. and Canada. The 420-foot high concrete structure cost an estimated $466 million to build and the resulting 90-mile long Lake Koocanusa reservoir flooded old roads, an abandoned town and Native American sites in the Kootenai Valley, and prompted the relocation of 60 miles of the Great Northern Railway. To do so, the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers had to build a 7.01-mile tunnel beneath Elk Mountain. 

The lake — which gets its name from the KOOtenai River, CANada and the USA — stopped the wild Kootenai River’s flow turning it into the trans-national recreational waterway it is today, offering opportunities to boat, fish and hike along its length. The reservoir has become known for its land-locked population of Kookanee salmon and more than a dozen campgrounds dot the shores. 

Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway: 

The scenic byway is a 67-mile route connecting Libby and Eureka that highlights the southern half of the reservoir regardless of the season. The byway has a side loop on a forest service road that offers a two-lane leisurely tour of the lake’s western shore, but has winter closures. 

Koocanusa Bridge:

The Koocanusa Bridge is the longest and highest bridge in the state, spanning 2,437 feet across the lake and standing roughly 270 feet high depending on water levels. The bridge has elevated sidewalks on both sides of the roads to make it worth a stroll over the water. The bridge serves as an access point to the Yaak River Country and many recreational opportunities as well as to the Amish community on the western side of the lake. 

Webb Mountain Lookout:

Sitting at an elevation of 5,988 feet, the Webb Mountain Lookout was used as a forest fire observation point for more than 40 years after its construction in 1959. The structure is a mere 196 square feet and is rentable through the U.S Forest Service. The rustic building has a wood stove, a twin-size bed frame with five additional mattresses, outside fire pit and a 360-degree porch around the second story. 

Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail:

One of the under looked long distance hiking trails in the country winds from northwest Montana for 1,200 miles to the Pacific Ocean, and passes along the shore of Koocanusa. The trail can be picked up near the western edge of the Koocanusa Bridge and can take hikers up to Webb Lookout, around Thirsty Mountain and beyond. 

Kikomun Creek Provincial Park:

Across the border in British Columbia, sites one of Canada’s provincial parks, home of one of the largest population of endangered western painted turtles. The park provides access not only to Koocanusa but to several other small lakes in the area which feature sandy beaches and easy hiking trails.

How to Get There: From Whitefish, travel 53 miles northwest on U.S. Highway 93 to Eureka. Turn left on Montana Highway 37 and follow it six miles the lake.

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