Lake Koocanusa & Libby Dam

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If you’re looking for a nice, scenic drive in northwest Montana, just look at a map. You’ll probably notice a long, slender lake, stretching out for 90 miles from near Libby, Montana, north to the Canadian Border and beyond. This is Lake Koocanusa — a manmade reservoir along the Kootenai River. Best of all, there’s a little-traveled scenic road that skirts the eastern shoreline.

My Visit

My scenic drive along Montana 37 started with a visit to the Libby Dam visitor center.  The dam was completed in 1975.  It provides power generation and flood control on the Kootenai River.  It also formed Lake Koocanusa — which is not a traditional Native American name, as you might expect.  It’s a combination of KOOtenai, CANada, and the USA — the two countries which the lake spans.

A sign at the entrance to the visitor center provides some current statistics about the lake.  On the day I visited, the 40,500 cubic feet per second of water were flowing into the lake, and 17,000 cubic feet per second were flowing out.  The lake was 26 feet below its “full” level, and the water temperature was a refreshing 72 degrees.

You can take a tour of the Libby Dam, which includes a trip down into the concrete structure.  I didn’t have time for a tour…

… so I drove back to Route 37, stopping for one more picture below the dam.

It’s a 43-mile drive from the southern end of the lake (at the dam) to the point where Route 37 turns away.  I was surprised that there weren’t more viewpoints.  From the road, the lake is often obscured (partially) by trees.  But there are a few good places to view the lake and the surrounding mountains.

The road has some very dramatic spots…

… and provides a few places where you can climb down to the shoreline…

… and admire the driftwood and rocks.

This rocky cut provides a place for rock climbers to practice.

Looking south, you can see the road cut into the hillside.

You’ll know the journey is almost over when you see this bridge.  There’s a reason it looks so impressive: the Koocanusa Bridge is the longest and highest bridge in Montana.  It’s 2,437 feet long, and depending on the water level, roughly 270 feet above the water.

The bridge’s statistics may be impressive, but its traffic load is not.  Since the bridge doesn’t connect with anything other than the other side of the lake, you’ll have no problem stopping in the middle of the bridge for some photos…

… looking north, into Canada.

Beyond the bridge, it’s just a few more miles to the community of Rexford, after which the road turns east, then ends at US 93.

 

The Bottom Line

I decided to drive along Lake Koocanusa because I was looking for a scenic detour between Libby and Glacier National Park.  Route 37 and U.S. 93 provide a longer drive than if you followed U.S. 2, but the drive along Route 37 is very scenic, and worth the effort — especially if you want to learn more about the Libby Dam.

Location

You should have no trouble finding Lake Koocanusa on a map. The lake is formed by the Libby Dam at its southern end. From the town of Libby, head east on Montana 37. You’ll pass the dam, then the road turns north, and follows the shoreline, almost to Canada, before turning east and ending at US 93 near Eureka.

Visiting the dam requires a short detour off of Montana 37. A paved (but less-improved) road runs along the western shoreline. You could choose to take this road all the way north, or just take it to the dam and back.

Drivelapse Video

Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Libby to Lake Koocanusa via Montana 37:

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