Our favorite Montana motorcycle route

Excerpted from “Motorcycling Montana”

The Yaak Country and “FDR” Highway

We cherish the most remote pavement with the least traffic, challenging roadways and magnificent scenery.

Given that …

For those with the time and spirit – and skills! – at Troy, Mont., along Hwy. 2 in extreme northwest Montana, there are routes that will yield riding unparalleled in the U.S.

Here’s one of our all-time favorite routes through an area we call “the Yaak country.”

It is recommended that more than one bike ride these routes together. There is a certain amount of risk and this is highly remote country. An accident could leave a solo rider and his or her passenger in deep trouble unless others were available to assist or alert help. We have a grim – though meant to be humorous – saying: “If ya go off the road in them parts, the bears will get to ya a lot sooner than Search and Rescue.” Ha, ha…

We’ll always fuel before coming out of Troy to continue northwest on Hwy. 2 for 10 miles. This segment is excellent two-lane lined with tall timber featuring fine sweeping turns and a long climb above the Kootenai River. Traffic should be moderate. It is a fine prelude to what is to come and allows a rider to sharpen his or her chops – find the groove – before tackling the more technical stuff ahead.

Look to your right, east, to pick up Hwy. 508 which angles generally northeast. It is good two-lane that in the prime riding season may carry as many bikes as cages. It follows the Yaak River 30 miles to the tiny village of Yaak which, surprisingly, boasts two colorful saloons, both serving good food and one has cabins. Fuel is available here, too, at “remote prices” (good thing, because the next fuel is approximately 50 miles away in Eureka).

The roadway is unexpectedly modern with a smooth, high-friction chip-seal surface. It twists and turns with spirit as it follows the river course with some corners marked down to 35 mph and many in the 40-45 mph range. When karma is properly aligned – and your equipment is suitable and skills up to the challenge – speeds can be nudged to add zest to the turns which are constant-radius and nicely banked.

The road is ideal for sport bike riders who want to push the envelope, but also for cruisers who enjoy lazily tipping the hog into a left-right-left while still feasting their eyes on the outstanding river and mountain vistas. Dual-sport and adventure-tourers – just run what ya brung – will all glimpse transcendent motorcycle nirvana, especially if you take a break to contemplate inspiring Yaak Falls (watch for signs).

Obviously such remote country holds high populations of all forest creatures, so be aware.

Depending upon the time of day, we like to get breakfast, coffee or lunch at Yaak, physically refueling and mentally recharging for what we know lies beyond.

A decision needs to be made here, and a rider’s choice will depend upon timetables and stamina. Either way, there’s some exciting riding in store.

“Hwy.” 567 (note the quotation marks – it hardly fits the definition of “highway”) leads directly south out of Yaak, across the Yakk River and through the heart of the Purcell Mountains to Libby 30 miles away.

It climbs considerably while slicing through dense stands of timber, through gulches and along the sides of steep ridges. It narrows until it’s down to just one wide lane in the middle stretch. The tarmac is rough so take it easy, especially if heavily loaded. We broke the mounting bolts on a loaded luggage rack passing though here years ago. A good ADV bike would be ideal for the conditions.

You won’t encounter much traffic up here either, perhaps a half-dozen rigs in the duration. Wildlife is abundant and we’ve seen some fine mule deer bucks. The road gradually improves as you approach Libby, where it’s probably time for needed refreshment. This is one fun, exciting and scenic route.

…on east to Lake Koocanusa?

Your other option back at Yaak is to continue east, rather than south, out of town. The road shortly forks; stay to the left. After the fork, the road will run north, then east/southeast. There are few signs to help navigate, and fewer to warn of corners or advising appropriate corner speeds. Sometimes there are no visible stripes on the asphalt. You are on your own. A friend of mine described this route as “a paved Indian trail,” though that is a small exaggeration.

Be prepared for 40 miles of one of the most isolated stretches of pavement in the U.S. My wife and I rode through here in late May one year and encountered two cars during the 40 miles.

We also encountered: rocks ranging from golf ball to bowling ball size, slender lodgepole pine trees that had fallen across the road, and rusty red tree duff coating the surface and making tire adhesion uncertain. That’s why we like to travel this with a riding companion or two, and why we like to take it nice and easy. Later in the season, though, expect surface conditions to have improved. We have seen a few sport bikes strafing this one.

The pavement will be narrow but coarse with plenty of traction. It has smooth sections but others that are quite choppy. Subsurface faults will produce sudden dips and humps.

As you make your way east toward Lake Koocanusa (derived from “Kootenai/Canada/USA”), the roadway climbs what seems like a couple thousand feet. Temperatures drop 15-25 degrees. We are always on a very high state of alert through here and experience a fine exhilaration. Other novice riders who’ve accompanied us along this route are always amazed and, to use a 1970s term, “totally blown away.”

My wife and I saw the largest black bear of our lives here. I think it went 400 to 500 lbs. He (she?) was simply sitting along the shoulder. When we stopped about 100 yards off, the bruin lazily assumed all-fours, looked at us and didn’t like what he saw, then ambled across the roadway and down into the brush on the opposite side, seemingly miffed at the intrusion.

We like to take a break at a turnout near the summit just to let the majesty of the country, and the glory of the ride, soak in. The good feelings are compounded when shared. You are “on top of the world” literally, figuratively and spiritually. Hell, it’s even fun writing about this favorite!

Then starts the long decent – steeper than the ascent – toward the Kootenai Valley and Lake Koocanusa. I would grade this segment “fairly technical” as turns are tight and sometimes deceptively so, often muscled while heavily on the brakes and pitching downhill. Passengers may struggle and tend to put pressure on your back. If you’re not highly practiced in this environment, slow down! Of course, to run it uphill in the opposite direction is even more of a blast!

At the bottom you are dumped onto or Road No. 228, or the “FDR Highway” as it’s locally known. This runs north/south along the west shore of 90-mile-long Lake Koocanusa, which is the reservoir formed behind Libby Dam. Just two or three miles south past that junction you’ll spot the spans of the Koocanusa Bridge. Here more decisions are required.

Riders can proceed across the reservoir and either head north and east toward Eureka and Hwy. 93, or run south along the east shore of the lake on Hwy. 37.

We love the “FDR Highway”

Hwys. 93 and 37 are worthy of consideration. However, typically we will, with relish, opt for the FDR Highway along the west shore.

I first ran this magnificent, yet tricky and technical, piece of pavement back in 1984. I was stunned at its perfection as a specimen of challenging sport motorcycle highway. I think I have run it at least every other year since, and have had one heckuva time every time. Unfortunately, a lack of maintenance (and dollars) for these lightly used and remote roads has begun to take a toll.

The west shore is closed in the winter, so early in the season it exhibits some natural hazards such as rock and mud slides, perhaps small creeks over the road, and trees leaning dangerously over, or actually on, the surface. My wife and I encountered a refrigerator-sized slab of granite in the southbound lane in 2010. It does get cleaner and safer as the season progresses.

Simply put, this is around 44 miles of dramatic mountain and lake scenery with serpentine blacktop thrown into the mix. It is turn after turn, some easy at 60 or 70 miles an hour, others where speed needs to be choked down to 20 or 25 mph. Corners and recommended speeds are well signed.

In some of the tightest turns expect a sharp dip or bump, playing havoc with your cornering line and potentially causing hard parts of the bike to bite into tarmac. I’ve grounded a center-stand tang and exhaust collector, not to mention foot-peg feelers, in these corners.

Yes, you’ve got to focus, expect the unexpected, be ready at all times to make sudden corrections. To some, that is just tiring and nonsensical, even ridiculous. To others, it is a challenge to be accepted and exploited.

We always ride this route with an appropriate dose of spirit to produce an enjoyable level of excitement. Twice my wife and I have traversed this north-to-south on memorably high boil, both times on my loaded 650-lb. sport/tour machine.

The first time we were riding in cruise mode when a group of Canadians on sport-biased bikes caught up. I waved them around, then clung to their sweep rider. Away our posse went, throttles opened and closed, tach needles sweeping back and forth, brake lights flashing, clutches and gearboxes getting a workout, tires scrubbed to the edges, hard bits leaving scrapes on the asphalt … all the way to the observation turnout near the dam.

There we shared our excitement and fun, swapped stories and information and laughs, and became fine friends instantly. That’s the essence of riding, eh? Ride with someone and they aren’t a stranger long. I still savor the photos we took of this gang at that place.

The other occasion we “attacked” the FDR Highway was at the mid-point of a long day of me leading a group of six other bikes (very rare for us), some experienced, some not so much. I had been the dutiful, safe, considerate, conscientious point rider all morning: observing speed limits, signaling potential hazards, coordinating fuel, bathroom, coffee and rest stops … and I was damned tired of it.

When we got to Koocanusa Bridge, I told the rest of the band I needed a break from responsibility, and that I was going to ride my ride and they could ride theirs – keep up, fall back, whatever.

Marilyn and I took off south at high zoot and my mirrors were empty … for a minute or two. Then I saw a headlight and recognized nephew Zack piloting the very capable “supersport” I had once owned. He tucked in and we sailed along the shore in a tight tandem, in synchronous harmony. Zack can ride! He didn’t crowd me but I never pulled away. Due to dried mud slides, tree debris and so on we only rode at about 85 percent, but given the conditions it felt more like 110 percent!

At the bottom we stopped, shared smiles and excited talk while the adrenalin dissipated and the others rolled in.

Clearly, regardless of your equipment and skills, this road can be enjoyed at any pace a rider chooses and is comfortable with. It has it all. It is one of our favorites; one of the state’s best.

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