After my three weeks of exploring Northern Idaho, I headed east to Montana. From Bonners Ferry, I took Highway 2 to Libby and then connected to Highway 37, also known as the Lake Kookanusa Scenic Byway which travels 67 miles to Eureka.
I don’t know how I missed this section of the USA eleven years ago while on my year long road trip across the USA connecting 120 different scenic byways listed in a Reader’s Digest Book.
Somehow, this National Forest Scenic Byway didn’t make it in the book, and it is spectacular. Had I realized how pretty it would be, I would have spent the whole day driving it, rather than just a few hours.
Drive the Lake Kookanusa Scenic Byway
The byway likely deserves its own post, but I’m tying it into this Things to Do in Eureka post, as it a must see.
Visit Kootenai Falls and the Swinging Bridge
I came from the Idaho side and while Highway 2, isn’t part of the Lake Kookanusa Scenic Byway, it still offers many pullouts and recreational activities such as camping and hiking. In fact, don’t miss Kootenai Falls, located between Troy and Libby. You might have unknowingly seen it in “River Wild” or in a swimming scene of the movie “The Revenant.”
A large parking area with bathrooms, a snack stand, and picnic tables lures the tourists to stop for the 1.6-mile hike. Don’t let the shorter mileage on the signs fool you. The signs display one-way mileage, and the falls and the swinging bridge are in opposite directions.
While the falls do not look that high, the power of the Kootenai River which rages over the rocks garners respect! This site is considered sacred by the Kootenai Indians who communed with spiritual forces at the falls.
The swinging bridge is down river and slightly dizzying to walk across when looking down at the white rapids. My dog Annie did not like it, so we snapped a photo in the middle and returned to shore rather than continuing across!
Take a Tour of Libby Dam
After visiting the falls, definitely stop at Libby Dam. Since I was meeting my friend Keith, who lives in Eureka, at 4pm, I didn’t have time for this and later returned 50 miles from Eureka to see it because I wanted to drive the beautiful byway again!
The dam and the area around it are enormous. There are plenty of recreational activities available including camping and fishing. In fact, the state record rainbow trout (33.1 pounds) was caught just below the dam.
In addition to recreational activities, you may tour the dam. The visitors center, which is open daily, offers tours a 2pm and 4pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. You may take an indoor tour or an outdoor tour. Most of the information is the same, though the indoor tour is slightly more educational. The outdoor tour, however, affords visitors a chance to walk across the dam that is now off limits due to 9/11.
Seeing as how I have already toured the inside of the Hoover Dam, I took the outdoor tour. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed.
About the Libby Dam
The Libby Dam, completed in 1975, is one of four dams built in conjunction with Canada and the Kootenai Tribe. Since, the other three dams are in Canada, I assumed they were upriver, but the Kootenai River turns northwest into Canada, so the three other dams are smaller and downriver!
The 422 ft high Libby Dam created the 90-mile-long Lake Koocanusa, 42 miles of which are in Canada. The dam was built for flood control and to produce power. It has a selective water withdrawal system which allows water to be released from different depths of the 370 ft deep lake. The ability to control the temperature downstream helps keep the natural habitat safe for fish.
Additionally, the dam has eight turbines, but only five may operate at once, controlling the water levels of the river and protecting the natural habitat. With five turbines operating, the dam can produce 600 megawatts of power which services eight states.
There are several more interesting facts about Libby Dam, but I encourage you to go to the Visitors Center or take the tour. If you get the intern studying to be a teacher as a guide, be prepared for a very enthusiastic performance for kindergarteners.
Fortunately, another young woman trailed us on the dam who pointed things out to me along the way. She made me want to return in the morning for a chance to see bald eagles and osprey fight while fishing!
Before leaving Libby Dam, be sure to drive up to the overlook for an excellent view.
Enjoy the View at Koocanusa Bridge
The next forty miles of the Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway follows the absolutely gorgeous blue lake. There are many nice views and pullouts.
Make a stop at the Koocanusa Bridge which stands 270 ft above the lake, depending on water levels. Sidewalks on both sides of the roadway allow visitors to walk out above the middle of the lake for excellent photo opportunities.
The bridge connects a small Amish community to the eastern shore and provides access to recreational opportunities on the western shore.
Climb at Stone Hill Climbing Area
For any climbers making the drive, within 3 miles of the bridge at mile marker 51, is the Stone Hill Climbing Area. There are 500 sport and traditional climbing routes.
As I said, you could easily spend a whole day, or perhaps weekend on this scenic byway alone, so be sure to drive it when visiting Eureka.
Now that I finally made it to Eureka, well technically Rexford, where Keith lives, I was treated to a magnificent view of Lake Koocanusa. Keith, my former boss in Revenue Management at Southwest Airlines who I hadn’t seen since 1996, is now a photographer. He regularly posts amazing northern lights photos on Facebook, and I always thought he sure doesn’t sleep much. Little did I know he doesn’t have to leave his back deck!
While I had planned to just drop by for a few hours and stay just a few days in Eureka, I ended up with a home cooked meal by his lovely wife Dona, a shower, and a place to do laundry and rest for the night! Additionally, I ended up hanging in Eureka almost a week.
History of Eureka
The town of 1,300 has more to do than I would have guessed. Eureka is located in the Tobacco Valley, so named when explorers found Indians growing a native strain of Tobacco.
Founded in the 1880’s, Eureka was originally known as Deweyville. Its economy relied heavily on logging and milling until the 1924 when the mill closed. The once booming town, turned ghost town almost overnight. There were so many vacant houses that people just moved into them without paying rent.
Who knew that the sale of one railroad car of Christmas Trees the prior year would soon lead to the survival of the town during the Great Depression! By 1931, Eureka was home to Christmas tree yard and by 1948 it was shipping 1.8 million trees in 300 railroad cars causing Colliers Magazine to name Eureka the Christmas Tree Capitol of the World!
If it weren’t so cold in the winter, because of this story about hope and the Christmas spirit, I would want to visit Eureka for the Christmas celebrations held at the Eureka’s Tobacco Valley Historical Village. How special it would be!
Tobacco Valley Historical Village
The Tobacco Valley Historical Village is a collection of pioneer buildings saved from the flooding of Lake Koocanusa. They are located at the site of the old mill on the southern edge of town. The buildings include, but are not limited to a museum, school, and church. They are very well done with period décor and furniture.
Walk the Eureka Riverwalk
Next to the Tobacco Valley Historical Village is the Eureka Riverwalk. The mostly paved trail follows a 2-mile interpretive loop with fitness stations along the Tobacco River. It is a nice place to stroll in the shade.
Where to Stay in Eureka
Speaking of shade, I parked in the shade at the Riverwalk for the entire afternoon and was too lazy to leave. I got used to Idaho, where any place allows camping for three day as long as there is not a “no parking” or “no camping” sign.
Montana does not have the same rule! The nice policeman apologized for waking me at 1:30am, and said he would have told me to move sooner had he noticed me. I only had to move about 100 yards to Riverside Park on the other side of Tobacco Valley Historical Village.
Riverside Park, in the back of town hall offers camping by donation for three nights. A large gravel parking area loops around a grassy spot with several picnic tables. Tent campers to RV campers congregate here on the weekends, though there is little camping midweek. Stangely, however, there is no pit toilet, and the bathroom at Town Hall is only open during business hours.
It seems like they should move the toilets at the Historic Village to this site as it is also used by visitors to float the river or to check out the farmers market which is on Wednesday from 4-7pm.
Camp at Tobacco Plains Recreation Area
I only camped at Riverside Park one night before I moved to Tobacco Plains Recreation Area on Keith’s advice. The camping area is one large dirt parking lot. Getting there on a weekday gave Annie and I the prime location with a view of Lake Koocanusa. The only downside to prime campsites, are the people that walk right through them or park in them to temporarily enjoy the view. My protective dog really does not like this.
At any rate, the few campers tended to at least park 30 yards from one another, and the boaters parked their trailers in the middle. And having two bars of cell service was perfect.
Nearby Tobacco Plains Recreation Area is the Murray Springs Fish Hatchery and some trails. More to follow. But in the meantime, if you don’t want to camp, you may rent Keith and Dona’s Montana Cabin. Actually, they have two cabins for rent, Saturday to Saturday. The Eagles Nest is the other one, but the Montana Cabin has the better view.
If for some reason you prefer staying in town, check out the Ksanka Inn.
Tour the Murray Springs Trout Hatchery
The Murray Springs Trout Hatchery was constructed in 1978-79 to mitigate habitat loss from the Libby Dam project. The hatchery has raised different fish over the years, but now it focuses on the Gerrard Rainbow Trout. The Gerrard Rainbow Trout is unique in that it feeds on Kokanee Salmon.
This is important because the trout are needed to reduce the population of the Kokanee Salmon in Lake Kookanusa to keep these non-native salmon in the upper Kootenai River healthy. The Kokonee salmon came to be in the lake when a Canadian Hatchery that was struggling with raising the salmon flushed the presumed “dead” sac fry down the river. Suddenly, they were no longer dead.
As a result, the USA and Canada made an agreement for Murray Springs Trout Hatchery to release sterile Gerrard Trout into Lake Kookanusa. Being sterile, these trout may eat the salmon, but not crossbreed with the wild trout.
But since the hatchery raises the trout, some of them cannot be sterile. Once their brood trout reach six years old, they release these ten-pound trout into kiddie ponds around Eureka.
Uummm, if I were a kid and caught at ten-pound trout in a kiddie pond, I might be hooked on fishing for life. For that matter, as an adult, I would maybe need to enjoy an afternoon of fishing in Eureka! I probably should have tried my luck at nearby Sophie Lake, but instead I took a short hike with Annie.
Take a Hike
The hike near Sophie Lake was one of many trails in the area. Though not my favorite kind of hike with spear grass poking me through my socks, the trails in the area are easy strolls.
For moderate and more rugged hikes which are much prettier, visit Ten Lakes Scenic Area. Ten Lakes Scenic Area, in the Kootenai National Forest, features 89 miles of remote hiking opportunities. Some favorites are Bluebird Lake, Wolverine Lake, and Stahl Creek. They are all gorgeous. If you plan on hiking in Ten Lakes Scenic Area, I highly recommend camping in the area to reduce your drive time. Just be prepared for no cell service.
Learn About Airplanes
Before returning back to Eureka, take a side trip to the Stonehenge Air Museum in Fontine, Montana. The Stonehenge Air Museum showcases Jim Smith’s private collection of rare civilian and military planes. The planes are meticulously restored into flyable condition. The stories around these planes are amazing.
The collection includes the Jenny previously owned by Paramount, which was used in several movies, including the Spirit of St. Louis. The museum also features the only flyable Seafire in the world. Only 500 were made, and the British Royal Navy dumped the rest of them in the ocean.
Another airplane the museum boasts is a Kittyhawk which was deemed surplus by the Royal Airforce of Canada. As a result, a farmer bought it for $50 because the gas in it was worth more. He also used it for spare parts for his tractor. He eventually buried it, and 23 years later a Texas collector asked if the rumor was true and dug it up! Now it is part of Jim Smith’s collection.
The collection also features a rare inflatable plane that fits in a crate. It could be dropped into the jungle to save shot down airline pilots in Vietnam. By the time it was ready to deploy, the war was over. There are only three in the world. One in storage at the Smithsonian, one sold on Ebay 7 years ago, and the one on display at the Stonehenge Air Museum.
If collecting and restoring these aircraft weren’t enough, Jim Smith also built a Mustang without any aircraft parts. He used two Ford engines, Honda Civic wheels, and other car parts to create a flyable machine. He ordered 1,000 Ford motors to sell his airplane kit, but due to liability, Ford cancelled the order!
Also, fun to see, was the 1920 one-page flight handbook with 25 rules…one being, “Do not fly aircraft with spurs on!”
In addition to the airplanes, as the name suggests, the museum also displays a replica of Stonehenge. It is an extra $2 to see. I skipped seeing the replica because I have seen the real one. Not to mention, I didn’t want to leave Annie in VANgo too long because it was unseasonably warm during my stay in Eureka.
Visitors are required to schedule an appointment on a weekday between 9am and 3pm. When I called on Thursday, they had a tour available on Friday at 2. The tour guide made these planes come to life, and it was far more interesting than just reading the plaque. I highly recommend a visit.
On the way to the Stonehenge Air Museum, you will pass by at least two golf courses, maybe three. I saw so many, I wondered if Montana was home to most per capita golf courses in the USA. After a quick google search, I learned North Dakota took that honor.
But on a serious note, the Wilderness Club, located on Sophie Lake Road, is ranked the number one golf course in the state. So, if you are a golfer, add Eureka to your golfing destinations. You’ll probably share the course with a deer or two.
Watch for Wildlife
In fact, deer (mamas and their babies) were everywhere! I saw them on them on Lake Kookanusa Scenic Byway, at the Tobacco Valley Historical Village, in my campsites at Riverside and Tobacco Plains, and on the way to Ten Lakes Scenic Byway. I also saw three bald eagles and a rafter of turkeys.
Stay Up for the Northern Lights
What I didn’t see were the northern lights. But I also didn’t try. The sun doesn’t set until close to 10pm and I wasn’t getting up at 1:30am like Keith. Admittedly, I was a little envious of what I missed when he graciously shared this below picture.
Ugh! I thought they were hard to see in the summer. For that matter, I went to view the northern lights in Alaska in the winter and didn’t see anything that cool over the long weekend. Perhaps I should download a northern lights app.
Stroll the Streets of Eureka
At least I got a good night’s sleep and saved my energy to stroll Eureka’s tiny town. Actually, you don’t need a whole lot of energy to walk the few blocks on Main Street. Though small, Eureka features a few cute stores, some thrift shops, and a handful of places to eat.
I popped in the Montana Farmacy which features teas, chocolates, huckleberry products, and gifts. They also have a gallery upstairs that I never would have known about if Keith hadn’t told me his photography lines the right side of the stairwell.
The Red Rooster Vintage Home & Gift Shop is super cute. If I were going with a traditional look on my new townhome instead of soft contemporary, I might have brought a few things home.
Eat at the Front Porch
Finally, I ate out once at the Front Porch Dewey Burger & Fish Company. While I missed the all you can eat special on Sunday until 2pm, the Huckleberry burger was amazing! It includes bacon, cheddar, huckleberry jam, and huckleberry ice cream. With a histamine intolerance, I certainly paid the price with a pounding headache, but it was worth it!
Take a Trip to Glacier National Park
I probably should have walked those calories off with a trip to Glacier National Park, but I have visited on two previous occasions. Not to mention it requires reservations during the summer months, which I didn’t have. And of course, Annie is not welcome on the trails there with dog restrictions, so even when I am closer to the park while visiting Whitefish, I still won’t visit.
However, if you have never been to Glacier, it is certainly beautiful and worth a visit. The Going to the Sun Road is the most popular area of the park, but there are many other parts to explore too.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of things to do in Eureka. This small northwestern Montana town is worth a visit, particularly if you like the outdoors. ETB