Skip to main content

U.S. Forest Service

Northern Region Viewing Area


Aster conspicuus. Aster conspicuus. Photo by Mike Hays.

Aster foliaceus cusickii. Aster foliaceus cusickii. Photo by Mike Hays.

Penstemon flavescens.
Endemic Penstemon flavescens. Photo by Mike Hays.

Beargrass and subalpine parkland of Coolwater Ridge. Beargrass and subalpine parkland of Coolwater Ridge. Photo by Mike Hays.

Endemic Pedicularis contorta rubicunda. Endemic Pedicularis contorta rubicunda. Photo by Mike Hays.

Coolwater Ridge

Forest: Nez Perce National Forest

District: Moose Creek Ranger District

Description: Coolwater Ridge forms the west end of the high divide between the Lochsa River and Selway River in the Clearwater River basin of north central Idaho. It is also the divide between the Clearwater National Forest to the north and the Nez Perce National Forest to the south. The ridge rises over 6,500 feet from Lowell to the highpoint to include several ecological zones. The main botanical highlight of the area is the upper slope of the south aspect that is dominated by a large montane grassland. The opening is dominated by beargrass, green fescue and other grasses with high forb diversity. Conical subalpine fir are dispersed across the area. These high elevation grasslands are generally formed as a result of strong winter winds reducing snow loads on the windward aspect to leave soil moisture at a level too low to sustain a forest.

Floral highlights include the endemic Bitterroot penstemon (Penstemon flavescens) and the hot pink selway coil-beaked lousewort (Pedicularis contorta rubicunda). Other plants of interest include California sedge (Carex californica) and alpine buckwheat (Eriogonum pyrolifolium coryphaeum), which are disjunct from the Cascade Mountains. Spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa), taper-leaf penstemon (Penstemon attenuatus), horsemint (Agastache urticifolia), lupines (Lupinus spp), asters (Aster spp) and many others sustain a spectacular floral display throughout the summer and into the fall. Flowering shrubs include white rhododendron (Rhododendron albiflorum), fool’s huckleberry (Menziesia ferruginea), mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina), and subalpine spirea (Spiraea splendens). The lower reaches of the Coolwater Road road pass through a shaded, moist western redcedar forest where a wide variety of moist forest species and ferns are found. Further up where the forest begins to open up the endemic evergreen kittentail (Synthyris platycarpa) with its unusual dissected petals may be found early in the summer.

Safety First: The road is very narrow with few good pullouts. While the surface is usually good, the fill is sometimes unstable, sometimes falling away. Many corners will offer little warning of oncoming traffic. In the upper reaches the road becomes very rocky and may be hard to pass for many vehicles. Generally traffic should stop at the junction of the Andy’s Hump road, which just gets into the west end of the subalpine grasslands. Careful driving of high clearance vehicles will get one to the largest bald west of the lookout. Park where the road touches the ridgetop and don’t try to continue on to the lookout unless on foot or ATV as the road becomes extremely rough.

Bring layers of clothing as temperatures and weather conditions can vary dramatically between Lowell and the ridge top.

Directions: From Highway 12 in Lowell, turn east on the Selway River road and cross the bridge over the mouth of the Lochsa River. The Coolwater road will turn left after approximately a half mile. At the start the road will look like a driveway to a private residence, but it is well signed. The lower mile of this road passes through private property so please stay on the road in this area.

Ownership and Management: U.S. Forest Service, Nez Perce National Forest, Moose Creek Ranger District, (208) 926-4258.

Closest Town: Lowell is found at the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway Rivers, which meet at the west foot of Coolwater Ridge. The few services here, include a gas station, restaurant, small motel and some recreational cabins. Kooskia is approximately 25 minutes to the west on Highway 12.