The Great Northern Route

The lumber town of Libby (pop. 2,628) was first founded as a gold-mining camp but grew into its present elongated form after the Great Northern Railway came through in 1892. On the south bank of the Kootenai River, Libby is just downstream from the Libby Dam, which was built in 1972 and forms the Lake Koocanusa Reservoir, stretching north into Canada. Despite the fact that Libby is the hometown of former Montana governor and Republican Party national chairman Marc Racicot, the town has suffered one of the worst cases of long-term toxic pollution in recent U.S. history. From the 1940s up until 1990, mining company W. R. Grace dug millions of tons of asbestos-laced vermiculite rock out of a local mountain, covering Libby in toxic dust that has caused more than 1,200 people (almost half the current population) to suffer from serious lung diseases. The EPA has taken 20 years and spent more than $600 million to clean up Libby’s streets, gardens, and houses, and though company officials covered about half the costs, they were eventually cleared of all criminal charges.

Despite the occasional media interest in the asbestos case, Libby looks like a pretty typical Montana mountain town. Alongside the railroad tracks, Libby strings for a few miles along US-2 frontage, where you can find car washes and gas stations galore, plus a Subway, a Pizza Hut, and one good stop: the Last Straw Café (30890 US-2, 406/293-4000). A half dozen motels, including the Sandman Motel (31901 US-2, 406/293-8831, $65-105) offer rooms. Off the highway north of US-2 toward Libby Dam, the old center of town holds more cafés, a microbrewery, and the Past Time Bar (216 Mineral Ave., 406/293-6097).

A number of pleasant campgrounds operate in and around Libby, including excellent spots in the nearby Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Libby’s most interesting lodging option is spending a night or two in the Big Creek Baldy Lookout ($40), which is 20 miles north of town. The popular lookout sleeps up to four people; for details contact the Libby ranger station (406/293-7773) or Kootenai National Forest (406/293-6211).

Between Libby and the busy mini metropolis of the Columbia Falls-Whitefish-Kalispell area, US-2 traverses 70 miles of Kootenai National Forest, an all but uninhabited area, sections of which have been badly charred by forest fires. A small display at milepost 63 explains the role of fire in the natural scheme of things.