The International Selkirk Loop: 1 route, 2 countries, and endless memories over 7 days
Our family has driven the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. We’ve curved along the entire length of winding, remote Highway 1 in California. Roads like these inspire global renown for their scenic beauty, vibrant landscapes, and communities full of heart. We drove our Class C RV to the northern edge of the USA, crossed into Canada and back along the entire International Selkirk Loop. Now, we can state with over 500 miles of experience that North America’s only two-country scenic drive is an epic family road trip that’s every bit as worthy, beautiful, and fun.
The ISL winds through northern Idaho, southern British Columbia and northeastern Washington. Along the way, our family of four encountered wide valleys and tall forested mountains. Blue lakes and rivers shimmered in the bright sun and the fresh air. Vibrant towns, deep history, and lush country await the travelers who drive this road.
And even when you leave the loop, it will never leave you.
We want to thank International Selkirk Loop for sponsoring our visit. However, this article reflects our own personal opinions and experiences. Request a FREE guide to plan your journey of a lifetime on the International Selkirk Loop.
What is the International Selkirk Loop?
While scenic routes such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Highway 1 have been around since the 1930s, the ISL is a relative newcomer. Formed in 1999, this drive showcases the beauty, businesses, and communities in this mostly rural border region. The ISL is one of 32 All-American Road National Scenic Byways—but the only one that takes you through two countries.
During this epic family road trip, roadside signs orient you. They also point out opportunities for “Super Side Trip” adventures and destinations. Spokane, WA; Coeur d’ Alene, ID; and Missoula, MT all are useful urban gateways to entering the ISL.
At the heart of the ISL are the tall, broad, forested Selkirk Mountains, along with protected lands such as National Forest, National Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Management Area, or Provincial Parks. The region we drove through is primarily rural, with excellent roads. We even usually had a good cell signal or were minutes away from one.
Navigating the Loop
When navigating the International Selkirk Loop, we also suggest having offline-ready mapping resources available for those times where you might be offline:
- In mapping apps such as Google Maps and Apple Maps, you can download that area’s map for offline use
- A current, printed atlas is always offline-ready. We carry the National Geographic Road Atlas, since it includes the United States, Canada, and Mexico
- The International Selkirk Loop has its very own official app. Download the app for maps, destination info, ferry schedules, and more.
How long does it take to drive the International Selkirk Loop?
The ISL merits as much time as you can allow for it. The full route is 280 miles, or 450 km. Six optional Super Side Loops add 507 miles / 817 km. A sample 3-day/3-night itinerary can come in handy for planning a shorter trip. However, we suggest at least a week (7 days/6 nights), and 10–14 nights if you can manage it.
Each mile brought us scenery that many people never experience. We encountered natural attractions, like boat-ready lakes and rivers. Vibrant downtowns anchored communities with dedicated artisans showcasing skilled craftwork.
Our family drove the ISL in a Class C RV. Even with the lower gas mileage a motorhome gets, we completed the full loop and some side loops on one tank of gas. (Hint: If you want to avoid paying for gas in Canada, we suggest topping up the tank in northern Idaho, such as the Bonners Ferry area.)
What lodging and dining are available on the ISL?
Hotels, cabins, camping, vacation rentals: The ISL is home to a variety of accommodation. For dining, we found restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores throughout the loop, along with quality craft beverage artisans.
Our family’s epic family road trip ISL route
A common starting point for this epic family road trip is to drive or fly into nearby Spokane. While not on the loop, Spokane quickly took us to our ISL entry point at Newport, WA.
From Newport, we made our way counter-clockwise around the ISL:
- Sandpoint, ID
- Creston, BC
- Kaslo, BC
- Castlegar, BC
- Ione, WA
Do you have to have a passport to travel to the International Selkirk Loop?
Having a passport is required, including children. Driving both the USA and Canada sides of the loop requires crossing from one country to the other. Since the ISL encompasses land borders without flying, US citizens who don’t have a passport book can get a passport card. That’s valid for land travel to countries such as Canada. For your family or nationality circumstances, review the entry requirements for your country, the USA, and Canada.
Is it hard to cross the border when driving the ISL?
Like airport security, border crossings vary. Sometimes you breeze through; other days there’s a long line. A border agent may ask only a few standard questions, and other times, they may need to go in depth.
Our own experience was smooth and fast both ways. During our northbound leg, we crossed at the Porthill and Rykerts crossings along Idaho State Highway 1. Our southbound leg brought us back to the USA via Nelway, along British Columbia Highway 6. Each time we encountered short waits, a passport check, and a few simple questions. Then we were on our way.
Our family’s international 7-day RV joyride on the Selkirk Loop
During our 7 nights on the ISL, we stayed one or two nights in an area. A day’s driving rarely exceeded a couple of hours, and we easily found stops along the way.
You know that phrase, “it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey?” The International Selkirk Loop embodies that sentiment. This serene drive through such gorgeous countryside was so beautiful it constantly brought tears to our eyes.
Newport, WA: Big wheel, area history, and a downtown stop-off
Our drive northeast from Spokane on Highway 2 took about an hour to arrive at Newport. The road hinted at what was to come: rolling slopes, rivers as blue as our son’s eyes, and trees reaching toward a clear summer sky.
A sign for the ISL welcomed us as we neared the town, and Newport itself made a fun stopping point where we want to spend more time. We stopped for lunch near the triangular junction where Highway 2, 4th Street, and South Washington Avenue meet. A 16-ft. diameter “big wheel” sat out front of the visitor center. It reminded us that “big tech” once meant gigantic machines that drove innovation in the timber industry. The nearby Pend Oreille County Museum gave insights on the area’s history. Across the street, the Owen’s Grocery, Deli & Soda Fountain stood as an entry point for a lovely downtown full of small shops and cafes.
Sandpoint, ID: Schweitzer Mountain fun and boating Lake Pend Oreille
The big blue got us. Blue water. Azure skies. And even a blue tone over the deep green, conifer covered hills surrounding Lake Pend Oreille, the second-largest lake in the Western US after Lake Tahoe.
On the mountain
Sandpoint is the main urban hub for the Lake Pend Oreille area. Just north of town, Schweitzer Mountain Resort had the lifts running for summer rides up slopes that, come winter, would be teeming with skiers. Along with mountain biking trails, guided group horse rides, and a zip line, the resort area itself was full of outside activities—and an amazing view.
The kids first ran their “dirt bags” through a water sluice and gathered up colorful keepsake stones. Then Connor and Aster each tried their hand at the climbing column. After attempts on three of the four routes, Aster rang the bell on top of the wall. Connor leaped high on the bungee trampoline. Jodie and Aster rode up the lifts together. From the summit they looked out over the vast countryside of northern Idaho, anchored by the serene blue waters of Lake Pend Oreille to the south.
On the water
Whether the public Sandpoint City Beach or private lakeshore havens such as Twin Cedars Campground near Hawkins Point, the deep blue waters of Lake Pend Oreille are the epicenter of activity in this part of northern Idaho.
On a sunny afternoon around lunchtime, we strolled up the gangplank onto The Shawnodese. A covered top deck, comfy chairs in the stern, a downstairs galley, and seats in the bow gave us our pick of vantage points. The midday sun shimmered on the water. We looked for bald eagles and listened to a recording about the area’s history. The four of us relaxed as we gazed at the water and waved at other boats or kayaks.
“Daddy? Mama?” said Aster. “I want to come back.”
Creston, BC: Cheese curds and canoe tours
On the way to the US-Canada border, roadwork kept us from getting out to the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge near Bonners Ferry. However, as the RV wound along the vast, rich farm fields in British Columbia’s Kootenay region, a different animal experience awaited us.
Cheese, ice cream, and the incredible milking robot of Kootenay Meadows
It takes a long time to milk over 120 dairy cows. Or it would if the team at the woman-owned Kootenay Meadows organic dairy farm had to milk by hand.
Instead, free-roaming cows make their way from the pasture into the dairy barn whenever they feel like it. At the end of a walkway, the cows munch a treat of grain. The robotic milking machine identifies them by the radio collar each cow wears. After cleaning its milking apparatus, the robot guides each of its four suction milking tubes to the udders and milks.
During the milking, the robot monitors 105 data points about the cow’s milk output and overall body health. The 16 staff and farmers can then review the data for health concerns. Instead of having to spend all their time milking, the team can focus their time and energy on cows who need a diet tweak, a vet checkup, or other care.
Along with a self-guided tour of the barn, in the gift shop we sampled soft-serve cones with ice cream made that morning. All four of us chuckled as we also enjoyed cheese curds, fresh and squeaky, with each bite.
Edible cattails at the Kootenay Columbia Discovery Centre
Did we spot herons, turtles, and swans during our guided canoe tour at Kootenay Columbia Discovery Centre? You bet. Yet our biggest nature surprise came from the cattails growing up from the shallow water.
When the fuzzy “hot dog” on top isn’t too brown yet, the cattail’s inner stalk is edible. We stripped away the green outer layers, like stripping a leek, and revealed a white-green, tender, juicy core. The crunch presented itself in different ways to each of us: celery, cabbage, cucumber, jicama. The kids reached for another.
Craftwork and artisans near the free ferry
After a restful night at Scotties Campground in Creston, we wound through bright sunshine. The eastern shore of Kootenay Lake’s blue waters gave regular glimpses of the long, narrow, glacial-scoured finger. Surrounding the lake, mountains craggy like the Rockies but much older, with occasional bare tops but forested sides, cocooned the lake, the road, and us.
Part of the North Kootenay Lake & Silvery Slocan Super Side Trip, this area’s calm, natural beauty lingered in our senses and spirits. It’s the sort of landscape that inspires. Maybe that’s what inspires the craftwork of the Artisans of Crawford Bay.
Just a few minutes from the free ferry at Kootenay Bay, the freestanding artisan shops await here and there along Route 3A. A butterfly necklace of colored glass showed itself as worthy of Aster’s allowance. Just up the road, North Woven Broom has crafted brooms for the Harry Potter franchise. While we pack light in the RV, a small, stiff-bristled hand whisk broom has proven most useful sweeping up the RV’s seats.
The free ferry, view included, of Kootenay Bay, BC
The Kootenay ferry crossing was a lovely confluence of logistics and taking in the view. Not only that, it’s a free service.
Disembarking at the town of Balfour, we turned north onto British Columbia Highway 31 for the half-hour drive to Kaslo. British Columbia is as renowned for its remoteness as it is for its natural beauty. Yet with a relaxed, energetic, walkable downtown, just off the lake shore and surrounded by tall, steep-sloped mountains, Kaslo felt both connected to the wider world yet nestled in its own pocket universe.
The paddlewheel museum of Kaslo, BC
Docked at the edge of downtown, just off the visitor center and gift shop, the SS Moyie rode the waters and served the communities of this part of BC for 59 years. Retired in 1957, it was painstakingly restored. Today, it’s the only intact ferry of its kind remaining in the world. While today the Moyie stays put, it serves the public not for transportation, but as an engaging museum.
On the cargo deck, the kids wandered among the antique cars that would have been brand new in the early twentieth century. We paused at the different areas of the deck where the engines worked, and the huge boiler that powered the engine.
The main deck, however, gave us insight into life then. Men would have sat in one separate part of the deck. Women stayed in the plush Ladies’ Salon, with side rooms for sleeping children. Inside the wheelhouse, each kid not only turned the massive wheel, but sounded the Moyie’s booming foghorn.
That evening, we parked the RV at the Kaslo Campground. After dinner, the four of us strolled along the waterfront walkway. On the rocky beach below, visitors and locals were still paddling on the lake or pulling their kayaks out of the water. We sat on a beach, chatted, and took in the mountains, the water, and our kids enjoying the simple pleasure of throwing rocks into the water.
We made a mental note to spend more time in the lakeside town of Nelson. Stopping in nearby Castlegar to the west, we instead enjoyed urban trails, a downtown sculpture walk, a lovely lake, and a culture that we had never known about.
Restored Russian village of the Doukhobors
Throughout the latter 1800s, thousands of members of the Russian pacifist religious sect known as the Doukhobors migrated to the Kootenay region. There, they took up farming and communal living.
Replica structures showed us what a typical home, kitchen, or common house might look like. We found insight into family, baking bread in ovens that could hold 75 loaves, and carving wood into beautiful implements. Painted and photographic portraits lined the walls in one building, including a wide panorama print from 1928—and which contained about 1,200 people.
And then there was the borscht.
The Doukhobor Discovery Centre is opening a restaurant that will showcase traditional Doukhobor food. Whatever we thought of as borscht, we immediately abandoned, as a tureen of an orange soup, swimming with vegetables and hints of dill, steamed on the table. Instead of beets, Doukhobor borscht has a cabbage base. Pickled carrots seasoned with dill brightened our palates as we filled our bowls again and again.
The secret message at Arrow Lake
In downtown Castlegar, the town center’s Sculpture Walk had us all gazing at and discussing the varied sculptures. We chatted about the art as we drove west. Behind the large Hugh Keenleyside Dam, Arrow Lake winds through the hills beyond Castlegar. We settled into our campsite at Syringa Provincial Park. A three-quarter moon rose over the hills as we strolled down by the lake.
While Connor tried to turn long, skinny pieces of driftwood into water skis, Aster came over to get Anthony.
“I need to show you something,” she said as she took his hand.
Wandering down the beach a little way, Aster and Anthony stopped, and Aster St. Clair pointed at what she had written in the sand.
“I ❤️ St. Clairs.”
She squeezed Anthony’s hand, then dashed off to help Connor with his skis.
Boundary Lake & Peewee Falls, WA
After a brief stop to cross the border from Canada back into the USA via Nelson, we stared down at one of the northernmost hydroelectric dams in the country. From our clifftop vantage across the water at Boundary Dam Vista House, we followed power lines up sheer cliffs. On the other side of Seattle City Light – Boundary Dam, the Pend Oreille River broadened to lake proportions. Motorboats, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards crossed the waters from launches at Boundary Reservoir Recreation Area.
Later that afternoon, our own two tandem kayaks took to the water. Turning right, a short paddle carried us to a waterfall reachable only by boat.
Peewee Falls tumbles 233 feet (though it was 300 feet prior to the dam’s construction in 1967). For our afternoon paddle, a small island of rocks lay just above the waterline, a few yards in front of the thundering falls. We beached on a rocky shore to the right. After a chilly dip and splash, Anthony set a rock on top of one of the many cairns stacked near the river’s edge. As the children shivered, we kayaked down the opposite shore to a pebbly beach doused in sunshine. The kids whooped as they swung from the rope swing into the water.
Ione, WA: Family cave tour and a short waterfall hike
From our Ione home base at the Cedar RV Park, that evening we crossed the road to check out a small hole in the wall. This mini-cave gave us a quick taste of the power of time, water, and limestone. It also prepared us for the next day’s stroll into the earth.
Gardiners Cave tour, WA
Washington’s Gardner Cave is the state’s longest known cave. Guide-led tours are the only way into the cave, where stairs and lights make public access easier. Reservations are required for each tour, and we honed in on the family-focused tour at noon. After making our way up a steep, 200-yard forested trail, the water fountain near the cave entrance was a welcome sight (especially since food or drink aren’t allowed inside).
The entrance is an almost vertical hole in the ground. Thank goodness for stairs. (Hint: The cave stays at a constant 39ºF, so a jacket is useful, not to mention gloves for the chilly stair railings.) Our guide directed us to fascinating rock formations, explained the history of the cave, its formation, and how it might continue to change. The tour took about an hour. While there were plenty of steps, we enjoyed the wander through the ground—not to mention the warm sunshine that greeted us when we emerged into the open air again.
Short hike with a waterfall payoff: Sweet Creek Falls, WA
Just a few miles north of Ione and just south of Metaline Falls, an ample parking lot and lovely bridge carried us to a broad, level, smooth yet natural surface hiking path. The end crossed tricky terrain that changes because of the course of the stream. Yet it was a path that we found easy to wander—and shorter than we expected.
The quarter mile or so it takes to get to Sweet Creek Falls surprised us. From the dry-season exposed, tumbled rocks of the creek bed, we stood only a few feet from the cascade of the short yet lush falls. The kids crossed the stream on rocky paths, and found, of course, rocks to throw into the water. We took in the main cascade and the square recess to the right, where more water plunged down. The air gentled as we listened to the waterfall. We played, and we chatted, and we simply enjoyed the warm sunlit air and the cool mist coming off the plunging waters.
With deep breaths and calm hearts, we returned to the RV. Driving back toward Newport, to end where we began, we said goodbye to the International Selkirk Loop—for now.
The International Selkirk Loop isn’t just a scenic drive, but a road to connection and togetherness
We could write a million words, create a movie-length video, or stand on a mountaintop and sing about the beauty of the International Selkirk Loop. Lately, everyone we meet hears about the ISL. We could chat endlessly about how we want to return, and places where we want to stay longer, such as Kaslo, Sandpoint, and Nelson.
Here’s the thing: This scenic drive’s destination is not one of place, but of heart. Our week on the ISL wasn’t only a lovely wander through calm places. It was a chance to bring our family together. While on the road, amid life’s all-too-hectic pace, we slowed down and connected. And it did not hurt that we traveled through a heart-achingly gorgeous part of the USA and Canada. Yet while we left, the ISL stayed with us in memories and stories.
The International Selkirk Loop takes its rightful place among legendary roads such as Highway 1 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s as spectacular as some of the USA’s more well-known scenic drives, and it deserves a trip in your not-too-distant future.