Exploring the Trail
As the intrepid team of explorers crossed from familiar Mandan country into
the territory that would become Montana, they experienced natural wonders, remarkable
obstacles, and breathtaking landscape. This interactive map provides the modern
day trekker with information about many of the points of interest Lewis and
Clark encountered as they traveled this country. Some of these locations are
recognized as National Historic Landmarks, and others are listed in the National
Register of Historic Places. Still others are less well known, but provide a
glimpse of the unfamiliar, rugged beauty seen by the Corps of Discovery that
has remained remarkably unchanged for two hundred years.
"…we processed on to the top of the dividing ridge from from which I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow" (August 12, 1805, Lewis)
August 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and three of his men followed a winding Indian trail west past at an elevation of 7,300 feet. They stood on the Continental Divide, poised between the United States and the Territory of Spain, their hopes of an easy portage shattered by snow-capped mountains. On the west side of the pass, Lewis met the Shoshone and returned with them bringing horses critical to their journey. On August 17, back on the Montana side of the Divide, Lewis joined Clark and they realized that by an incredible coincidence, the chief of this Shoshone band was Sacajawea's own brother.
Traders, fur brigades and mounted Blackfeet used the pass along the route known then as the Blackfoot Road. Mormon settlers founded a colony on the west side of the Divide in 1855 naming it Fort Limhi after fair-skinned King Limhi in the Book of Mormon. Settlers later corrupted the spelling to Lemhi, today the regional identifier. Lemhi Pass, today on the Montana-Idaho border, is the only pass in the main range of the Rocky Mountains Lewis and Clark both crossed.
Lemhi Pass is a National Historic Landmark, and is located about 30 miles west of Dillon on MT 324. Bannack State Park is on a gravel road off MT 324.
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"I determined to … rest our horses and take some scelestial observations. We called this Creek Travellers rest." [September 9, 1805. Meriwether Lewis]
When the Expedition's first attempt route across the Bitterroot Range west of the Divide at Lemhi Pass proved impassable, they sought another passage to the north. Their Shoshone guide, whom they called "Old Toby," led them north to Traveler's Rest. Failing to discover a waterway on the west side of the Continental Divide to the Pacific, the Expedition, nearly out of provision, paused at Traveller's Rest in the Bitterroot Valley before the most arduous part of their journey. For generations the area was the homeland of the Salish and Pend d'Oreille people. The bountiful valley was known to them as Tmsm"R (pronounced tim-sum-lee), meaning "No Salmon. "
"…a little before Sunset we arrived at our old encampment…." [William Clark, Julne30, 1806]
The Expedition again paused at Traveller's Rest on their return from the Pacific. They rested their horses and made plans for their separate explorations of Montana, Lewis to the Great Falls of the Missouri and Clark to retrieve their cache at Camp Fortunate and on to the Three Forks of the Missouri after which they reunited near Sanish, North Dakota.
Among Jefferson's many charges to Lewis and Clark was to prove or disprove the persistent legend that the Welsh Prince Madoc had founded a colony in North America in 1170 A.D. According to the myth, descendants were living somewhere in the wilderness. The throaty, guttural Salish tongue led Lewis and Clark to speculate on their origins. Lt. Ordway wrote, "We think perhaps they are the welch Indians." The Salish people were generous, sharing their scanty supplies and provided the Corps through sale and exchange with some twenty "ellegant" horses. A pivotal site on the Lewis and Clark Trail, its exact location is controversial. The National Historic Landmark site, the boundaries of which are currently being reassessed, is identified by a highway marker off of Highway 93 at Lolo, MT. ……
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"I have been wet and cold in every part as I ever was in my life… fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin Mockirsons…. " (Clark, September 6, 1805)
The 140-plus mile trail that winds through thick timberland of the Bitterroot Mountain Range followed the ridgetops along an ancient Nez Perce route from present-day Idaho into the buffalo country of what is now Montana. The Shoshone guide "Old Toby" led the Corps from Traveler's Rest on September 11, 1805. Beyond the Lolo Pass, the trail was difficult to follow. Fallen timber impeded their progress across the treacherously steep ridges, while snow and lack of food depleted their strength. Sick with dysentery, hungry, wet and near freezing, the men covered about 18 miles a day, finally reaching the trail's end and a Nez Perce village at Weippe Prairie on September 22.
Patrick Gass anxiously anticipated recrossing "the most terrible mountains I ever beheld" on the return trip. On June 24, 1806 despite seven feet of snow, the Nez Perce guides kept to the trail and they reached Traveller's Rest on June 30.
The Nez Perce continued to use the trail known as the Buffalo Road. In 1865 it was the route between Lewiston, Idaho and booming gold camp of Virginia City, Montana. The non-treaty Nez Perce crossed the trail in 1877 pursued by General O. O. Howard whose men cleared the overgrown path for the general's artillery and mule train. Today, Route 12 follows the trail west from Travellers Rest to Lolo Pass on the Montana side of the divide. The Trail, which continues in to Idaho is designated a National Historic Landmark. A visitors center, which highlights the history of the area is located at Lolo Pass, on the Idaho-Montana border off of Highway 12.
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Great Falls Portage
"…I saw the spray arise above the plain like a collumn of smoke…." [Lewis}
On June 13, 1805, Meriwther Lewis traveling overland with a small advance party saw telltale spray fifteen miles distant and soon heard "…a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken…." He and his men were the first whites to see the magnificent Great Falls of the Missouri. The sight was so spectacular that Lewis felt his "imperfect discription" wholly inadequate. But the grueling 18-mile portage around it proved a month-long ordeal, with many days of preparation and eleven days in transit. Grizzly bears and rattlesnakes kept the men vigilant while mosquitoes swarmed around them. Prickly pear cactus brutalized their moccasined feet. The summer sun beat down upon the men as they dragged crude wagons filled with supplies across the gullies and around ravines. It was an exhausting, frantic race against time. Crossing the Continental Divide and the Bitterroot Mountain Range before the onset of winter was critical to the success of their mission.
Since the parties separated at Traveler's Rest, only part of the Expedition made the portage on the return trip.
Today, the City of Great Falls has grown up around the area. The magnificent falls have long been harnessed for hydroelectric power and the great rock cliffs over which the water tumbled are now exposed. The portage route, several campsites, a sulphur spring, and Giant Springs are included in the historic landmark, identified through documentary and cartographic research. The route extends south and east of the city under varied ownership, in areas that range from highly developed to near pristine.
Visitors can look down from the steep, sheer cliffs surrounding Ryan Dam and get a sense of the former size of the river and falls. From the Giant Springs side of the river, a large portion of the portage route is visible. Since much of the original route is on private land, this is the best way to view it. To get there, take US 87/89 to the 10th Avenue exit.
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"…we set out biding a lasting adieu to this place which I now call camp disappointment."
Lewis and three of his men accomplished a major objective of the Expedition while camped at this site. On the return trip from the Pacific, the small party spent July 22-26, 1806 exploring the area to determine the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis named the campsite Camp Disappointment because from a high overlook he saw Cut Bank Creek curve southwesterly toward the Rocky Mountains. He then knew that the boundary of the United States did not extend as far as 50 degrees north latitude. The area today is about 12 miles northeast of Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation. The men left Camp Disappointment on July 26. Enroute to join to rest of the Expedition, they had their first and only encounter with Blackfeet in which two Piegans were killed.
Cut Bank Visitor Information Center: 406-873-2961
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"The natives have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animal &c. near which I marked my name …." [Wm. Clark]
One piece of physical evidence is all that Lewis and Clark left in Montana of their remarkable journey across the state. This abrupt sandstone block rising some 120 feet above the plain bears the inscription, "Wm. Clark July 25, 1806" carved on the east upper surface. The landmark's significance to Native Americans was obvious to Clark who recorded petroglyphs and pictographs on its surface. He named the landmark "Pompy's Tower" after Sacajawea's infant son Baptiste whom Clark had nicknamed "Pomp."
In 1863 James Stuart noted the signatures of Clark and two of his men. Others who signed their names in the 1870s include the captain of the Josephine in 1875 and a force of men under Colonel John Gibbon.
The Bureau of Land Management administers the National Historic Landmark, which is open May through October. The pillar is visible from the road and Clark's signature is as well-protected as it is unmistakable. A closed-circuit system and a plaque in the visitor center display the signature for those who can't climb the 200 feet. Interpretive programs and displays complete the experience in season. The Visitor Center is open 8 to 8. To get there, take I-94 to 31 miles east of Billings and follow the signs to Frontage Road Exit 23.
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Three Forks of the Missouri
"an essential point in the geography of this western part of the Continent" (July 27, 1805, Lewis)
From his vantage point atop a limestone cliff, Meriwether Lewis observed the "three noble streams" in a sweeping view of the vast valley basin ringed by snow-capped mountain ranges. Lewis and Clark named the three rivers the Jefferson, the Gallatin and the Madison after the three heads of state who played key roles in the Louisiana Purchase and the Expedition itself.
A natural crossroads, the Three Forks was a meeting place for Indian hunting parties and early fur trappers. Five years previous to the Expedition, the Minatari had captured Sacajawea near the area. Several Expedition members returned to the Three Forks a few years later where John Potts and George Drouillard were killed in separate incidents with the Blackfeet and a naked John Colter made the famous five-mile run for his life.
By 1822 the Three Forks was trapped out. Several settlements established in the 1860s failed to thrive, but the coming of the railroad brought permanent residents to the area with the founding of the town of Three Forks in 1908.
Today the Three Forks of the Missouri is a National Historic Landmark and is central to the 560-acre Missouri Headwaters State Park.
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