When I finished following the Oregon Trail, it was my plan to work my way back east following the Lewis and Clark Trail. The number of historic places along the Oregon Trail were abundant and had consumed me for the prior 3 weeks. I had seen so much where hundreds of thousands had traveled. Now, I had to connect to the trail that the 36 member Corp of Discovery had followed in 1804 & 1806. The Lewis and Clark expedition was an incredible undertaking, but I found it difficult to switch over and immerse myself in their journey.
Back to Idaho
I left Pendleton, OR and headed east to Lewiston, ID where I would pick up the Lewis and Clark Trail. Lewiston is a nice small city that sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. I spent the night 2 miles south of the city at Hells Gate State Park. This nice state park sits right on the Snake River. There’s a small museum at the park which highlights some Lewis and Clark history. Here’s a video I made of the state park during my short stay.
While in Lewiston, I learned that the city is a gate way into the Hells Canyon Recreation Area that is just south of the state park. Hells Canyon is a large deep gorge cut by the Snake River. Boat tours of the canyon depart from the state park. Had I been staying longer I would have liked to take one of these boat tours into the canyon.
But I was on another journey. Idaho Route 12, which is also called the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, leaves from Lewiston and retraces the Lewis & Clark route east into Montana. It’s a 202 mile route that goes through some extremely scenic and remote country.
I departed Lewiston and followed the route east along the Clearwater River. It’s a winding 2 lane road along the river that gets more scenic and remote with each mile. It reminded me of driving some of the scenic roads in northern New Hampshire and Maine. I had my dash cam going on several segments and pieced together a video that shows what the route is like.
The 202 miles doesn’t sound that long of a distance to travel in a day, but at 35-40 mph with several scenic photo stops, it took me almost 5 hours to get to Lolo Pass and the Montana border.
I did an overnight stop in Missoula. This is busy place and home to the University of Montana. For me it was just a stopover, so I did some black top camping at a truck stop on the eastern edge to town. But, here’s where I had to make a decision. My original plan was to go up to Great Falls, see Fort Benton, and then proceed east and follow the Hi-Line (US Route 2) across northern Montana. It would take me 3 days to cross Montana (yes, it’s a big frickin state) on this route. The other option was to stay south and blast across the state on I-90 to Billings. Then take I-94, into North Dakota. This route would take me 2 days. I opted for the latter route.
The reason for the quicker route was that I really wasn’t getting into following the Lewis & Clark Trail. I knew all about the journey and the route from reading Stephen Ambrose’s book “Undaunted Courage”. I also had a current Trail guide that highlighted recommended stops. While there is plenty of scenic stuff to see, the actual Lewis and Clark 1804 route on the Missouri River is in a remote area of the state where there are no roads. As such, there are few historic sites to visit along either route.
Lewis and Clark didn’t leave too many marks or places along their route in Montana. But one place where they did leave a mark was on their return trip in 1806. When they got to Great Falls, the expedition split up. One group lead by Lewis, went back across Montana following the Missouri River. Clark lead a group south following the Yellowstone River.
Just past present day Billings is a National Monument called Pompeys Pillar. Clark’s group made a stop at this rock monolith along the Yellowstone River. He named the rock for Sacagawea’s son, who he had nicknamed Pompey. Clark carved his name into the sandstone which is still there today.
That was my only historic site stop in Montana. I know Montana has plenty to see. In the late 1990’s, I visited the state with my son and we spent a week biking through Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. I also visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 2012. But this time, I was focused on getting somewhere else and was quickly loosing interest in following the Lewis and Clark Trail.
I would encounter a few more Lewis and Clark points of interest in the next few days. But my journey home would morph into a more general historic and enjoyable road-trip through the nation’s heartland.