I have never been considered a spontaneous person; by nature I am a planner who appreciates order and purpose. So it came as a surprise to my lovely wife when I recently announced that I was going to make a road trip while the weather was still agreeable. It has be a long held desire to visit the historic sites along the Lewis and Clark trail that passes through Idaho and Montana. So in the predawn hours of September 3rd, I departed home with my traveling bag, camera, and a road map and headed east.
I had decided that this trip would not be destination driven; I was going to enjoy the journey as it unfolded. As I passed east of Portland, I decided to travel up the Columbia River and through the Gorge on the Washington side traveling state highway 14. I knew this would be a slower route but time was not a concern; a different route seemed like a good choice.
My first stop was just west of what was once known as Cascade Rapids. At this point, Lewis and Clark and the Corp of Discovery portaged their canoes around the last section of white water on the Columbia River. It was also at point that the river’s waters began to be influenced by the tidal effects of the Pacific Ocean. Lewis described this portion of the river in his journal entry dated November 2nd 1805: “At this place the first tide-water commences, and the river is consequence widened immediately below the rapid…. and at some distance from the hills, stands a high perpendicular rock, about eight hundred feet high and four hundred yards round the base; this we called the Beacon rock.”
The Columbia River with Beacon Rock in the distance
Leaving the Columbia River and turning northeast, I continued across the Columbia Plateau as I passed through the southeast corner of Washington State. Just before sunset, I arrived in Lewiston, Idaho which sits at the junction of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. Lewis and Clark canoed down both rivers on their way to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean in 1805.
From Lewiston, I traveled Highway 12 which parallels the Lochsa River. The river is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River and has remained much as it was when the Corp of Discovery passed by in 1805. In the late spring, the river’s flow is swelled by the runoff from the melting snowpack creating incredible conditions for white water rafting.
The Locsus River near Powell Ranger Station
On their journey to the Pacific Ocean, the Corp of Discovery was led across the Bitterroot Mountains by a member of the of the Shoshone tribe. Following the trail used by Native Americans for centuries, they slowly moved westward. Lewis describes the trail on September 12th as follows: “The road had been very bad during the first part of the day, but the passage of the mountain … was very painful to the horses, as we were obligated to go over steep stony sides of hills and along the hollows and ravines, rendered more disagreeable by the fallen timber…“
Lolo Pass looking north
Lolo Pass is the highest point on the trail the Corp of Discovery used to cross the Bitterroot Mountains. The day they crossed the pass, they were assailed by rain, hail, and snow. The afternoon I crossed, the skies were clear and the temperature hovered near eighty degrees.
Descending east from Lolo Pass, you enter the great State of Montana, aka as Big Sky Country. Montana is the fourth largest state in the union so it’s not just the sky that’s big. My ultimate destination was Helena, the state’s capital and the Missouri River.
Looking north from the outskirts of Helena, MT
The Corp of Discovery spent the winter of 1805-1805 encamped along the Missouri River at Fort Mandan which is in present day North Dakota. Continuing their upriver journey in early April, over three months would pass before they encountered the Great Falls of the Missouri River near present day Great Fall, MT. In total, a series of five waterfall makes up the Great Falls of the Missouri and each one required the Corp to portage their boats and equipment in order to gain passage. With the Great Falls behind them, Clark set out on foot in search of the Shoshones people in order to purchase horses for the trip over the Rocky Mountains. Lewis continued by boat up the Missouri River.
On the evening of July 19th, Lewis and his party encounter a canyon that appeared to have forced it way through the immense body of solid of rock for a distance of five and three-quarters miles. Lewis comments as follows: “… from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”
The Gates of the Rocky Mountains as seen from the Missouri River looking south
Lewis went on to describe this portion of the river as follows: “… these clifts rise from the waters edge to the hight of 1200 feet. every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. the towering and projection rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us…”
The limestone cliffs continue to tower high above the river
When Lewis passed through, he spent much of his time attempting to find a flat spot along the river’s edge large enough to camp out for the night. I on the other hand spent a leisurely hour and a half floating the river while be totally amazed by the surrounding beauty.
After five days and nearly a thousand miles traveled, I returned home with hundreds of photos and a new appreciation for the hardships faced by Lewis and Clark and the Corp of Discovery. I am also looking forward to my next road trip!