Lewis and Clark Across the Mountains

An Engineer Tracks the Trail  

Recording Data


The Historic Saga

    The saga of the journey of the Corps of Discovery, under the command of Lewis and Clark, stirs the imagination of modern Americans like no other expedition in the American west. Our desire to travel as they traveled and experience what they experienced cannot be satisfied in modern times because the march of civilization has brought major changes to the landscapes they experienced. In spite of this, their experience, as chronicled in their journals, provides us with a remarkable story as well as tantalizing clues as to where they camped and the route they traveled.

The Personal Revelation

    Being born at the right time, living in the right places, having the right interests, and choosing the right profession are the reasons I am able to make a unique contribution to the modern knowledge of the expedition. My fascination with the exploits of these explorers began as I read a story about them the year I arrived at Iowa State (1984). At that time, I knew nothing about where they had traveled or to what extent their courage was so remarkable. My desire to learn more about them, and where they had traveled, led me to the Thwaites edition [1] of the journals. I still remember the thrill of looking at the Clark map of the Bitter Root Valley and realizing that I really knew the topography and what he was trying to communicate with his map. Further reading and investigation led me to discover that I had lived nearly all of my early life either on the trail, or within a few miles of it.

In Search of Their Footsteps

    As an engineer by training and experience, I soon wondered if it would be possible to accurately reproduce the Clark maps using modern topography. This wonderment quickly became an avocation with the goal of accurately documenting their route and camps using journal records, modern topographic data, modern navigation tools, and field research. Since 1985 I have been documenting their exact route and camps using computer analysis and topographic data bases as well as hiking their route in the summers.

    Years of field research in difficult terrain have led to wonderful discoveries of ancient trail tread and campsites undisturbed since the expedition used them. This created a strong desire in me to experience as much of their experience as possible in a modern environment. My solo hikes along their route have been in the rain, sleet, and cold, but solo hiking has been essential to providing an experience of self sufficiency coupled with some apprehension about safety and injury. This has been as close as I can get to the essence of their experience.

The Lolo Trail - An Abstract

    On the Clearwater and Lolo National Forests, in the mountains of northern Idaho and western Montana, there is an ancient trail system that has been used for hundreds of years as a land bridge between the Columbia River basin and the Missouri River basin. The approximate route of this trail is westward up Lolo Creek from Lolo, Montana to Lolo Pass and then along the dividing ridge between the North and Middle Forks of the Clearwater River until reaching the Weippe Prairie near Weippe, Idaho. Recent research, using a combination of historical records, computer analysis tools, and extensive field exploration has now provided conclusive proof that the erosion trace of this ancient trail system still exists and can be located in many places along the 130-mile length of the trail.

    The first use of this land bridge, by aboriginal peoples traveling on foot, occurred at least hundreds of years ago and possibly more than a thousand years ago. These people left an archaeological record that is just now beginning to be examined. When the Native American tribes of the northwestern United States acquired horses over two hundred years ago, the land bridge increased in importance because of the improved transportation provided by these horses. The use of horses also caused increased erosion along the old trail and created the extensive and deep tread that can still be found today.

    In historical times, the trail was used primarily by two tribal groups, the Nez Perce on the west end and the Salish or Flathead on the east end. For the Nez Perce, the trail served three purposes. First, it was the main access route to the upper parts of the North and Middle Forks of the Clearwater River. Using any of several long ridges, easy access was available for nearly any part of these rivers. Second, it gave access to the "high" country where family groups could go for camping, berry and root gathering, hunting, and spiritual purposes. Third, it was the main route eastward to the buffalo hunting grounds in central Montana. For the Salish, the trail provided access to the upper parts of Lolo Creek and to Packer Meadows but, what is most important, it was the main route to salmon fishing on the Lochsa River.

    The historical era for the ancient trail began in 1805 when a government expedition called the Corps of Discovery, under the command of Lewis and Clark, followed the well-worn trail tread from Lolo, Montana to Weippe, Idaho. The purpose of the expedition was to explore the new land obtained by the Louisiana Purchase and to fulfill President Jefferson's dream of finding an easy portage between the two great rivers. In the decades following this expedition, traditional uses by the tribes continued while the trail also became increasingly important to the non-Indian. Trail use by explorers, trappers, miners, the military, and surveyors would bring a new era.

    In 1831, a Hudson's Bay Company man, John Work, and a large party of people crossed the Lolo Trail eastward as part of fur trading activities. In 1854, John Mullan and a survey party explored the Lolo Trail route for the Pacific Rail Road Survey commissioned by the U. S. Congress. Mullan found the route unsuitable. In 1866, George B. Nicholson, a civil engineer, and Tah-tu-tash, a Nez Perce guide, did a distance and elevation survey while crossing the Lolo Trail, then known as the Northern Nez Perces Trail. Later that year, the ancient trail was used as the basis for a wagon road survey and the eventual construction of a pack trail between the Weippe Prairie and Lolo Pass. Today, this trail is known as the Bird-Truax Trail of 1866 and its tread can be found over the Lolo Trail's entire length.

    Varied use of the trail by both Indian and non-Indian occurred in the 1860s and 1870s until the 1877 Nez Perce war. Non-Indian use began to dominate after 1907 when the U.S. Forest Service started forest management and used the trail as the main access corridor. For the next three decades, many fire-access trails were constructed down the ridges from the Lolo Trail. In 1934, the Lolo Motorway, from Powell to Musselshell Meadows, replaced the Bird-Truax Trail and motorized travel started along the ancient land bridge.

    Today, the Lolo Trail System is in a remarkable state of preservation and has the potential of providing a unique experience and connection between the past and present. People exploring the route have the opportunity to experience "self discovery" of the trail treads and the beautiful vistas available along the trail. In many places, the trail traveler will experience the feeling of being the first modern person to follow in the footsteps of the ancient travelers.

    This ancient land bridge needs to be managed and protected in such a way that travelers can enjoy its primitive beauty. Future generations will appreciate the opportunity to experience a personal connection with the many people and past cultures that have traveled the route.

Go to the map

1997-98 Steve F. Russell. All Rights Reserved (Rev 03/25/98)


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