Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson enlisted the help of a selected group of US Army volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close Second Lieutenant William Clark. This was the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States, beginning near St. Louis, MO and making it way westward, passing through the Continental Divide of the Americas to reach the Pacific coast. From May of 1804 to September of 1806, the group worked to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, establishing an American presence in the territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. Additionally, the group was charged with the task of studying the area’s plants, animals, and geography, and to establish trade with local native tribes.
The trail forged by Lewis and Clark extends some 3,700 miles, ending at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The trail passes through sections of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and–you guessed it—Montana. While the trail itself is not a designated hiking destination, it presents an excellent opportunity for outdoor activities: hiking, boating, and horseback riding.
Several hundred miles of the trail stretch through Montana, and visitors can see monuments commemorating the explorers’ journey. For example, Traveler’s Rest, located in Lolo, Montana, is a National Historic Landmark. Located on the eastern end of the Lolo Trail, the stop is now a state park, which is operated by the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks department. In 2002, archeologists found latrine sites and traces of mercury in fire hearths, making it the only site on the National Historic Trail to yield physical proof of the explorers’ presence. Talk about “Leave No Trace.”
The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed through the western-most part of Montana and into Idaho. If you find yourself visiting Missoula, Flathead Lake, of the Lolo National Forest, make your way to one of the several commemorative marks along the trail. This piece of American history is as unique as our beautiful state.