The Lewis and Clark Expedition used the historic Lolo Trail to cross the Bitterroot Mountains (very roughly along US Highway 12), proceeding west to the Clearwater River at modern-day Orofino. From there, they traveled through Idaho via the Clearwater until it flowed into the Snake River at the modern-day border town of Lewiston. The Corps' return trip in the spring of 1806 followed a similar route.
About the Expedition
The 1805 journey through modern-day Idaho was a debilitating ordeal. The Corps began their crossing of the steep, densely-forested Bitterroot Mountains on September 11, 1805. It took them 10 days to travel approximately 150 miles, coming out of the mountains near the modern-day town of Weippe, Idaho. Along the way they suffered from cold and hunger, surviving on travel soup and candles, eventually killing some of their horses for the meat. The snow-covered terrain was difficult, leading to slips and falls.
The Corps followed a similar route through Idaho on their 1806 return journey, stopping to stay with the hospitable Nez Perce in early May. They were forced to wait several weeks for the snow to clear enough to re-cross the Bitterroot Mountains. The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed back into modern-day Montana on June 29, 1806.
The Lolo Trail is actually a network of trails used by the Native American people on each side of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, beginning long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark.
It remains a primary route for travel across the Bitterroot Mountains. The Lolo Trail is not only part of the historic Lewis and Clark Trail, but is a section of the Nez Perce Trail. That historic trail was used by Chief Joseph and his tribe in 1877, during their aborted attempt to reach the safety of Canada.
The prairie land on the west side of the Bitterroot Mountains remains home to many of the Nez Perce, who call themselves the Nimiipuu, and is part of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. The town of Lewiston began in 1861 when gold was discovered in the region. Lewiston, located at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, is now a center of agriculture as well as a popular water recreation destination.
While Lolo Pass is located in Montana, the Lolo Pass Visitor Center is a half mile away, just across the Idaho border. During your stop you can check out exhibits on Lewis and Clark and other local history, an interpretive trail, and a gift and book shop.
The Lolo Motorway is a rough, single-lane road constructed with Civilian Conservation Corps assistance during the 1930s. The route follows Forest Road 500 from Powell Junction to Canyon Junction. Along the way you'll enjoy magnificent mountain scenery including wildflower-filled meadows, river and lake views, and jagged peaks. You'll find places to stop and enjoy a hike. What you won't find are restrooms, gas stations, or any other services, so be sure to come prepared.
The stretch of US Highway 12 that passes through Idaho has been designated the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.
This gorgeous drive offers many attractions and activities along the way. You can access some of the Lewis and Clark sites mentioned in this article, as well as sites related to the Nez Perce Trail and pioneer era history. The Clearwater River provides for awesome river recreation, including whitewater rafting and kayaking. Hiking, camping, and winter sports are popular activities in Clearwater National Forest.
The town of Weippe is located near the Nez Perce camp where Lewis and Clark and their respective groups reunited after their mountain ordeal. The Weippe Discovery Center is a community facility, housing the public library and meeting space, as well as providing interpretive exhibits regarding the Lewis and Clark Expedition's activity in the area. That story can be seen in murals that wrap around the Discovery Center's exterior.
Outside you'll find an interpretive trail that focuses on the plants mentioned in the Corps' journals. Other exhibits at the Weippe Discovery Center cover the Nez Perce people and local wildlife.
This Spalding, Idaho, facility is the official visitor center for the Nez Perce National Historical Park. This historic preserve, part of the US National Park system, has many units, with sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Inside the Visitor Center you'll find a variety of informative exhibits and artifacts, a book store, a theatre, and helpful park rangers. While somewhat dated, the 23-minute film Nez Perce - Portrait of a People provides a great overview of the Nez Perce people, including their encounter with the Corps of Discovery. The grounds at the Spalding unit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park are extensive and include a network of interpretive trails that take you to the historic Spalding Townsite, along Lapwai Creek and the Clearwater River, and to a lovely picnic and day-use area.
The Clearwater Historical Museum is home to artifacts and exhibits covering the full range of local history, from the Nez Perce and the Lewis and Clark Expedition to gold mining and the homestead era.
Canoe Camp is the site along the Clearwater River where the Corps of Discovery spent several days building dugout canoes. These canoes allowed them to return to river travel, ultimately taking them to the Pacific Ocean. The actual site of the Canoe Camp can be visited at US Highway 12 at Milepost 40, where you'll find an interpretive trail. The Canoe Camp site is an official unit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.
Located within Hells Gate State Park on the Snake River, the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center offers indoor and outdoor interpretive exhibits as well as an interesting film about Lewis and Clark in Idaho.
The Nez Perce County Historical Museum covers the history of Nez Perce County, including the Nez Perce people and their relations with Lewis and Clark.
Other Attractions in Idaho
These attractions focus on events and places that were part of the Expedition's scouting activity in Idaho. They are not located along the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Located northwest of Lemhi Pass, the town of Salmon is approximately 30 miles from the area where Lewis scouted ahead of the main party, searching for the Shoshone. The Sacagawea Center in Salmon focuses on Sacagawea, the Shoshone people, and their relationship with the Corps of Discovery. This interpretive center provides a variety of outdoor learning experiences as well as trails, indoor exhibits, and a gift store.
Winchester is located 36 miles southeast of Lewiston along US Highway 95. The Museum of Winchester History offers an exhibit called "Ordway's Search for Salmon," which tells the story of Sergeant Ordway's food procurement side trip during their 1806 return journey.