Lewis and Clark Sites in Montana

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
Entry sign to the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana.

Angela M. Brown

Most anyone who travels through Montana's wide open spaces imagines what it was like to experience the landscape as an explorer. Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery spent a challenging few months in Montana, following the Missouri River from it's confluence with the Yellowstone River in the east all the way to its headwaters in the west. On their return route in 1806, the Corps split up in Montana, adding even more terrain to their journey. Most all of these sites can be visited today, along with numerous museums, monuments, and historic markers.

These comprehensive descriptions of the Lewis and Clark sites you can visit during in Montana will help you plan a fun and interesting trip.

01 of 08

Fort Union Trading Post

Picture of Fort Union Trading Post in North Dakota
source: iStockphoto/chamey


The Fort Union Trading Post National Historical Site lies at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Located just on the North Dakota side of the North Dakota-Montana border, the fort sits along ND State Highway 1804. The closest Montana town is Bainville.

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

The Corps of Discovery, accompanied by new guides Charbonneau and Sacagawea, camped here in late April 1805, shortly after leaving their wintering site at Fort Mandan.

Since Lewis & Clark

Fort Union Trading Post was established at the site by the American Fur Company in 1828. It is now preserved as the Fort Union Trading Post National Historical Site.

What You Can See & Do

During your visit to the Fort Union Trading Post National Historical Site you can:

  • take a self-guided walking tour of the fort, which includes several reconstructed buildings
  • check out the visitor center, located within the reconstructed Bourgouis House, where you can enjoy exhibits, a book store, and a film
  • take a short hike on the 1-mile Bodmer Overlook Trail
  • attend the annual Fort Union Rendezvous in June
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02 of 08

Fort Peck

View of the Milk River in Montana
Getty Images/Danita Delimont


The small community of Fort Peck and the Fort Peck Dam and Reservoir are located just upriver of the confluence of the Missouri River and Milk River.

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

Upon passing by the cloudy river on May 8, 1805, Lewis named it "Milk River." It was in this area that the Corps encountered some particularly exciting new plants and wildlife, including several grizzly bears. The snow-capped Rocky Mountains, although still in the distant west, were now within the Corps' view.

Since Lewis & Clark

Fort Peck, a trading post, was established at this site along the Missouri River in 1867. During the 1930s, Fort Peck Dam was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project. This created the 134-mile long Fort Peck Lake; the lake and its surrounding lands are now preserved as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Tyrannosaurus Rex and other dinosaur fossils have been found in the area, making it one of Montana's paleontology hot spots.

What You Can See & Do

The local natural history, both the modern and the ancient, makes this region of Montana a fascinating place to learn and explore.

Fort Peck Lake
This man-made lake is the largest body of water in Montana today, offering abundant opportunity for fishing, boating, camping, and other outdoor activity.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
Hunting and wildlife watching are the main land-based attractions within the refuge. Trails are available for hiking, horseback riding, ATVs, and snowmobiling.

Fort Peck Dam Interpretive Center and Museum
Operated as a partnership between Fort Peck Paleontology Incorporated, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, this facility features exhibits covering local paleontology and the fish and wildlife who make there home in the Fort Peck reservoir. While there, you can also learn about the construction and operation of Fort Peck dam. The staff at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center can also help you with current conditions and recreation information for both Fort Peck Lake and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

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03 of 08

The Upper Missouri Breaks

Picture of Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument in Montana

Angela M. Brown


West of the section of the Missouri that is now Fort Peck Lake lies the Upper Missouri Breaks, a 149-mile stretch of river surrounded by white cliffs, grassy hills, and ruin-like rock formations.

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

After passing the Milk River on May 8, 1805, the explorers expected that they would soon encounter the "great falls" they had been warned about. Instead, Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery were astonished to find themselves among white cliffs of amazing beauty. Lewis noted in his journal that the landscape was now drier and more desert-like. Within the Breaks, they passed and named the Judith River, after Clark's sweetheart.

Since Lewis & Clark

This picturesque length of Missouri River now carries the designation Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River, while the surrounding badlands are preserved as the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. This remote region made a good outlaw hideout during the frontier era and later during Prohibition.

What You Can See & Do

Missouri Breaks National Back Country Byway
This 80-mile loop drive begins in the tiny town of Winifred, home of the world's largest collections of Tonka toys (which you can check out at the Winifred Museum). The route is made up of gravel and unimproved roads, so a high-clearance or 4-wheel-drive vehicle is highly recommended. Branches off of the main loop will bring you to several scenic overlooks into the Missouri River canyon.

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04 of 08

Fort Benton

Decision Point on the Lewis & Clark Trail.

Angela M. Brown


The historic town of Fort Benton, often called the birthplace of Montana, lies on the Missouri River several miles after it emerges from the badlands of the Upper Missouri Breaks. It is located along Highway 87, approximately 40 miles northeast of Great Falls. Fort Benton is just a few miles from the confluence of the Marias and Missouri Rivers.

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

In early June 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped near Fort Benton after reaching an unexpected fork in the river. One fork flowed cold and clear; the other muddy. Members spent several days scouting the region, trying to determine which fork was the Missouri and looking for the warned-about falls. Lewis and Clark, in disagreement with the rest of the Corps, made a command decision and chose the cold, clear, southern fork. They were correct.

Since Lewis & Clark

Fort Benton was quite the thriving community during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Settlement began with the establishment of a fur trading post in 1848. As the western-most navigable point on the Missouri, by steam-powered travel, and the eastern end of the Mullan Road, it enjoyed a unique position as a hub for all kinds of commerce. Unfortunately, the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad brought Fort Benton's glory days to an end.

What You Can See & Do

Fort Benton's colorful history and enthusiastic locals make it a fun place to visit for many reasons. Here are the local attractions related to the Lewis and Clark expedition that you can check out:

Decision Point
Although off the beaten path, it's quite thrilling to stand on the same bluff where Lewis stood, overlooking the Marias and Missouri Rivers. A short uphill trail will take you to the river overlook; interpretive signs provide the details of the story. To get to Decision Point, drive northeast on Highway 87 towards the town of Loma. Turn east on Loma Ferry Road and drive approximately 1/2 mile to the parking area, which is located on the north side of the road.

Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center
In addition to providing excellent and informative exhibits on a range of local history subjects, the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center is staffed by knowledgeable experts. They can provide you with maps, advice, permits, and guide information related to recreation activity in the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. The interpretive center is situated in a lovely setting along the Missouri River. A paved riverside trail connects the facility to Fort Benton's town center.

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05 of 08

"The Great Falls of the Missouri"

Picture of the Great Falls and Ryan Dam in Montana

Angela M. Brown


Great Falls, Montana's third largest city, is located 90 miles northeast of Helena along Interstate 15.

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

Upon finally reaching the "Great Falls of the Missouri," the Corps of Discovery suffered through one of the more unpleasant and unexpected episodes in their journey. Based on the geographical descriptions of their Mandan friends, Lewis and Clark expected the portage around the falls to take a day. In reality, they faced a series of five waterfalls. To get past these obstacles, the Corps had to haul canoes and gear up canyons and across 18 miles of desert. Along the way they suffered abuse from below by prickly pear cactus and from above by blistering sun, pounding rain, and bruising hailstones. Sacagawea became ill; she finally recovered after Lewis gave her water from a local sulphur spring. The entire ordeal took up most of the month of June 1805. It was here that Lewis worked on his "experiment," an iron-framed boat. The project was a failure. The Corps celebrated the end of the portage, as well as Independence Day, with drinking and dancing, consuming the last of their alcohol.

Since Lewis & Clark

The city of Great Falls was established in 1883 in order to take advantage of the potential hydroelectric power. Over the years, a series of dams have been constructed on the river, raising the water level at some points and submerging Colter Falls. Railroad routes operated along the river for decades and were then abandoned. Those rail beds have been transformed into the River's Edge Trail, a mostly-paved walking and biking trail. The popular urban trail runs for miles along the river, past parks, benches, picnic spots, and interpretive panels.

What You Can See & Do

The Great Falls area is particularly rich in Lewis and Clark related sites and activities and is home to the official Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center.

The Great Falls, Ryan Dam, and Ryan Island Park
Visitors to Ryan Island Park, located just below the dam and the falls, will enjoy a fabulous view of the Great Falls, the first and largest of the series of five. Short trails take you to scenic viewpoints, where interpretive panels provide historic details. Ryan Island Park also has a grassy lawn and sheltered picnic tables.

Rainbow Falls and Dam Overlook
Located near the point where the River's Edge Trail branches to cover both sides of the Missouri, the Rainbow Falls and Dam Overlook is a nice place to wander around and enjoy the views. Lewis referred to the falls as "Beautiful Cascade." Parking areas are located on both sides of the river, along with restrooms and interpretive panels.

Giant Springs Heritage State Park
Just downhill from the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, Giant Springs is one of the largest freshwater springs in the world. This lovely park is open for day-use activities such as picnicking, hiking, fishing, boating, and wildlife watching. Rainbow Falls are visible to the east. Giant Springs Heritage State Park is also home to a fish hatchery and visitor center.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
This major interpretive center is one of the highlight attractions along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Inside you'll find wonderful exhibits, a book and gift store, and helpful and informative volunteers. The large theater shows two different films; both are excellent. Outside you'll find amphitheater space, scenic overlooks, and several trails. A site down by the river is used for living history activities.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center Photo Gallery

Sulphur Springs Trail
The trailhead for this 1.8-mile hike is a short drive east of the Interpretive Center. Interpretive signs are located along the trail, which takes you to what is now called Sacagawea Springs. Water from this spring was used to treat a sickly Sacagawea.

Black Eagle Falls and Dam Overlook
Black Eagle Falls were the fifth and final waterfall that the Corps of Discovery had to get past during their lengthy portage ordeal. In the 1890s, the hydroelectric dam was built to power a smelter. Ruins of the smelter facility can be seen below the dam and along the hill above and below the River's Edge Trail.

Annual Lewis & Clark Festival
This annual festival, held in late June, offers fun for the whole family. A fun run, Native American dancers, a food and marketplace, history reenactments, and live music are among the long weekend's Lewis and Clark events.

Upper Portage Camp Overlook and White Bear Island Overlook
This hilltop location served as the Corps' main camp during the weeks spent portaging the canoes and equipment past the Great Falls of the Missouri. Today, a series of interpretive panels tell the story of the site's colorful history. The site, open to the public during the day, is located near the intersection of 40th Avenue and 13th Street.

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06 of 08

Lewis and Clark Sites in and near Helena Montana

The Gates of the Mountain Boat Tour

Angela M. Brown


Helena, Montana's capital city, is located in a valley just west of the Missouri River along Interstate 15 (about 1 hour north of Interstate 90).

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

After their portage around the Great Falls, Lewis and Clark returned to their Missouri River route, which now took them in a southerly direction. On July 19, 1805, they passed through a twisty, 3-mile-long canyon, which they named "The Gates of the Rocky Mountains." They continued to follow the Missouri River south - about 150 miles from Great Falls - until they reached the point where it branched into three forks. They named these rivers the Jefferson, the Gallatin, and the Madison, choosing to follow the Jefferson fork since it came from the west.

Since Lewis & Clark

The city of Helena was founded upon discovery of gold in 1864 and was designated the Montana Territory capital in 1875. Dam building has changed the landscape throughout this region. Holter ​Dam, built 40 miles north of present-day Helena, created Holter Lake. That lake encompasses The Gates of the Mountains, reducing the current and raising the water level in the canyon by 14 feet. South of Holter, other dams created Hauser Lake and Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

What You Can See & Do

The Helena area is rich in history and offers a variety of interesting things to see and do. The local attractions related to the Lewis and Clark Expedition include:

The Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour
During this two-hour narrated boat tour you'll have the opportunity to view the unfolding canyon landscape as Lewis and Clark experienced it, seeing how the rock walls create a gate-like opening. Along the way, you'll see amazing scenery, unique geology, and a variety of wildlife. Within The Gates of the Mountains is Mann Gulch, site of a significant forest fire in 1949. The boat stops briefly at a picnic and hiking area. Much of The Gates of the Mountains area is public land, available for outdoor recreation of all kinds.

Montana's Museum
The official museum of the Montana Historical Society, this great museum covers both Montana history and art. Their extensive "Montana Homeland" artifact timeline includes a section on Lewis and Clark. A special exhibit, "Neither Empty nor Unknown: Montana at the Time of Lewis and Clark," focuses on the people, animals, plants, and landscape of Montana from 1804 to 1806.

Missouri Headwaters State Park
Located at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers, Missouri Headwaters State Park includes a number of Lewis and Clark experiences. Interpretive panels located along the park's network of trails share relevant Expedition facts, stories, and journal entries. In the summer, park rangers hold evening interpretive programs. Tent, tipi, and RV camping are available, providing the opportunity overnight where Lewis and Clark once camped.

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07 of 08

Southwest Montana

Picture of Beaverhead Rock in Montana
source: iStockphoto/chamey


Lewis and Clark's trail through southwest part of modern-day Montana followed the Jefferson River, then the Beaverhead River, before proceeding overland north into the Bitterroot Valley. The highways that roughly follow this route include State Highway 41, passing through Dillon, and US Highway 93, passing through Sula.

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

Southwest Montana was a region where the Lewis and Clark Expedition searched and wandered, and where several pivotal 1805 meetings and events occurred. At this point, they had spent more than a fortnight traveling parallel to the mountains, rather than towards them. Although it was late July, the snow on the looming peaks was a constant reminder that they needed to get over the mountains as soon as possible. The Corps' need to find the Shoshone, trade for horses, and cross the mountains became an urgent concern.

On August 3, 1805, they reached Beaverhead Rock. Sacagawea's recognition of this major landmark was both encouraging and frustrating. Lewis took an advance party ahead in search of the Shoshone. They followed a trail up Lemhi Pass, reaching the Continental Divide on August 9, 1805. Expecting to see a downward slope and a great river in the distance, Lewis instead saw mountains and more mountains. It was at this point that they realized that the Northwest Passage, in the form of an easy connection between the Missouri and the Columbia Rivers, did not exist.

On August 11 Lewis's group saw a lone Shoshone man on horseback but inadvertently scared him off. They eventually reached a Shoshone settlement and began forming a relationship with Chief Cameahwait and the tribe. They convinced the chief and a group of his men to return with them to find Clark and the rest of the party. The Corps reunited on August 17, establishing camp by the Beaverhead River for several days. It was quickly revealed that Chief Cameahwait was, in fact, Sacagawea's brother. They call this site "Camp Fortunate."

They were successful in trading for the horses they needed to carry their gear through the mountains. An elderly Shoshone agreed to guide, estimating it would take 10 days to reach a river that could eventually take them to the ocean. Caching their canoes and some supplies, the Corps, and their guide departed on August 31, passing for a while into modern-day Idaho. After their guide lost the trail, they struggled, running out of rations as they wandered, crossing back into Montana near Lost Trail Pass, then making their way up the Bitterroot Valley towards modern-day Missoula.

Since Lewis & Clark

The Southwest corner of Montana remains sparsely populated, with many small agriculture-based communities in the Beaverhead and Bitterroot Valleys. The Jefferson and Beaverhead Rivers have been dammed, creating reservoirs that include Clark Canyon Lake.

What You Can See & Do

Beaverhead Rock State Park
This significant rock formation is now the site of a day-use state park with limited facilities. Photography and wildlife watching are popular park activities.

Lemhi Pass National Historic Monument
You can reach this remote site, located on the Idaho-Montana border within Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, via gravel backroads. Once there, you'll see the same view of mountain ranges and snow-covered peaks that surprised Lewis and his advance party.

Clark's Lookout State Park
This landmark site, which Clark climbed to get a view of the Beaverhead Valley on August 13, 1805, has been preserved as a historic monument. Hiking trails, interpretive signs, and a hilltop marker now commemorate that visit. Clark's Lookout State Park is located along the Beaverhead River off of Highway 91, just north of Dillon.

The small town of Dillon has an "Old West" feel and is a great place to stop for a meal and a walk around the downtown shops and park. The Beaverhead County Museum is home to a Lewis and Clark diorama. Nearby is Dillon's historic railroad depot, now the site of a visitor information center, where you can get information about attractions and activities throughout Montana.

Lost Trail Pass Interpretive Site and Visitor Center
Lost Trail Pass is the modern route through the area of the Bitterroot Mountains where the Lewis and Clark Expedition lost the trail, causing the party to wander for several days, facing snow and hunger. Located at the Idaho-Montana border, Lost Pass is 13 miles south of the town of Sula on US Highway 93. Interpretive panels at the Lost Trail Pass Visitor Center (open in the summer) tell the story of that ordeal.

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08 of 08

Missoula Montana

Mountain Terrain in Lolo National Forest
Getty Images/Wallace Garrison


Missoula is located along Interstate 90 just east of the Idaho-Montana border.

What Lewis & Clark Experienced

The Lewis and Clark Expedition made camp along Lolo Creek on September 9, 1805. Lewis named the site "Travelers Rest." They spent two days making preparations to cross the Bitterroot Mountains via what is now called the Lolo Trail. Their route took them through Lolo Pass, proceeding west-southwest over terrain just north of US Highway 12. Along the way, they passed Lolo Hot Springs, which both Clark and Gass noted in their respective journals.

On their 1806 return journey, the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the springs, taking the time to stop for a soak on June 29. The Corps took advantage of Travelers' Rest camp again, stopping for 4 days. It was here the party split for their return journey through modern-day Montana, with the Clark party following a southern route and the Lewis party exploring the lands northwest of Great Falls before returning to the Missouri River.

Since Lewis & Clark

The Missoula Mills settlement was established in 1860 to take advantage of the Clark Fork River's hydropower. Two major changes came in 1883: the official town name became Missoula and the Northern Pacific Railway arrived. Fort Missoula was established as a military fort in 1877, assuming a variety of roles and functions over the years until it was decommissioned in 2001. Missoula is also the home of the University of Montana. As the second largest city in Montana, it is a hub of commerce for the region.

What You Can See & Do

Missoula is a vibrant community and a fun place to visit, offering a wealth of outdoor recreation as well as arts and cultural events and attractions. The local Lewis and Clark sites are located just southwest of Missoula, roughly along Highway 12.

Travelers' Rest State Park
Located along Lolo Creek just south of Missoula, this land was used as a seasonal camp and meeting place by various Native American tribes long before Lewis and Clark's visit. One exciting thing about Travelers' Rest is that it is the only place along the Lewis and Clark Trail where archeological evidence not only confirmed their presence but revealed the exact location of their camp. During your visit to this state park, you can learn more about the location through exhibits and programs at the Travelers' Rest Visitor Center. An interpretive trail allows you to stretch your legs as you learn more about the site's rich history. Other popular Travelers' Rest State Park activities include birding, picnicking, and fishing.

Lolo Hot Springs
It will come as no surprise that, after serving the local tribes and explorers for years, this enticing hot mineral springs were turned into a vacation resort in 1885. Today, Lolo Hot Springs is a full-service resort, complete with lodging, campsites, restaurant, bar, and casino. The mineral pools are open to resort guests and day visitors throughout the year.

Hike the Lolo National Historic Trail
If you want to simulate Lewis and Clark's Bitterroots experience in an up close and personal manner, hiking the 14-mile Lolo National Historic Trail will come close (minus the snow, hunger, and dehydration, hopefully). Located within Lolo National Forest, this foot trail passes through the eastern section of the Lolo Trail. During your hike, you'll see interpretive signs addressing not only Lewis and Clark's journey but the flight of the Nez Perce and other stories of local historic interest.

Lolo Pass Visitor Center
Lolo Pass is just on the Montana side of the Idaho-Montana border, on US Highway 12. The visitor center, on the Idaho side, has exhibits covering both the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce Trails, a book and gift store, and restrooms. An interpretive trail can be accessed from the visitor center. The Lolo Pass Visitor Center is open daily only during the summer season, roughly from Memorial Day through Labor Day, with limited hours of operation the rest of the year.