National Park Road Trip 2010: Lewis & Clark on the Columbia

A large waterfall that Lewis and Clark had to portage is now underwater. Near Dayton, Washington, steel silhouettes mark a Lewis and Clark encampment. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: Having crossed the country while following the Oregon National Historic Trail, David and Kay Scott now are heading back east, this time by starting out along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Greetings from Lewis & Clark Trail State Park in eastern Washington. It is Friday morning and we are finishing our seventh week on the road. We have driven 5,500 miles since leaving our home in Valdosta, Georgia.

This park offers a surprising environment for this part of the state; lots of vegetation including large ponderosa pine in a region where wheat fields blanket the landscape in every direction. Huge fields of golden wheat that are nearly ready for harvest surround this oasis that was noted by Lewis in his journal when the Corps of Discovery passed here during their return to St. Louis. The park has a relatively small campground where we stayed last night.

During the outbound trip The Corps of Discovery followed the northern bend of the Snake River. On their return, the men accepted the advice of an Indian chief who told them of an overland shortcut between the Columbia and the Snake. The chief indicated they could save considerable time by choosing the shorter route that passed by where we are now camped. The overland trail described by the chief had been a travel-way for hundreds of years.

Following our Monday visit to Fort Clatsop near the Oregon coast, we drove to Portland where we enjoyed a night in a hotel. Then it was back to the Columbia River along which Lewis & Clark commenced their return trip to St. Louis. We chose to begin traveling east on U.S. Highway 30 that winds through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, one of America’s most beautiful drives . The highway generally follows Interstate 84 that is closer to the river, but the historic route followed by Highway 30 offers stunning views as it weaves and climbs above the floor of the gorge.

We crossed to the north side of the Columbia at The Dalles to more closely follow the return route taken by the Corps of Discovery. Because the explorers were now moving against the river’s powerful current, the men chose to travel much of the way along land beside the river.

Our first night out was spent camping at Columbia Hills State Park, near where Lewis & Clark camped on both their outbound and return trips. The park is close to what at the time was called the Short Narrows and Long Narrows. In these canyons the river narrowed from nearly 400 yards to only 45 yards, producing a vicious current that frightened the explorers. On the return, they portaged cross-country for two miles to avoid going against the current in the two narrows.

The following day we continued to drive along the Washington side of the river until coming to a Corps of Engineers campground near the small town of Plymouth. It was fairly early in the afternoon but the campground was so attractive that we decided to stay the night. The campground is very near the island (now submerged because of a dam) where the Corps of Discovery camped overnight on April 26, 1806 during their return trip.

Yesterday we continued to follow the Columbia River. Our first stop was Oregon’s Hat Rock State Park, home to a peculiar-looking volcanic formation noted in the Lewis & Clark journals. William Clark climbed to the summit of the rock and saw a large mountain to the northwest that he believed to be Mount St. Helens, but was actually Mount Adams.

Our next stop was at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers near the town of Pasco, Washington. The state of Washington operates Sacajawea State Park and Interpretive Center (the park uses the Indian spelling) at the location where the Corps of Discovery spent the nights of October 16 and 17 of 1805 during their outbound trip to the Pacific. Here they rested, repaired clothing and equipment, and caught up on their journals. For thousands of years this site served as a traditional gathering place for fishing and trading by Native Americans.

The park’s interpretive center is in a building constructed in 1938 by the WPA. It contains exhibits relative to Sacajawea’s importance to the success of the Corps of Discovery’s mission. Native American artifacts are also on display. No admission is charged by the center that is generally open daily from April through October.


A day after leaving their camping spot at the confluence, William Clark sighted a snow-covered mountain (Mount Hood) and realized the men were nearing the Pacific Ocean because a 1792 Vancouver expedition had mapped the Cascade volcano.

Today we will drive to Lewiston, Idaho and then follow U.S. Highway 12 toward the Lolo Pass. The Nez Perce National Historical Park visitor center a short distance outside Lewiston is likely to be our first stop. We have read and heard stories about the twisting, winding highway that leads to Montana. It is slow, dangerous, and provides outstanding vistas. Actually, we seem to remember driving this road in a VW camper many years ago. Hopefully, we will come across some inexpensive U.S. Forest Service campgrounds along the way.

David and Kay Scott are regular contributors to the Traveler. Their book
The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges was first published by the Globe Pequot Press in 1997 and is now in its sixth edition.

Comments

I am happily following your trip and listening to your stories of Lewis & Clark's travels with the Corps of Discovery. A little jealous even!
Continue the great story telling of history in this country.