National Parks Road Trip 2010: Great Falls to Fort Benton
Editor's note: David and Kay Scott this summer are living what many of us wish we could do: they're following a meandering path across the country to visit units of the National Park System. This installment of their trek comes from Montana, where they're following the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Greetings from Havre, Montana, well north of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail that at this point requires a canoe trip through the rugged Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. It is Sunday morning and we are at a motel because of a forecast for severe thunderstorms in northern Montana. We are now in our ninth week of travel and have driven 6,500 miles since leaving our home in Valdosta, Georgia. Montana is our 19th state of the trip.
Our last note was from Great Falls, Montana. Finding a room for the second night was a difficult task because Friday marked the first day of the Montana State Fair that takes place there.
During our last trip to Great Falls two years ago, we were rushing to Yellowstone and took a hurried tour of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center just outside town. This time we wanted to spend an extra day in town so that we could enjoy a leisurely tour of the facility. This proved a wise move because we spent nearly five hours taking in the exhibits, films, and interpretive talks. The center is a real jewel, the best that we have experienced during this trip.
The interpretive center is operated by the U.S. Forest Service with the assistance of numerous volunteers who are stationed throughout the building to offer information and assistance to visitors. Films and informative talks seem to take place continuously in the large tiered auditorium. We attended an excellent half-hour talk about how the Corps of Discovery was able to cross an uncharted continent.
Several walking trails begin or pass by the interpretive center. An outdoor amphitheater overlooking the Missouri River is often used for interpretive talks and programs. The interpretive center is a must see for anyone visiting the Great Falls area.
From Great Falls we drove northeast on Highway 87 toward Havre. On the way we stopped at Fort Benton, a small town with an expansive history. Fort Benton was at one time the transportation hub of the Northwest. In 1860 the first steamboat arrived here after traveling up the Missouri River from St. Louis. These were special boats with flat bottoms and large poles in the front that allowed them to hop or crawl over sand bars and shallow portions of the river.
With the discovery of gold in Montana two years later, river traffic boomed and the town became a supply point for much of the Northwest. Fort Benton has a number of buildings dating from the late 1800s, including the restored Grand Union Hotel that was built in 1882 and continues to welcome guests. Many signs telling about the town’s history line the levee.
Another purpose for stopping at Fort Benton was to visit the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center. The center, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, offers exhibits, a video, and information about the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. This 375,000-acre monument surrounds the 149-mile Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River, the route of the Corps of Discovery on both its outbound and return (Lewis and 10 men met Lewis east of here at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers). Numerous concessionaires offer canoe and kayak rentals and guide service on the river that flows through the scenic Missouri Breaks.
While walking through the downtown area of Fort Benton we met an interesting couple that was peddling a tandem bicycle on a cross-country trip between Portland, Oregon, and New York. They had come about 45 miles from Great Falls that day and were trying to determine whether to stay overnight in Fort Benton or push on. They expected to get to New York by mid- or late-September.
Our next stop was just outside Loma, a small town ten miles north of Fort Benton. Loma is the location of the confluence of the Marias and Missouri rivers. During the outbound trip the Corps of Discovery spent considerable time here attempting to determine which of the two forks led to the mouth of the Missouri. Meriwether Lewis explored the Marias while William Clark went down the Missouri, but neither found evidence that one was the true source. Upon returning to the confluence the two agreed to continue along the left fork, which turned out to be a wise decision.
Upon reaching the confluence of these two rivers during the return trip east, Lewis explored the Marias to near its source in order to determine the northern limits of land included in the Louisiana Purchase. During the time Lewis was exploring the Marias, Clark, Sacajawea, and other members of the Corps of Discovery were coming down the Yellowstone to meet Lewis further east at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone.
We are ready to depart from Havre and drive east on U.S. Highway 2. Called the “Hi-Line” by locals, U.S. 2 converges with the Missouri River in eastern Montana where we will return to the route used by the Corps of Discovery. The highway also takes us near Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, a 1800s trading post on the Missouri that we plan to visit.
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.