National Parks Road Trip 2010: Return to the Missouri Headwaters

Present-day Great Falls, Montana, and the Sacagawea Hotel are among the highlights to be found while following the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

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 Great Falls, Montana, where the Corps of Discovery encountered five large waterfalls on the Missouri River that delayed by several weeks their trip to the Pacific Ocean.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had expected a single falls they would be able to portage in a day. Rather, they found five significant falls that required nearly two weeks of backbreaking toil in completing four roundtrip portages, each 18 miles in length.

The first and largest of the five falls the Corps of Discovery was required to portage can be found near present-day Great Falls, Montana. There a large dam has been constructed immediately above the falls and much of the water is diverted for electrical generation. Thus, today’s flow of water over the falls is significantly reduced compared to the water flow prior to the building of the dam. Nonetheless, the falls remain impressive and viewing them makes it easy to imagine how the men of the Corps of Discovery must have been awed by the sight in 1805.

Our last note was from Bass Creek Campground 15 miles south of Lolo, Montana. From there we headed south, following the return route of William Clark, Sacagawea, and 20 members of the Corps of Discovery. Meriwether Lewis and a smaller group of men had separated from Clark at Traveler’s Rest near present-day Lolo, and were moving northeast toward Great Falls in order to explore the Marias River. It was Lewis’ intention to determine how far north the United States could claim a border. The two leaders agreed to eventually meet at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers near Montana‘s present-day border with North Dakota.

That night we camped in a U.S. Forest Service campground that claimed a great surplus of mosquitoes. We also experienced the first rain since camping in Springfield, Illinois, nearly five weeks earlier. Unfortunately, it rained on and off most of the night and didn't let up much during the morning.

The next morning we had a disappointing visit to nearby Big Hole National Battlefield, a unit of Nez Perce National Historical Park. The main visitor center is closed for major construction work that includes installing a new roof. A small house is being used as a temporary visitor center. Worse, it continued to rain, causing us to skip a ranger-guided walk through the battlefield. A ranger at the visitor center indicated the revamped visitor center with new exhibits is expected to open in spring 2011.

Big Hole Battlefield is the site of a major battle between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce who were fleeing in an attempt to reach safety in Canada. The Nez Perce suffered 60 to 90 dead when attacked here by the U.S. Army. Following the battle, the Nez Perce continued moving southeast through present-day Yellowstone National Park, and then north to near the Canadian border, where they finally surrendered. It is ironic that these are the people who were so helpful to the Corps of Discovery during both their outbound and return trips.

We continued following the return trail of Clark to the small but interesting town of Dillon, Montana. The trail then turned mostly north where we stopped at Beaverhead Rock, a unique formation that Sacagawea recognized during the outbound trip as being close to where her people spent the summer. This excited Lewis & Clark, who were hoping to find Indians that would be willing to supply horses.

That night we camped up the road in Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. The next day we visited another important site in Lewis and Clark’s exploration; Three Forks of the Missouri, where the Missouri River begins its 2,341-mile journey to the Mississippi. After passing this way many times without actually visiting this site, we found it quite exciting to finally stand at the headwaters of the Missouri. The site and nearby property is a Montana state park. Three Forks is the location where Clark’s return party split with Sergeant Ordway, taking half the men down the Missouri, while Clark took the other half up the Gallatin River to the Bozeman area where they picked up the Yellowstone.

The nearby town of Three Forks is home to an absolutely wonderful place to spend the night, the Sacagawea Hotel. Sections of the hotel date from the mid-1800s, with the main part being constructed in 1910. The hotel has been completely remodeled and would be a great place to stay when investigate the Three Forks area.

From there we headed to the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center operated by the U.S. Forest Service. This is to Lewis & Clark buffs what the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon, is to Oregon Trail buffs. We visited the center two years ago but didn’t have time to do it justice. On this second visit we plan to take our time. We will send a report on the center in our next note.

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

We enjoyed your narrative regarding your travels along the Lewis & Clark Trail.
We vacationed in Montana earlier this spring and visited the National Monument, Pompey's Pillar, and wondered if you stopped at this historic site along the trail. It is our understanding that this is the the only physical evidence in existence of the Lewis & Clark expediton where William Clark carved his name in a sandstone bluff near the Yellowstone River and named the bluff after Sacagawea's young son as documented in his journal. We found the Visitor's Center to be a very interesting array of information regarding the trail and the signature.
It is located approximately 32 miles northeast of Billings on Interstate 94.