Location: On the Montana-Idaho border, 43 miles northeast of Dillon, Montana
It was August 12, 1805, and Meriwether Lewis was a desperate man. Four and one-half months before, the Corps of Discovery had headed west out of present-day North Dakota and begun their second year exploring and laying claim to the American West. Their journey took them across the entire breadth of present-day Montana. They overcame waterfalls and prickly pears, grizzlies and hailstorms. But in all the adventures, they had not encountered a single fellow human being.
Now the Missouri River was running out, and the country was growing rugged and mountainous. Lewis knew that the party was approaching the Great Divide–a geographic backbone that splits the North American continent into two gigantic watersheds. East of the divide, the rivers flow to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico; west, to the Pacific, where Lewis wanted to go. A veteran of mountain travel through the rugged passes of the Appalachians, Lewis knew that the Corps would need horses to transport themselves and their baggage through the range. From the beginning, he had laid plans to buy horses from the Shoshone Indians, even hiring the teenage Sacagawea and her fur-trapper husband to accompany the Expedition so she could act as a translator with her native tribe.
By August 12, Lewis and Clark had been looking for the Shoshones for weeks. Even as Sacagawea started to recognize landmarks from her childhood, the Indians failed to materialize. All Lewis could think was that he had brought his men this far only to be stranded in the mountains, unable to go forward, too late in the season to go back. If that happened, he would be a failure. Even worse, they would have to spend the winter alone in a mountainous and hostile country. Everyone could die.
Leaving Clark to wrangle the canoes and supplies through the dwindling river, Lewis took a small party and forged ahead to try to locate the Shoshones. They followed a well-traveled Indian road into the hills, once even catching a glimpse of a lone rider. Frustratingly, the man high-tailed it off into the brush in spite of Lewis’s attempts to signal friendly intentions.
Forging on, Lewis and his men took the time to savor a singular moment. After 2300 miles, they had reached the headwaters of the Missouri River.
at the distance of 4 miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights. thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years, judge then of the pleasure I felt in allying my thirst with this pure and ice cold water which issues from the base of a low mountain or hill of a gentle ascent for ½ a mile. the mountains are high on either hand leave this gap at the head of this rivulet through which the road passes. here I halted a few minutes and rested myself.
two miles below McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.
Ahead lay a saddle point, or mountain pass. Lewis knew all about saddle points. They generally lay just above a river’s source. They often formed a bridge to the headwaters of the next river. Lewis’s pulse must have quickened as he ran up the path. He hoped to see the Columbia or a broad tributary shining before him. An easy water route to the Pacific Ocean; after generations of searching, the fabled Northwest Passage. Instead, this is what he saw:
There was no river. There was no Northwest Passage. There was no glory. What Lewis saw were “immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow.” Steep mountains as far as the eye could see; a knee-buckling ordeal ahead.
Even today, Lemhi Pass (named in 1855 by Mormon missionaries after a king in the Book of Mormon) is quite difficult to visit. As it turned out, Lewis and Clark had hit upon one of the most difficult mountain passes in the Rocky Mountain range, and later explorers, trappers, and road-builders found Bannock Pass and other better places to cross. But if you are a confident driver with a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle (or can find someone who is, the way we did) then you will find a visit to Lemhi Pass to be one of the most exciting and fun stops along the Lewis & Clark trail.
You can enter the road up to Lemhi Pass from either the Beaverhead National Forest in Montana or the Salmon National Forest in Idaho. We did the Montana route, which involves driving for for miles on a rough, steep dirt Forest Service track. I’m told the Idaho side is even steeper. Pretty scary!
We found this road very rutted and rocky when we went, though I am told it has been regraveled more recently. Still, be sure you have the skills and equipment to change a tire or two! The road is still considered to be impassable in bad weather, so you would be smart to check with a ranger station for conditions before heading out. And once you get there, you’re pretty well committed. The road has only a single driving lane, and if you meet someone else coming, you either have to pull into a turn-out or back up until they can pass. Downhill traffic has the right of way.
Seeing Lemhi Pass was one of the biggest adventures we’ve had on the Lewis & Clark trail, and I’m so glad we made the effort. The wild and unspoiled views of the enormous slopes, pristine valleys, and distant, snow-capped mountains are worth it. It is possible to feel very close to Lewis & Clark here.
Though he didn’t show fear or doubt in front of the men, Lewis had to be pretty crushed about what he saw that day at Lemhi Pass. Fortunately, he didn’t have much time to mope about it. He found the Shoshones the next day and started bargaining for horses, and a few days later, Clark caught up and the party was reunited. You have to wonder what the two captains talked about privately. Their dreams of an easy passage over the mountains had proved illusory. The towering range ahead of them was nothing like the rolling landscape of the Appalachians. And the men were already bruised and exhausted from the ordeal of the portage around the Great Falls and the last brutal miles of the Missouri. They must have known that the trek over the mountains would test them in ways they had never imagined.
Turning back was never an option. When Lewis and Clark walked across this pass they set the course for manifest destiny. American (and world) history would never be the same.