Location: On Highway 93 on the Montana-Idaho border, halfway between Hamilton, Montana and Salmon, Idaho (45 miles from each)
On August 30, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark undertook what was perhaps their most perilous adventure. For two weeks , the Corps of Discovery had lived among the Shoshones, Sacagawea’s people, in their remote mountain home on today’s Montana-Idaho border. Despite their best efforts, Lewis and Clark had failed to find an easy path to lead their men forward through the rugged, treacherous mountains that lay ahead. It was clear that the only way forward was straight though and damn the consequences.
They bought 29 horses from the Indians, hired a Shoshone guide named Old Toby, and once again turned their faces west. In fact, their iron-willed determination to continue west almost led to the unraveling of the entire expedition just two days after they resumed their journey.
Old Toby had shown the captains a well-worn, if rough and hilly, Indian path that would lead to the Bitterroot Valley, the logical entrance to the crossing Lewis & Clark needed to make. This ancient trail wound back east through the “Big Hole” Country (later the site where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were stopped on their attempt to flee to Canada to avoid being forced on to a reservation )and was about 35 miles long. By this route, the Expedition would recross the Continental Divide at a place known today as Gibbons Pass.
It was a tedious and long journey that involved something Lewis always hated – doubling back, or what he called a “retrograde march.” Undoubtedly there was an involved discussion between Lewis and Clark and Old Toby about other options. In the end, the captains and the Indian guide got a little cocksure. They decided to leave the beaten path and set off cross-country, confident that they could hack out a shortcut that would shave at least a day off their journey.
This was one of the worst decisions Lewis and Clark ever made. Within hours, the trip had become a nightmare:
Left the roade on which we were pursuing and which leads over to the Missouri; and proceeded up a West fork without a roade proceded on thro’ thickets in which we were obliged to Cut a road, over rockey hill Sides where our horss were in pitial danger of Slipping to Ther certain distruction & up & Down Steep hills, where Several horses fell, Some turned over, and others Sliped down Steep hill Sides, one horse Crippeled & 2 gave out. with the greatest dificuelty risque &c. we made five miles & Encamped on The left Side of the Creek in a Small Stoney bottom after night Some time before the rear Came up, one Load left, about 2 miles back, the horse on which it was Carried Crippled. – William Clark, September 2, 1805
The exhausted Corps fell into camp after a day in which they made only thirteen total miles and in which three of the precious horses were lost. And as Private Joseph Whitehouse wrote:
This horrid bad going where we came up this creek which we Call dismal Swamp was six miles and we are not out of it yet.
The next day was, if possible, even worse. As James Fazio documents in Across the Snowy Ranges, the Corps had descended into a bottomland choked with thickets of briars, willows, and fallen logs, a place where the ground was nothing but sharp broken talus, a place where men and horses stumbled and slipped on steep, almost vertical slopes. Now there was nothing to do but climb out of it – a climb of some 2300 feet.
Then it began to rain. As they climbed, the rain alternated with sleet, then turned to snow. Several more horses took bad falls. The Corps somehow struggled to the ridgetops somewhere in the vicinity of today’s ski runs at Lost Trail Pass. Cold and wet, the party shared a meager supper of nine grouse – all the hunters could find – and a little parched corn that had been carried all the way from Fort Mandan.
It is debatable, by the way, whether Lost Trail Pass is a Lewis & Clark name, though it certainly fits with their experience there. The pass is not named on any map until 1854, when Isaac Stevens called it “Big Hole Pass,” and many historians believe “Lost Trail” was first applied as a nickname after an 1871 surveying crew got lost in the same area that had flummoxed Lewis & Clark. The pass was officially designated as Lost Trail Pass in the early 20th century.
The next day – September 4, 1805 – the Corps woke covered with snow. It never got above freezing all day. However, the wet fog and rain had lifted, and with the help of better visibility, Old Toby determined a route down a rough ridge that led the Corps out of trouble and back into known territory. As they emerged into the vicinity of present-day Sula, Montana, the Bitterroot Valley looked like paradise to Sergeant Patrick Gass:
proceeded down a small valley about a mile wide, with a rich black soil; in which there are a great quantity of sweet roots and herbs, such as sweet myrrh, angelica and several other, that the natives make use of, and of the names of which I am unacquainted. There is also timothy grass growing in it; and neither the valley nor the hills are so thickly timbered, as the mountains we had lately passed.
By that afternoon they had come to a beautiful village of the Salish Indians in a place now called Ross’s Hole. The Indians draped buffalo robes around the weary travelers and gave them gifts of dried cherries and serviceberries. This exhilarating meeting was brilliantly imagined by Charles M. Russell in his masterpiece at the Montana State Capitol.
Lewis and Clark couldn’t have known it, but their ordeal at Lost Trail Pass was only a taste of what was to come. Their greatest trials in the Bitterroots still lay ahead.
I am very desirous of going back to this country. When we visited, there was a major forest fire going on near Lost Trail Pass. We had to be escorted in by a “pilot car,” which keeps visitors from wandering off into the fire area, and it was not possible to explore around the area. I was touched by the courage and dedication of the firefighters, who looked dirty and extremely weary. We got to see the “fire camp” where they had pitched their tents, and the preparations to save pricey park buildings if the fire passed over Lost Trail Pass.