Geography and History of the Travels of Lewis and Clark Part 4

About the history and geography of the travels of Lewis and Clark, a modern look at their expedition through then uncharted parts of the United States.


From Great Falls, the route of the expedition presently runs south along Interstate Highway 15 and U.S. 287 through forested rolling hills to the one-street cowboy town of Three Forks, Mont., where the explorers discovered the headwaters of the Missouri River. Retracing Lewis and Clark's journey, the path goes south along the Jefferson River into the heavily forested ranges of the Rockies to Dillon, Mont. From Dillon, a narrow, two-lane, asphalt road climbs to the 7,373-ft. Lemhi Pass, which is still as rugged and wild as when Lewis climbed it and reached the Continental Divide in 1805. Turning north, the explorers' path now follows U.S. 93 through the fields and forests of the compact Bitterroot Valley and then follows U.S. 12 east past the present-day resort town of Lolo Hot Springs to the Lolo Pass, where Lewis and Clark nearly starved. Lolo Pass is not as thickly forested today as it was in Lewis and Clark's time. Unrestricted logging and forest fires have left broad, eroded bare patches on the mountain slopes.

From Lolo Pass, the expedition's trail arrives at Nez Perce National Park near the Idaho town of Orofino, on the Clearwater River, where they built canoes for their journey to the ocean. Down the Clearwater, the explorers' path continues down the Snake River, past four concrete and steel electricity-producing dams. Entering the Columbia River today, Lewis and Clark's trail arrives at John Day Dam, passes by the city of Portland, Ore., and arrives at the mouth of the Columbia River. Today, sitting in their canoes, Lewis and Clark would have trouble recognizing the mouth of the Columbia, with Astoria, Ore., nestled on the south shore, with ships carrying grain and lumber steaming past, and with a 3-mi.-long Oregon-Washington toll bridge spanning the river.

From Astoria, the explorers' footsteps lead 6 mi. south down the still-rugged and mountainous Oregon coast to the Fort Clatsop National Monument, where they spent the winter of 1805-1806. The weather on the Oregon coast has changed little since Lewis and Clark's visit 174 years ago. During the winter, the region is fogbound, and it rains almost daily, as it did when Lewis and Clark were there. Where Lewis and Clark evaporated water to get salt, the coastal resort town of Seaside now stands, and each spring its boardwalks are crowded with legions of tourists. The place where Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea saw the whale is Cape Meares on Tillamook Bay, an area now known for its cheese.

Lewis and Clark's return trip is the same up to the town of Lolo Hot Springs. From there, Lewis's trail goes west through modern Missoula, Mont., into the still-roadless Flathead and Lewis and Clark national forests. Lewis's trail proceeds down the Sun River valley to Great Falls, Mont., and then retraces his westward journey back down the Missouri River to Buford, N. D. Clark's footsteps return the same way until reaching the town of Three Forks. From there, his footpath goes west along present-day Interstate 90 to the small cattle town of Livingston, Mont., and down the Yellowstone River valley, where cattle have replaced the once abundant buffalo herds, to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri at Buford. From that point on, Lewis and Clark's journey retraces the path they had originally taken westward.

Arriving back in civilization today, Lewis and Clark would first notice St. Louis's 630-ft.-high Gateway Arch on the eastern horizon and then a peculiar yellowish-brown overcast-smog, which was an unknown phenomenon in 1806. It is highly doubtful whether Lewis and Clark would recognize the suburbs and skyscrapers of modern St. Louis as the "village" to which they returned in 1806.

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