Monday, April 29, 2013

Lolo Pass Highway Traces Lewis & Clark Route

The Clearwater River over Lolo Pass
U.S. Highway 12, which goes through Lolo Pass, follows the route of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery through northern Idaho.

Because of this, Highway 12, which ends in neighboring Washington State, is sometimes called the Lewis &Clark Highway. The 175-mile stretch through northcentral Idaho is also known as the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. Lolo Pass, toward the eastern end of the route, is the highest point along the way with an elevation of more than 5,000 feet.

Route Follows Lewis and Clark Trail

The route is very scenic as the highway follows the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers the two explorers came down in 1805 as they traveled from Missouri, seeking out a route to the Pacific Ocean. The mission was ordered by President Thomas Jefferson who, two years earlier, had completed the Louisiana Purchase of what is now the western United States.

Their journey through Idaho starts about 12 miles south of present-day Missoula, Montana, and ends at Lewiston, on the border with Washington, where the Clearwater River pours into the Snake River.

Lewis and Clark took 11 days to make the trip from the road’s start to Kamiah, where they spent six weeks building the canoes that would take them westward. Modern travelers can drive this section in just a few hours. Though the route isn’t very long, it’s filled with twists and turns that defy high speeds. Indeed, travelers in a hurry to get from Montana to Washington should stick to Interstate 90 to the north to cross the Idaho Panhandle.

Highway 12 is close to the route the two explorers took, but for those who require a more authentic route, Forest Road 500 is available through the Clearwater National Forest. Because the unpaved road isn’t in that great of condition, Forest Service officials say only vehicles which have high clearance should attempt this route. Trailers are not allowed on it. The sites where the expedition camped are still used by hike-in campers today.

Indians Were There First

Before Lewis and Clark arrived on the scene, the trail was used by the Nez Perce Indians. The tribe called it "Khusahna Ishikit" which translates as “buffalo trail.” The Nez Perce taught expedition members how to make canoes for the final legs of their journey. The expedition camped with the tribe for six weeks on their return journey.

Just over 70 years later, the trail became famous again, though not for happy reasons. In 1877, Nez Perce Chief Joseph led his band on a tragic march through Idaho and Montana, almost to the border with Canada, when he uttered his famous “I will fight no more forever” speech.

Modern Travelers on the Highway

Highway 12 through Idaho was completed in 1960. It is a road is to be traveled at a slow pace to savor the scenic beauty of the Bitterroot Mountains. Rushing it is not advised because of the 67 curves on one 99-mile stretch of the road. It is these curves that make the road a favorite with motorcycle riders.

Motorists should make sure they have sufficient fuel for the trip, as there are no gas stations Kooskia, Idaho, and Lolo, Montana.

The Lolo Pass Visitor Center is open most of the year. In the winter months, it sells parking permits to cross-country skiers and snowmachiners.

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