Montanans' love of history runs deep. Even before Montana became a state in 1889, there was a historical society. The people who established Montana's political and social structure were keenly aware of the importance of history. They knew that history preserved and properly interpreted is an essential tool for public understanding and appreciation of this special land. As a result of this awareness, Montana is able to provide visitors with excellent opportunities to experience the history of the western frontier, its lifestyle and the people who lived it.
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Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
This historic site celebrates the heroic expedition of the Corps of Discovery, led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark. Thirty-three people traveled with them into unknown territory, starting near what is now known as Wood River, Illinois, in 1804, reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and returning in 1806. Today's 3,700-mile trail follows their route as closely as possible given the changes over the years. Because the intrepid explorers spent more time in Montana than any other state, the state has 2,000 miles of trail and attractions that interpret their deeds. Nearly 25 percent of the entire Lewis & Clark Trail, as well as almost half of the recognized campsites, are in Montana.
Today, much of the Montana landscape that Lewis and Clark crossed remains unchanged. From solitary sandstone through river canyons to mountain meadows, Montana’s rivers and highways flow past scores of landmarks related to the expedition.
Glasgow and the Milk River
The Milk River heads at St. Mary’s Lake in Glacier Park and flows north into Canada. Meandering north of the border, it skirts the town of Milk River and then enters Montana north of Havre. From there it flows east, converging with the Missouri River at Fort Peck. Just as in the time of Lewis and Clark, white-tailed deer, upland game birds and a host of songbirds, furbearers and numerous small mammals can be seen in the area during much of the year.
"The grandest sight I had ever beheld," wrote Meriwether Lewis on June 13, 1805, as he got his first look at the Great Falls of the Missouri. There were actually four sets of falls: Black Eagle, Rainbow, Crooked and the Great Falls, each with a beauty all its own. The Corps of Discovery had plenty of time to "enjoy" the sites during a grueling portage around them. Today, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center commemorates and explains the expedition’s daring escapades.
Gates of the Mountains (Helena)
The evening of July 19, 1805, was a hot one in the territory that would later become Montana. On the Missouri River, not far north of the present state capital, the hardy members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition toiled to move upstream. Rock embankments made towing from shore impossible, and the deep channel forced the men to row rather than pole their boats forward.
Suddenly, there loomed before them towering rock formations unlike any they had ever seen. From both sides of the river, limestone cliffs rose to a spectacular height of 1,200 feet. "In many places," wrote Meriwether Lewis, "the rocks seem ready to tumble on us." At each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage, only to open like gentle giant gates as the expedition drew near. In his journal, Lewis wrote: "I shall call this place: Gates of the Mountains."
The name stuck, and for nearly two centuries travelers have ventured down this stretch of the Missouri to marvel at its natural wonders. The "Gates" are located about 20 miles north of Helena. The canyon area is only accessible by water or by traveling more than a dozen miles over trails through the Helena National Forest and Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.
Missouri Headwaters (Three Forks)
The Missouri headwaters area (the convergence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers) forms the 2,300-mile Missouri River. This was a geographical focal point important to early Native Americans trappers, traders and settlers. Coveting the region’s bountiful resources, the Flathead, Bannock and Shoshone Indians competed for control of the area, as did the trappers and settlers who followed. Considering it an essential point in the geography of this western part of the continent, Meriwether Lewis wrote that the country opens suddenly to extensive and beautiful plains and meadows, which appear to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains. The legendary Sacagawea was captured here as a child and eventually returned as a member of the Corps of Discovery. Missouri Headwaters State Park preserves much of the region’s abundant wildlife, lush vegetation and scenic beauty, which have attracted people for thousands of years.
Beaverhead Rock (Dillon)
Sacagawea recognized this huge landmark, resembling the head of a swimming beaver, while traveling with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site is 4,949 feet in elevation and 71 acres in size. The site is undeveloped and unsigned, and is designated a primitive park. There are no fees to visit.
Lolo Hot Springs
This area is the gateway to the Bitterroot Valley and was an important junction in western history. The pass was used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition en route to the Pacific. The Nez Perce Indians had used it for generations as a buffalo trail before the explorers’ arrival. Visit the Lolo Pass Visitor Information Center on U.S. Highway 12 near the Idaho/Montana border to learn more about the historic Lolo Trail.