On their return from the Pacific, the Corps of Discovery split up on 3 July 1806. William Clark took his party to the Jefferson River. Sergeant Ordway and nine men would follow it to the Missouri and eventually to the confluence with the Yellowstone River. Clark’s remaining men headed for the Yellowstone and followed it to the Missouri.
Meriwether Lewis made a direct overland route to the Great Falls of the Missouri. Lewis’ journal said:
- [. . .] the road which they (Nez Perce) shewed me. . . would lead up the East branch of Clark’s river and a river called Cokahlarishkit (Lewis mistranscribed, “Qoq’aalx’Iskit”), or the river of the road to buffaloe and thence . . . the falls of the Missouri where we wished to go. They alleged that as the road was a well beaten track we could not now miss our way. July 3, 1806
The “well beaten” track was the result of generations of Indians and travois coming and going from buffalo country on the plains. It must have been easy to follow. Within four days, Lewis’ contingent traveled over 70 miles, crossing “Smitu Sx cu si,” or Indian Fort Pass. Indian Fort Pass, named by the Salish, referred to small stone forts used to watch for Blackfeet warriors. The pass is now known as Lewis and Clark Pass, although Clark never saw it.
The modern explorer can mirror Lewis’ path. From Missoula, Montana, take Interstate 90 south about five miles to the Bonner Exit. Take Montana Highway 200 toward Great Falls. Highway 200 parallels much of the Buffalo Road until it reaches Lander’s Fork, 7 miles east of Lincoln, Montana.
Buffalo Road followed Lander’s Fork a short distance, then crossed a ridge to Alice Creek. Today’s discoverers can take the Alice Creek road (about three miles beyond Lander’s Fork) off Highway 200 to the trailhead, eleven miles distant. The road is passable by all vehicles, but the last four miles is one lane and has potholes. The trailhead has several kiosks that describe the Buffalo Road, Lewis’s journey over the pass and the first settlers in the area. The more adventuresome may want to take the mile-and-a-half hike to the pass. Although good trail, it is an uphill climb. Those in average physical condition, taking their time, can complete the round-trip in 2 hours.
Looking southeast on “Smitu Sx cu si,” or Indian Fort Pass, today’s Lewis and Clark Pass.
If you hike remember it’s grizzly country--take precautions. While not as fearsome, ticks are present, especially in spring and early summer. For more information see:
Bear Safety - Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Ticks - Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Forest Service sign on Lewis and Clark Pass, elevation 6000.
Private ranches deny public access east of Lewis and Clark Pass, but you can approximate Lewis’ journey by returning to Highway 200, crossing the Continental Divide at Roger’s Pass and taking County Road 434 below the pass. The road closely parallels Lewis’ journey from today’s Highway 200 to present-day Augusta, Montana. Road 434 is safe for all travel unless there has been a heavy rain. Stretches of mud road become impassable to all except four-wheel drives. All-weather travel can be accomplished on US Highway 287, which intersects 200 several miles past 434.
Looking west, up Torrant River (Dearborn) a mile or two above where Lewis’ group crossed.
Lewis probably crossed the Torrant River a mile or two below the picturesque high bridge on the Dearborn River. At the time, Lewis was unaware that the Torrant River was the Dearborn River he had named 18 July 1805 on the westward leg.
As you top out of Dearborn canyon, Shishequaw Mountain--one of Lewis’ navigation points--can be seen 10 miles distant. Modern maps list Shishequaw Mountain as “Haystack Butte.”
Looking west from County Road 434 to Shishequaw Mountain (Haystack Butte). It perfectly fits Lewis’ description, “a high conic mountain standing several miles in advance of the Eastern range of the rocky mountains. 8 July 1806”.
County Road 434 becomes asphalt, and crosses Shishequaw Creek, later called South Fork (for South Fork of the Sun River), and is now called Elk Creek. Lewis followed Shishequaw Creek to the Medicine River. In earlier times, Medicine River was called “Pile of Rocks River,” and is now called the Sun River.
Lewis’s party traveled along the Medicine River to the Missouri and camped several days on White Bear Island, one of their previous camps.
This phase can be approximated by taking Highway 21 to Simms, turning left on Montana Highway 200 to Vaughn and finishing the trip to Great Falls on Interstate 15.
Lewis remarked in his journal that he saw buffalo everywhere near the Missouri:
- [ . . ] it is now the season at which the buffaloe begin to coppelate and the bulls keep a tremedious roaring we could hear them for many miles and there are such numbers of them that there is one continual roar. our horses had not been acquainted with the buffaloe they appeared much alarmed at their appearance and bellowing. When I arrived in sight of the whitebear islands the Missouri bottoms on both sides of the river were crouded with buffaloe I sincerely belief that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of 2 miles around that place. 11 July 1806
Lewis noticed large herds of buffalo and the bluffs on either side of the river, but may not have connected the two. The bluffs on the south side of the river (your right going toward Great Falls) were called pishkuns, or buffalo jumps. Twenty pishkuns rise between Shishequaw Creek (Elk Creek) and the Missouri. Native American hunters stampeded buffalo over these cliffs. The north-side bluffs were rarely used. Prevailing wind is from the southwest, and buffalo hunters relied on their scent, carried by the wind, to panic the beasts.
The pishkun located between Great Falls, Ulm and Vaughn Montana has been made a day-use park, called First Peoples Buffalo Jump. To get there travel 10 miles south of Great Falls on Interstate 15, exit at Ulm, turn right and go 3.5 miles on the Ulm-Vaughn road.
Discoverers can find two more interesting sights in Great Falls that relate to the Corps of Discovery:
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
4201 Giant Springs Road
Great Falls, MT 59405
The Interpretive Center has displays, dioramas, and events that relate directly to the Corps of Discovery.
C. M. Russell Museum
400 13th Street North
Great Falls, MT 59401
The Russell Museum houses works of the late Charles M. Russell, renowned cowboy artist. His paintings, sculptures, illustrated postcards and letters cover subjects from cowboys, to Indians, to Lewis and Clark and before.
In three days your personal Corps of Discovery can retrace eight days of Lewis’ journey and connect with hundreds of years of pre-European, pre-Montana history.
Text and photos copyrighted 14 June 2009, by Dennis A Carroll.
More Montana Outdoors, Montana Elk Hunting, and a little humor can be found at Montana Elk Hunting.