The Lewis and Clark Trail, from its beginning at Camp River Debois, a short distance upstream from St Louis, to the Corps of Discovery’s 1805-06 winter quarters at Fort Clatsop in present-day Oregon, offers today’s RVers an opportunity to experience unusually beautiful scenery and an exceptional sense of our country’s early history.
Unlike the Oregon Trail that would be traveled five decades later by hundreds of thousands of pioneers, the trail followed by Lewis and Clark retains little physical evidence of the historic journey. Fortunately, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and several members of the party kept amazingly detailed diaries (often, with equally amazing spelling). The diaries were supplemented with excellent drawings of animals and plants by Lewis and superb maps by Clark. The extensive information left by members of the corps allows today’s RVers to easily follow Lewis and Clark’s journey along either the outbound or return route.
Diary narratives, which can be found in numerous guidebooks, allow travelers to gain insight into the experiences of the explorers.
The Corps of Discovery required a year and a half, including six months at the winter camp in Fort Mandan, to reach the Pacific Ocean. Following six months of a miserably cold and wet winter at Fort Clatsop, the return to St. Louis required only six months. A large portion of the outbound trip was spent fighting the swift current of the Missouri River, the same force that provided an assist during the return to St Louis.
The greater time spent going west was also a result of exploring a new land and discovering new plants and wildlife that were to be described. The corps met and negotiated for supplies, horses, information, and friendship with numerous tribes of Native Americans along the way. These meetings were much shorter during the return trip.
Somewhat different routes were used during the outbound and return trips. In part the differences were due to the men learning about shortcuts from Indian tribes they encountered. In addition, Lewis and Clark decided to explore new territory during their return trip. For example, when the group returned to the western border of present-day Montana, Clark took a group and headed south so that they could explore land surrounding the Yellowstone River. Lewis and another group headed northeast to explore the Marias River that they believed might flow from Canada. The two groups met near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers near present-day Williston, North Dakota.
We chose to follow the Oregon Trail westward to Oregon City, Oregon, and return east by following the Corps of Discovery’s trail to St. Louis from their 1804-05 winter quarters at Fort Clatsop. All things considered, today’s travelers probably gain a better feel for the trip made by Lewis and Clark by following the outbound route that begins in St. Louis. However, if you plan to trace both the Oregon and the Lewis and Clark trails on the same trip, we suggest you follow the routes we took.
The Lewis and Clark route to the Pacific Ocean generally follows the Missouri River from just north of St. Louis to the Missouri’s headwaters in western Montana. Locating this site, known as Three Forks, was one of the major objectives given Lewis by President Thomas Jefferson. From the Missouri headwaters, the corps followed the Jefferson River (named by Lewis for the U.S. president who sent them) southwest before looping back north to the Clearwater River, which they then followed west to meet the Snake River and, eventually, the Columbia River that would carry them to the Pacific Ocean.
Today’s travelers can only imagine the hardships faced by members of the Corps of Discovery (including Sacagawea, her husband, Charbonneau, and their baby, Jean-Baptiste, all of whom joined the expedition at its 1804-05 winter camp in Fort Mandan of present-day North Dakota). They encountered blistering heat, freezing cold, impassable waterfalls, blizzards, near starvation and sickness. Two nearly constant irritants were mosquitoes and the prickly pear cactus. Members of the corps wore moccasins that provided minimal protection from spines of the cactus. Despite the suffering, the corps lost only a single member to death, and that was very early in the journey and most likely the result of a burst appendix. This is an amazing record considering the length of the trip and the difficulties experienced by the group.
Numerous museums, visitor centers and memorials are along the route, which is easy to follow using readily available maps and guidebooks. We are retired and traveled the route in about three weeks without reservations or a schedule, so we had plenty of time to visit most of the related locations and attractions. Our theory of travel is we can always learn something from someone who knows more about a topic than us. Each stop helped the two of us to better understand the expedition, its members, and the importance of points of interest along the way.
Good Starting Point
Several stops were particularly rewarding. On the waterfront in St. Louis, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the most recognized part of which is the famous Gateway Arch) is a perfect place to begin the journey. It is operated by the National Park Service. The underground Museum of Westward Expansion offers exhibits and films dedicated to the expedition. A ride to the top of the Gateway Arch is a must for first-time visitors. An interesting possibility is to stay overnight at the hotel in historic Union Station, a beautiful building full of shops and history. A tram station near the back of the train station provides transportation to a stop near the arch.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center operated by the U.S. Forest Service in Great Falls, Montana, is outstanding. Although we spent a couple of hours at the facility during a 2008 trip, we knew we had to return when more time was available. During the latest trip, we stayed two nights in Great Falls in order to allow the time the center deserved. We took a lunch and spent most of a day browsing exhibits, watching films, and listening to talks that provide great background for anyone following the trail of the Corps of Discovery. The location is appropriately near the series of falls that caused the expedition such grief. Rather than requiring an extra day to portage the one waterfall they expected to find, it took the men a month to portage 12 miles overland to avoid the series of five falls.
Places to Stay
The route used by Lewis and Clark followed a series of major rivers, so there is no shortage of campgrounds along the way. The Columbia River Valley offers one of the most scenic drives anywhere in the country, and the route is dotted with state parks and Corps of Engineers campgrounds on each side of the river. We have long considered Oregon’s state parks to be among the finest in the nation. The main downside to camping along the Columbia is the strong winds that result from the hot deserts to the east drawing cool Pacific air eastward through the valley.
Pleasant public campgrounds are also along the Missouri, Clearwater and Snake rivers that the Corps of Discovery used as highways between St. Louis and the Pacific. One of the most scenic portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail is along U.S. Highway 12 as it follows the Clearwater River across Idaho. The twisting drive is slow, but the scenery is unmatched. At one point on Highway 12 travelers can pause at the location where members of the Corps of Discovery hollowed out tree trunks harvested further down the river. The trunks were fashioned into canoes and used for the journey west of the Rockies. Lewis and Clark followed this same route on their return east.
We have enjoyed many trips across the U.S., but none more so than following the Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark Trail. The two trails begin and end in relatively close proximity making it convenient to trace both trails in a single trip.
We spent three weeks driving west along the Oregon Trail and three weeks returning east following the Lewis and Clark Trail. Each leg of the trip could have been done more quickly, but the experience certainly wouldn’t have been as enjoyable. We recommended that you don’t attempt to do both in less than a month.
David and Kay Scott are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges published by Globe Pequot. They reside in Valdosta, Georgia.
IF YOU GO:
Although it is not a guidebook, a good overview of the Lewis and Clark expedition can be found in Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose.
Traveling the Lewis & Clark Trail by Julie Fanselow is a good guidebook, especially helpful if the trip is traveled from east to west.
Lewis & Clark Timeline
• May 14, 1804: Corps of Discovery commences trip up the Missouri River.
• October 24, 1804: Encounters earth lodge villages and decide to build winter camp.
• November 4, 1804: Hires French-Canadian Charbonneau and wife, Sacagawea.
• February 11, 1805: Sacagawea gives birth to Jean Baptiste, a boy the men nickname “Pomp.”
• April 7, 1805: Corps of Discovery resumes the trip west.
• October 16,1805: Expedition reaches the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers.
• November 15, 1805: Meriwether Lewis first views the Pacific Ocean.
• December 8, 1805: Construction of Fort Clatsop begins.
• March 23, 1806: Expedition departs Fort Clatsop to begin the journey home.
• September 23, 1806: Corps of Discovery reaches St. Louis.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.
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