This thirteen-day trip is tailored to fit into a two-week vacation, which, including weekends, typically encompasses sixteen days. But most people will need to factor in several travel days at each end of the trip to drive from home to St. Louis, and from Astoria back home. Add a few more days to your vacation, if possible, or see a part of the trail this time, saving the remainder for another year. Another option might be flying to St. Louis, renting a vehicle, driving the trail to Oregon, and flying home from there.
Several shorter variations on this trip are possible. Some travelers may want to focus their explorations on the heart of the Lewis and Clark Trail, including sites from the first winter camp at Fort Mandan (in what is now North Dakota) to the Bitterroot Mountain crossing on the Montana/Idaho border. Such a journey is roughly outlined in Days Five through Ten above, but explorations along this part of the route could easily be expanded to fill two or more weeks.
Others may want to look more closely at Montana, the state with more miles of Lewis and Clark Trail than any other. The separate, homeward routes taken by the co-captains on their way east in 1806 are both well worth exploring. A side trip northwest from Great Falls traces Lewis' trek to Camp Disappointment and the Two Medicine Fight Site, an area within easy reach of Glacier National Park. Meanwhile, Clark's eastward route wound through the Big Hole basin of western Montana, past the old camp at Three Forks, and on down the Yellowstone River, closely paralleling I-90. A major landmark along the way, Pompey's Pillar, is the only place along the trail where actual physical evidence of the expedition's visit remains to this day.
When To Go
Much of the Lewis and Clark Trail lies in the High Plains and mountains of the West, where weather is typically unpredictable and often extreme. The best period for travel is probably mid-July through mid-September. Fortunately, the trail has plenty of indoor interpretive centers and attractions to help travelers pass the time should inclement weather strike.
Modern explorers may want to plan their trip to coincide with one of the annual Lewis and Clark festivals held along the trail. St. Charles, Missouri, stages and annual Lewis and Clark encampment the third weekend of May. Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa, holds its event the second weekend each June. Great Falls, Montana, celebrates its Lewis and Clark heritage later in June, and Cut Bank, Montana, holds its Lewis and Clark Days festival toward the end of each July.
How To Travel
There are two schools of thought on how to drive across America. Some folks like to take the major, limited-access highways and get where they are going as fast and as soon as possible. Others prefer the scenery and slower pace of secondary roads.
After thousands of miles spent researching American historic trails, I've come to the conclusion that it's best to mix secondary roads and major highways. I take secondary highways and backroads most of the time, but every once in a while when I get tired of dodging farm machinery and watching for dogs and children by the roadside, or if I need to make a little time, having dawdled a little too long I get on an interstate.
But remember: the joy of discovery most often comes far from the interstates and large cities, and that is what a modern-day journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail is all about. You won't see many chic boutiques, trendy restaurants, or tourist traps along this route. What you will find is land, water, wind, mountains and people who stubbornly find ways to love where life isn't too easy.
Of the 7,500 miles traveled by Lewis and Clark, nearly 6,000 miles were traveled on water. For that reason, modern explorers should attempt to include at least one (and preferably more) river trips on their own journey. Many scheduled boat rides such as those at Bismarck, North Dakota; the Gates of the Mountains near Helena, Montana; and the sternwheeler Columbia Gorge at Cascade Locks, Washington last just a few hours and are easily worked into most travel itineraries. Others, notably excursions on Montana's Wild and Scenic Missouri River, require at least a full day and can take up to a week. However much time you can give to river exploration will be time well spent.
In many cases, two or more roads parallel the waterways followed by Lewis and Clark. When planning a trip, write in advance to the state transportation departments and request free highway maps and state visitors guides below. Use a highlighter pen and, with the help of this web page and the visitors guides, map out the route that looks most interesting.
Most of the areas described in this book are easily accessible with any passenger car or truck in good working condition. In a few locations, however, it is wise to inquire locally before setting out. Roads can be closed part of the year, and some roads, notably Lemhi Pass and the Lolo Motorway, are not suitable for RVs or vehicles towing large trailers. It's also smart to outfit your vehicle with the following: dashboard compass, working odometer, full-size spare tire and jack, gasoline can, shovel, axe, and basic emergency kit including flashers. Once on the road, pay attention to the gas gauge: It's a long way between filling stations in many parts of the West.
Where To Stay; What To Eat
The Lewis and Clark Trail primarily runs through small-town and rural America. Lodging options are limited along a few stretches, so it pays to do some advance planning. The trip outlined above recommend overnight stops in places where motels and campgrounds are fairly plentiful. Because of its distance from urban America, a Lewis and Clark Trail vacation is quite affordable. Larger cities along the route typically offer a mixture of chain motels and mom-and-pop inns. Smaller towns usually have at least one locally owned motel. These can be a great bargain, often less than thirty dollars a night for a double. Reservations are a good idea in some areas, especially the Oregon/Washington coast and Montana's larger towns. In general, however, finding a room before 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. shouldn't pose much trouble.
Consider camping along at least part of the trail. Aside from being economical, camping affords a better taste of what it was like for the Corps of Discovery after all, Lewis and Clark and company sure didn't have their choice of motels in 1804. Camping options range from RV parks to primitive, pick-your-own sites in the national forests. You might even choose to sleep in a tepee or fire lookout.
Quite a few small towns along the Lewis and Clark route have municipal parks that offer free or very low-cost camping to tourists passing through. Many are well posted at the entrances to town. As much as possible, I've noted the presence of these parks throughout the text of this book.
Travelers can save money by packing a cooler full of sandwiches, drinks, and snacks. But part of the fun of traveling is eating in restaurants at least once in a while. When the time comes, consider sampling some regional cuisine: catfish in Missouri, buffalo burgers on the Great Plains, huckleberry pie in western Montana and Idaho, and seafood in the Northwest.
More complete lists of hotels, motels, campgrounds, and restaurants are available from state and local tourism bureaus, many of which have toll-free phone numbers for information. State tourism offices are listed later in this chapter, and many local offices are noted throughout the book.
Go back to Retracing the Voyage of Discovery, Part I
Move on to Retracing the Voyage of Discovery, Part III .