On the Bitterroot Divide

Saddle Mountain and the Lost Trail

To see labels, point to the image.

Interactive aerial photo labeling the Lost Trail Pass divide

© 2002 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

Clark's Map

North Fork to Lost Trail Pass

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Interactive map labeling Clark's writing

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Gary E. Moulton, ed., Atlas map 68.

This photograph, looking west-southwest (250° from true north), was taken in May of 2002. The blackened areas were burned in August of 2000, but dense green ground cover has already begun to grow again among the blackened and scorched trees. The burned area shown here was but a small portion of the Valley Complex Fire, which was a joining-together of a number of separate lightening-caused blazes into the largest single forest fire in the Northwest that season. It started on July 31, 2000, and was finally extinguished by high-country rain and snow on the 3rd of October, having burned a total of 292,070 acres, or 456 square miles. Three other major fires in central Idaho that year burned a total of 925 square miles of forest and grassland, for a total of 1381 square miles blackened.

Clark's exploration of the Salmon River ended about thirty air-miles from this mountain, at about the center of the picture and somewhat this side of the highest peaks. The road winding through the left foreground of the picture is a forest access road that originally was built for hauling logs to market, and now is used for recreational purposes as well as for resource management, such as the salvage of burned timber and the replanting of trees.

Lost Trail Pass, which the Corps probably did not see, is out of the photo at lower left, two miles east-southeast of the highest point of the ridge. U.S. Highway 93 crosses the Bitterroot Divide there at an elevation of 7014 feet above sea level. It was not named to memorialize Old Toby's error, but because the surveyors who laid out the highway route around 1910 were said to have gotten temporarily confused as to where they were one day. Another mile east of Lost Trail Pass, Montana Highway 43, which intersects with U.S. 93 on the pass, crosses the Continental Divide via Chief Joseph Pass at 7264 feet.

The familiar route the Indians were accustomed to would have led them back across the Continental Divide into an upper Missouri River drainage and then back to Western waters. But the captains had already come many days and miles out of their way to reach the Shoshones, the end of the travel season was nearing, and the Pacific Ocean was still far away. It seems that the captains simply refused to take a single step that would not carry them forward toward their objective.

All we know for certain about their route on September 2, 3 and 4 is that it was extremely difficult and hazardous. Early on the 2nd they had to fight their way through dense underbrush and over rocky terrain. Their horses were continually in danger of "Slipping to Ther certain distruction . . . Several horses fell, Some turned over, and others Sliped down Steep hill sides." None of the horses were shod, so the risk of lameness was always present, and indeed, as Clark wrote, the party suffered "one horse Crippeled . . . 2 gave out." Gass added "a good deal of rain" drenched them that afternoon. Then the canyon became so narrow that they were "obiged to go up the sides of the hills . . . and then down again in order to get along at all." In short, it was "the worst road (if road it can be called) that was ever travelled." One of their horses was "so badly hurt that the driver was obliged to leave his load on the side of one of the hills."

The next day was worse. The weather turned against them, and visibility must have been close to zero at times. At least one student of the eisode believes that they might unknowingly have walked along the nearby Continental Divide and through the saddle now known as Lost Trail Pass. By evening, Clark recalled, "Snow [was] about 2 inches deep when it began to rain which termonated in a Sleet." The going was still rough and steep, and now slippery too. No mention is made of it, but the wet snow probably balled up on the horses' hooves and caused them to stumble every so often.1 Water dribbled from every branch of every tree, sluiced from every bush and blade of grass. Their sopping-wet leather clothing sponged life-warmth out of their bodies daylong and nightlong. They could only have survived by force of will and sense of mission. And they did.

Bushwhacking through 'the place'

Forest with dense underbrush on Lost Trail Pass

© 1997 VIAs Inc.

It was a balmy Indian-summer day in September of 1997 when some 20 men and women followed five experts on "the September 3rd campsite" puzzle up and down the west-facing slopes southeast of Saddle Mountain. Each of those five held his own carefully developed theory of where the Corps walked that day, and where they camped. Two or more agreed on some points, but no two agreed on all. Yet their differences were not far apart, either logically or geographically. All of the possible campsites lay within about one sloping square mile of sub-alpine forest.2

Three of the leaders are pictured here, warm and dry, bushwhacking through the forest where one or more of the five believed those wet, cold and exhausted young men—as well as young Sacagawea and her six-month-old baby boy!—huddled that stormy night in the snow and sleet. If this really was "the place," then doubtless the largest of those fallen dead trees were standing tall and strong above them that night.

More than likely, the precise location of the Corps' camp on September 3, 1805, will never be known. The journalists' records, which more than likely were recollections written some time later, are brief, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory. They clearly indicate that the men were not following a well-used Indian road, nor even a way that Indian travelers would have chosen under any circumstances. The dense forest, the steep, narrow draws they climbed up and down, and the stormy weather that cloaked the mountains those two days prevented them from referencing distant landmarks that we might now use to reconstruct their journey during those few miserable hours.


The Corps camped at the head of the creek they had been following that day, although it was "not the creek our guide wished to have come upon," according to Sgt. Gass.3 Unrelieved hunger made the cold almost unendurable.

After a night of what could only have been a shivering, fitful rest from bushwhacking, they wakened on the 4th with their moccasins frozen. Their fingers aching with the cold, they packed their horses, quickly breakfasted on a little parched corn, and "ascended the mountain on to the dividing ridge and followed it Some time." Descending steeply between the two forks of Camp Creek into the East Fork valley of the Bitterroot River (their "Clark's River") that afternoon they came upon a large band of Salish people—"Tushepau," or "Flat head" Indians, as the captains learned to call them. The Indians were camped in the little mountain valley, or "hole," which bears the name of the well-known Canadian who camped there for a month with his company of free trappers only nineteen years later, Alexander Ross.

Saddle Mountain Viewpoint

View looking down the north side of Lost Trail Pass

© VIAs inc.

It was 19° above zero at sunrise on the fourth, but the sky had cleared. From this, the high point on Bitterroot Divide, the Corps' view down the headwaters of the Bitterroot River toward the northeast looked very much like this, except that the higher elevations were white with a few inches of new snow—"over our mockasons in places," according to Ordway. If the Corps could see smoke from the Salish camp down in the valley, none of the journalists mentioned it.


1. On May 10, 1806, when the Corps was recrossing the Bitterroot Mountains, Clark mentioned that problem: "the road was Slipry and the Snow Cloged and caused the horses to trip very frequently."

2. James R. Fazio, ed., with Robert N. Bergantino, J. Wilmer Rigty, Hadley B. Roberts, Steve F. Russell, and James R. Wolf, "The Mystery of Lost Trail Pass: A Quest for Lewis and Clark's Campsite of September 3, 1805," WPO [We Proceeded On] Publication No. 14 (February 2000), Great Falls, Montana: Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc.

3. Gass's quote of Old Toby's apology may be the very thing that has driven serious students and scholars of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to devote so much attention to the whereabouts of the Corps of Discovery on September 3–4, 1805. Elliott Coues (1893) enhanced Nicholas Biddle's (1814) straightforward narrative of the Corps' experience by summarizing the journal entries and devoting a long word-picture to the distinction between the Bitterroot Divide and the Continental Divide. Olin Wheeler (1904) focused more on the journalists' ambiguities regarding the descent into the Bitterroot River drainage, and the location of the Salish camp. Reuben Thwaites(1904) ignored the question of the campsite, simplified the route on the two days in two short sentences, and quoted Wheeler on the rest.

Local interest kept the matter on the fringes of historical awareness for several decades until 1958, when an Idaho State University professor, John E. Rees, published "The Shoshoni Contribution to Lewis and Clark," in Idaho Yesterdays, Vol. 2 (Summer 1958): 2–13. Serious interest gained more momentum six years later with the work of the Boise, Idaho, engineer, John J. Peebles, who published "Rugged Waters: Trails and Campsites of Lewis and Clark in the Salmon River Country," Idaho Yesterdays 8 (Summer 1964): 2–17. Upon those systematic foundations a substantial body of serious studies has been built, which continues to spawn its own extensions.

Actually, the locale of the September 3–4 routes and camp is much easier to determine than many other Lewis and Clark ways and stopping paces. Perhaps the probability that the terrain still appears much as it did in 1805 is what makes this otherwise irrelevant little puzzle so enticing. Also, the fact that it's all public land makes it easy to study.