July 7: Continental Divide

Lewis & Clark Pass

To see labels, point to the photo.

Interactive image labeling a pass through the mountains as seen from the air

© 2003 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

Lewis's route from so-called Lewis and Clark Pass (even though Clark never was here) to the Sun ("Medicine") River and down to the Falls of the Missouri is perhaps one of the least known and, because much of it crosses private property, the least-often retraced in the entire itinerary of the Corps of Discovery. This view looks northwest into the heart of the Northern Rockies, where the higher peaks average eight to nine thousand feet MSL.


Lewis's Route

Lewis's route drawn on a modern topographic map

TOPO!® © 2000 National Geographic

Sergeant Gass recorded that on the seventh of July, 1806, Lewis's detachment took a three-hour lunch break—their word was "dinner"—somewhere on Alice Creek, then proceeded four more miles up that drainage, "when we came to the dividing ridge between the waters of the Missouri and Columbia." They "passed over the ridge and came to a fine spring the waters of which run into the Missouri." After another mile or so, according to Gass, they "turned a north course along the side of the dividing ridge for eight miles, passing a number of small streams or branches." Even with time out for a long lunch, they covered an estimated 32 miles before settling in for the night at 9:00 p.m.


View eastward toward the plains from above Lewis & Clark Pass

Aerial view of high foothills and plains

© 2003 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

Lewis claimed that from the gap on the dividing ridge he could see "fort mountain"—Square Butte—to the northeast, "distant about 20 miles." It may be among the indistinct heights on the hazy horizon at the photo's left margin, but it is actually almost twice that far from the pass. Once again, the normally dry atmosphere of the northern plains had led him to underestimate distances.


Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust