Motor Ways

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Bowl Butte, Lolo Trail

Eroded gully on Bowl Butte

© 2002 Steve F. Russell

This heavily eroded area was created during the 18th century when herds of horses that had dispersed on the flat ridgetop grouped-up to climb the narrow trail up the steepening ridge toward the summit of Bowl Butte.

Trail abandonment accelerated after the completion of the Lolo Divide Road, now known as the Lolo Motorway. The ancient Road to the Buffalo of the Nez Perce had been abandoned in 1866 with the completion of the Bird-Truax Trail. Now it was the Bird-Truax Trail's turn to be abandoned after the completion of the Lolo Motorway in 1934. The abandonment of all but essential recreation access trails accelerated with hastened road building and the extensive use of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to fight fires. After 1934, the Lolo Motorway, and trails extending north and south from it into the North Fork and Lochsa River drainages, became the major transportation access into the region. The largest users were big game hunters and outfitters. They still maintain many segments of the old Nez Perce and Forest Service trails and some of these hunter trails are very well worn.

The first automobile road on the east end led only as far as Lolo Hot Springs. The major road-building explosion came after the turn of the 20th century, when the Forest Service needed access roads for fire suppression and timber harvest. These roads were to replace the old trail system in many areas. The ease with which one-lane dirt roads could be constructed got a big boost with the invention of the bulldozer in the 1920s. This tracked vehicle with a blade on the front could be used to build roads at a furious pace compared with older methods using only hand tools.

The first road completed along the approximate route of Lewis and Clark was the Lolo Motorway, finally making a reality out of President Jefferson's vision of a "portage" for the Lewis and Clark route. Additional Forest Service roads were built off this mainline road to access lookout sites and administrative sites.

The road system of the 1930s remained quite static along the Lolo Trail until disease started attacking the forest. The extensive logging road system on the west end was spurred along by the devastation of the White Pine with blister rust and the demand for timber in the housing boom following World War II. An equivalent road system on the east end began after the invasion of the Spruce bud worm necessitated the harvest of vast areas of timber along the Lochsa and North Fork branches of the Clearwater River. These road systems made the older trail systems obsolete except for occasional hunter use.

Trails Today: Technology, Recreation, and Preservation

Today, the ancient Nez Perce trail, abandoned and largely forgotten, still winds its way along the ridges and through the saddles of the Bitterroot Mountains. Its historic erosion trace is seldom used now except by the occasional hunter or game animal. A few short segments have eroded away but most are just brush-choked. It can still be found throughout most of its entire 93-mile length.

Lolo Motorway at Bald Mountain

Lolo motorway: a one-lane gravel road

© 1990 Steve F. Russell

Looking eastward along the Lolo Motorway on the southeast slope near the summit of Bald Mountain.

We now honor this great road with the designation of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. In 2002 and 2003, the Idaho State Historical Society, with the help of a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Assistance Grant, conducted a precision GPS survey of this trail. The Idaho State Historic Preservation Office has a GIS database of the trail location to within 1-2 meters. This work documents the exact location of the historic trail for future generations.

The Bird-Truax Trail has been designated as the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and about forty miles of it is now opened and being managed as a recreation trail. In several locations, the Bird-Truax and ancient Nez Perce trails are co-located and the forest visitor can enjoy hiking or horseback riding on the exact trail tread used by ancient people and famous explorers of the past.

The completion of Highway 12 in 1960 was the last major chapter in the transportation history of the Lolo Trail. Today, modern vehicles take an afternoon to travel the same distance that the Corps of Discovery traveled in several days. Days of privation and subsistence on roots and bear grease have given way to luxurious travel in motor homes and consumption of snack foods and bottled drinks.

In the twenty-first century, recreation interests and preservation interests will compete, creating issues that play a major role in the management of these historic trails.Opening them and managing them to modern standards would destroy their historic nature, and yet some opening and management needs to be done so the public can have access to them and have a quality historical experience on public land. This is an issue that is still being debated.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee