Late in the day on 19 July 1805, Lewis and his party entered a canyon with "the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen." They seemed to rise "from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet," and the entire scene wore "a dark and gloomy aspect." "From the singular appearance of this place," Lewis called it "the gates of the rocky mountains"—one of only 17 place names that have survived from the 128 new names they inscribed on their maps of what is now Montana.
Having approached the cliffs in the evening, Lewis can be forgiven for inaccuracy in his observations. The "clifts" were only half as high as he thought, they were not black granite but pale gray limestone seen in the deepening shadows of the setting sun, and the mountaintops out of sight behind him rose two thousand feet above his head.
"The river appears to have forced it's way through this immence body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 miles," Lewis observed. Journal editor Nicholas Biddle paraphrased him, with almost mystical overtones: "The convulsion of the passage must have been terrible, since at its outlet are vast columns of rock, torn from the mountain, which are strewn on both sides of the river—the trophies, as it were, of a victory."
Clark, following an Indian trail on foot, missed the whole experience. Beyond the cliffs to the right, he and his detail were suffering from blistered feet, worsened by prickly pear cactus spines and sharp "flint" rocks. Their physical discomfort was overshadowed, however, by the disquieting evidence that unknown Indians—friendly Shoshones, they hoped—had recently passed that way.
From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark
Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press