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Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 21

September 5, 2013

Day 21: Across the Great Divide: Over the Lemhi Pass to Salmon, Idaho     (August 16)

Our goal today is to go across the Continental Divide by way of the Lemhi Pass, just as Lewis and Clark had. Today is August 16th. They came this way on August 17th. Neat.

This is our goal, but there are warnings everywhere that the road is narrow, unpaved, and steep. On portions, vehicles over 24 feet are not even permitted (we are exactly 24 feet – do we count?). After our experience on Needle’s Highway, we are cautious. So, our first stop this morning was for coffee, gas and then a visit to the Montana State Park Ranger’s Office for advice. We were assured that we would be fine. We’ve heard that before, nevertheless we committed ourselves to the journey and set out.

On the way we passed through Clark Canyon Dam, south of Dillon, Montana. In August, 1805, near Dillon, Sacagawea spotted a rock that looked like a beaver’s head. At this point, she knew she was near home and her people were close. (We will visit Beaverhead Rock on our return trip). Lewis and Clark were desperate to make contact with the Shoshone, because without the aid and horses which they could supply, the Corps had no chance of crossing the mountains or surviving the winter. Several days later, while camping at the foot of the mountains, Meriwether Lewis spotted several Shoshone women and contact was made. Here Sacagawea was reunited with her best friend (the girl whom she was with when she was kidnapped) and with her brother Cameahwait, now the Shoshone Chief. In honor of their good luck, Lewis and Clark named this spot Camp Fortunate.



Nine miles past the Dam we left the paved road. Noelle and August stopped to eat, and I walked the first couple of miles up the pass by myself. The wind was powerful, blowing dust into my eyes, so I wrapped a bandana around my face, pulled my hat down low, and walked by the sounds and smells of the fierce hot air. Several women from the ranch through which I was walking stopped to ask if I was ok, and one thought I was a little crazy to be walking in such heat. It was hot.


Eventually Noelle and August caught up with me, and for the next thirteen miles we continued climbing into the mountains until we reached The Lemhi Pass, the highest point the Corps of Discovery would achieve.


Just before reaching the top, a side road allows one to visit what Meriwether Lewis called “the most distant spring.” This is the origin of the Great Muddy Missouri River and the goal of our adventure. Two weeks ago we had stood beside the Missouri River where it flows into the Mississippi. We have camped along it in Missouri, South Dakota, and Montana, and viewed it from Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. We have travelled upon it and swam within it. Here finally is the spring from which it all begins.

Two stones allow one to stand astride the water without damaging the ground. It was the high point of the trip for me to be able to sand here with Noelle and August and to dip my hands and drink from the cold water, imagining the long journey ahead for the water that trickled through my fingers.


After my cool drink, August led us on a hike. A long, imaginative hike full of danger and discovery.


Lemhi Pass had long been used by the Shoshone and Nez Perce to move between the Bitterroot Valley and the Western Plains. It was well known the Sacagawea, who had last crossed it before being kidnapped. It rolls gently but steadily upward. The Lemhi Pass also coincides with parts of the 3000 mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Evidence of First Nation pilgrims was everywhere (notice the ribbon in the tree). These ribbons are respected everywhere.


A couple hundred feet above the “most distant spring” is a marker denoting the Continental Divide, the line dividing the waters that flow east and the waters that flow west. Standing at this point, we could see water on one side of us flowing down toward the Pacific Ocean, and on the other, water which would ultimately flow through New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico. Cool!


This moment was sublime. And we lingered. It certainly deserves two photos.


Of course, it was all downhill from there. There is a 13 mile dirt road leading down into Idaho. This is the road NOT travelled. We took the longer unpaved road (exactly twice as long, 26 miles), which was exciting enough. Still narrow and steep, but negotiable.



The trip down was amazingly beautiful and breathtaking. We took our time. Along the way we met lots of cows, and even got out to take a walk with some of them. We also stopped for grouse and for deer.


As I said, this was certainly the high point of our trip. Once down the mountain we picked up the Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway, and then the Sacagawea Scenic Highway, and then followed the Nez Perce National Historic Trail as far as Salmon, Idaho. Idaho is the fifteenth and final state we will visit on Our Lewis and Clark trip this year. And we apparently completely forgot we had a camera. Though our day is far from finished, we have no more pictures.

We stopped for dinner in Salmon at a place Noelle discovered through online reviews called The Junkyard Bistro. Here is what she wrote on Facebook.

So I want to back up and say if anyone is ever in Salmon, Idaho, you MUST MUST MUST eat at the Junkyard Bistro. Fabulous, inventive range of delectable food and a very reasonable and decent wine selection. I had the garlic burger which is their specialty – it was better than filet minon. Jeff had a tapas of smoked salmon and potato gnocchi with Alfredo w prosciutto. August had homemade macaroni and cheese. Every dish was wonderful. We were talking about flying to Missoula and heading west at some point to finish the Lewis and Clark Trail. If we do, I’m mandating a detour to Salmon so I can eat here again!

I ate salmon in Salmon, and potatoes in Idaho. Woo hoo.

After dinner, August and I walked down to the Salmon River, shed our shoes, and walked out till the waters were up to our knees in the powerful current. Fighting to stand in one place, we imagined ourselves as salmon, swimming our way upstream, and then we imagined ourselves great hungry bears, feasting to our delight. It was mostly stones under the water, so we were able to put our socks and shoes back on without the complication of mud. But it was COLD!

This was a long day, one of our longest. Having no plan for how it would end, Noelle and August went to sleep in the back of “West Crasher,” our RV, and I turned on the GPS and headed into the Bitterroot Valley, figuring I would find a place to stay, eventually, when I got tired. I droves for several hours beside the Salmon River, and then into the Bitterroot Mountains. Beautiful and peaceful. Eventually I was driving amazing two lane switchbacks at altitudes that made my ears pop – and then there it was again: the Continental Divide. I made my way back down over the mountains and stopped at the first State Park with room for an RV. No hookups – just a quiet spot in the woods. Near midnight, with everything finally shut down and quiet, I stepped outside to breathe deeply the scents of the forest, and then went to bed.

Recommended to Watch: We’ve enjoyed a short film called Sacagawea: Heroine of the Lewis and Clark Journey (2004). Only an hour long, it is narrated entirely in the voice of Sacagawea and appears to have been made as an interpretation of the woman whose face appears on the (then) newly minted golden dollar (2000). Near the end we learn that there are more statues of Sacagawea than of any other woman in our nation’s history. The copy we received from Netflix included a 30 minute featurette on the National Parks through which Lewis and Clark passed. August could call out dozens of historical errors of simplifications (I mean, really, how cool is that!), but we still thoroughly enjoyed it.

The INDEX of blogs from Our Lewis and Clark Journey can be found here.


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