The Lewis and Clark Expedition in Montana

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Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument

Lewis and Clark Expedition Sites Montana

Between May 1804 and September 1806, 31 men, one woman, and a baby traveled from the plains to the shores of the Pacific Ocean looking for a water route to the west. On their way to and fro, they went right through Montana.

You can get a feel for the route of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery without having to pull a wooden boat up the Missouri River. Stop in at some of their important waypoints and learn a little about the history of the western United States, while getting your family outside. A glance at the Lewis and Clark Expedition map shows you what a remarkable journey this group took. In my opinion, the best part of it was in Montana.

The whole Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail covers 4,600 miles and crosses four time zones. Within the Lewis and Clark National Park, the expedition covered 3,700 on their two-and-a-half-year trip. The National Historic Trail starts in Philadelphia and ends in Seaside, Oregon. It would take months to really see the whole thing, or a couple of years in the case of the Corps of Discovery. I am going to cover the most important Lewis and Clark sites in Montana in this post.

What Did Lewis and Clark Do? (In Brief)

What was the Lewis and Clark Expedition?

The Corps of Discovery was instructed by President Jefferson to:

  • Map a new route to the Pacific and of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory
  • Find the mythical Northwest Passage – a water route across the country
  • Make contact with Native Americans
  • Send back plant and animal specimens for study
  • Record the expedition

When was the Lewis and Clark Expedition?

  • May 1804 – September 1806

What did Lewis and Clark discover?

  • A route to the Pacific Ocean
  • Plants and animals that were previously unknown to European-Americans

Lewis and Clark full names:

  • Meriwether Lewis August 18, 1774- October 11,1809
    (29 years when the Corps of Discovery began their journey in 1804)
  • William Clark
    August 1, 1770 – September 1, 1838
    (33 years of age when the Corps of Discovery began their journey in 1804)

Lewis and Clark Expedition mapI highly recommend reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage before you set out on your adventures. There is nothing like reading the journals to put you in the headspace of Lewis and Clark.


If your kids want to know the Lewis and Clark Expedition date (May 1804 – September 1806) and all about the important parts of the journey – like the dog that traveled with them!—I recommend these Lewis and Clark books for kids.


Lewis and Clark in Montana

Lewis and Clark Trail map in Montana

Lewis and Clark Map

The Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana covers a vast swath of the state. The Lewis and Clark Trail map starts in Eastern Montana at the North Dakota border and goes all the way to Western Montana at the Idaho border. On their return trip, the Lewis and Clark Expedition route split, with Lewis and a group going to the north and Clark, Sacajawea, and their group staying to the south and meeting up with the Yellowstone River.

The Lewis and Clark route covered more miles in Montana than any other state. Of course, Montana wasn’t a state at that time, so I am referring to present day political boundaries in this post. They saw a lot of grizzly bears, ate a lot of bison, and wore out a pair of moccasins every two days.

Lewis described Montana as being full of “seens of visionary inchantment.”

If you are wondering, “how long was the Lewis and Clark Expedition?” it was long – two years! As far as the Lewis and Clark timeline in Montana, they were in the state from April 29, 1805- August 12, 1805 and again from the beginning of April 1905 – end of August.

See the full Lewis and Clark Expedition timeline here. You can see that for the Lewis and Clark Trail, Montana played an important role.

If you are driving the Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana or taking a Lewis and Clark vacation, you’ll need a lot of time to get to all these sites. Instead, I suggest picking the ones most interesting to you – or the Lewis and Clark sites close to other Montana landmarks you want to explore.

Lewis and Clark Camp at Slaughter River, Missouri River

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from WIkipedia

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark –Wikipedia

The campsite at Slaughter River was used by the Corps of Discovery on both legs of their journey through Montana. They found over 100 bison carcasses here and wrongly assumed it was a Blackfeet buffalo jump. In fact, the bison had drowned in the river and piled up when an ice dam broke.

“today we passed on the Stard. side the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immence pile of slaughter and still their remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases they created a most horrid stench.” From the journal of Meriwether Lewis, May 29, 1805

Today Lewis and Clark’s Slaughter River is known as Arrow Creek and is located within the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The camp includes a shelter and two outhouses.

40 miles south of Big Sandy MT. The Lewis and Clark Camp at Slaughter River is primarily publicly accessible via boat, but it can also be reached overland by a rugged two-track drive that leads from 8 Mile Bench Road. The overland route is restricted and requires access permission from the BLM.

Great Falls Portage, Great Falls

There are a few Lewis and Clark waypoints in Great Falls. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Great Falls MT, is a good starting point for understanding how significant this location was in the Corps of Discovery’s journey. For Lewis and Clark, Great Falls was something they had been hearing about—and worried about portaging—for most of their trip.

It’s a short walk to Giant Spring and the world’s shortest river. From there, drive to the falls for which the town of Great Falls is named.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center

Located on the edge of the Missouri River in Great Falls, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center has a mission is to impart a personal sense of President Thomas Jefferson’s vision of expanding America to the west. The center focuses on the challenges the expedition faced as they portaged the great falls of the Missouri River and explored the “unknown.” In addition to Lewis and Clark facts, you’ll learn about the daily experiences of the expedition, the environment, and the native people.

Join a ranger for a program or explore the many hands-on exhibits in the Center.

Bring a picnic and wander around adjacent Giant Springs State Park, a scenic and historic site. First recorded by the Lewis and Clark in 1805, it is one of the largest freshwater springs in the country. You can see the only remaining waterfall, Crooked Falls, from Giant Springs State Park.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, 4201 Giant Springs Road, Great Falls, MT 59405, 406.727.8733

Great Falls of the Missouri

One of the Great Falls Montana points of interest you can’t miss, is of course the falls. Actually, there are four waterfalls (or used to be waterfalls) in Great Falls. Now three of them are dams.

The Great Falls of the Missouri

Noted by Lewis and Clark on their expedition, the Great Falls of the Missouri is no longer an above-ground waterfall. Instead, the falls became the Ryan Dam. Interpretive guide service is given throughout the summer at Island Park.

Rainbow Falls

A dam was built between 1908 and 1910. Rainbow Falls is one of the historic falls that was seen by Lewis and Clark on their famed expedition. Interpretive guide service is given throughout the summer at the Rainbow Falls Upper Overlook.

Black Eagle Falls

Another waterfall that was noted by Lewis and Clark on their expedition is now the Black Eagle Dam.

Crooked Falls

Crooked Falls is the only waterfall of four in the Great Falls area, that remains virtually unchanged since the Lewis and Clark Expedition. At Giant Springs Park, there is an overlook of Crooked Falls.

Find out more about visiting all the falls (now damns) at the Visit Great Falls website.

Tower Rock State Park

Tower Rock State Park

Tower Rock – Wikipedia

Tower Rock is a 424-foot high rock formation noted in the journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and known to many Native American tribes centuries before.

“an Indian road enters the mountain at the same place with the river on the Stard side and continues along it’s border under the steep clifts.” Lewis also wrote, “At this place there is a large rock of 400 feet high wich stands immediately in the gap which the Missouri makes on it’s passage from the mountains… This rock I called the tower. It may be ascended with some difficulty nearly to it’s summit and from it there is a most pleasing view of the country we are now about to leave. From it I saw that evening immense herds of buffaloe in the plains below.” From the journal of Meriwether Lewis, July 16, 1805

This is a day use only park with interpretive panels that explain the geology and history of the park. There are vault toilets.

Tower Rock State Park, 2325 Old US Hwy 91, Cascade, MT 59421

Great Northern Town Center, Helena

Smack in the middle of Lewis and Clark County, Montana, is the state’s capital, Helena. And in the middle of Helena, you’ll find the Great Northern Town Center. Lewis and Clark didn’t set foot here, but you can set your foot on the Lewis and Clark interpretive trail.

The path represents the journey of Lewis and Clark on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, with renditions of many landmarks they encountered on their expedition. Running water, climbable rocks, and cute creatures make for a fun way to learn about the expedition. Plus there is a carousel, ice cream, and a science museum nearby. You can see our adventures on the Lewis and Clark path here.

Great Northern Town Center, Between Getchell St and Lyndale Ave. East 406.457.5460

Headwaters of the Missouri State Park

When the Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, and the rest of the Corps of Discovery reached the headwaters of the Missouri River, near present day Three Forks, they had some naming to do. They named one river for their President (Thomas Jefferson), one for the Secretary of the Treasury (Albert Gallatin), and the other for the Secretary of the State (James Madison).

In 1805, they camped here while preparing to start their journey up the Jefferson River and then into the mountains. The Missouri Headwaters area was also a geographical focal point important to the Flathead, Bannock and Shoshoni Indians, and early trappers, traders and settlers.

Take a hike along the bluffs, camp, join a ranger program or cast a line into the legendary rivers. Entrance is free with Montana license plates.

Missouri Headwaters State Park, 1585 Trident Rd, Three Forks, MT 59752

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park

Lewis and Clark Caverns

Lewis and Clark Caverns

View of the Jefferson River from the mouth of Lewis and Clark Caverns. – Wikipedia

The Lewis and Clark journey did not include a stop at Lewis and Clark Caverns Montana, however the Lewis and Clark Expedition did camp within sight of the caverns on July 31, 1805, when they camped along Antelope Creek, a tributary of the Jefferson River. Lewis and Clark camping near the caves does not mean they would have even noticed them.

The cavern got its name because it overlooks more than 50 miles of the Lewis and Clark trail along the Jefferson River and the Corps of Discovery did pass through the modern day park.

Montana’s first state park is a showstopper and it’s worth a visit if you are doing the Lewis and Clark auto tour route or exploring caves in Montana. Stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and cave bacon decorate this large limestone cave. A two-hour guided tour takes visitors through two miles of walkable cave trail. For more of a challenge, those 12 and older can strap on a helmet and headlamp, get off the trail, and crawl through the cave on a Wild Cave Tour.

See our adventures at Lewis and Clark Caverns.

While the cave is the main event, there is more to Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. There are trails to wander of foot or bike and a visitor center with interpretive displays to help the whole family learn about the park—both above and below ground. There is a gift shop and food and beverage concessions, so you don’t even need to pack a lunch. If it’s a warm day, head down to the Jefferson River to cool down and imagine Lewis, Clark, and crew working their way up the river.

The Lewis and Clark Caverns campground is a great place to spend the night. Reserve one of 40 campsites, three cabins, or a tipi online for a night under the stars. On Friday nights, rangers present interpretive programs about plants, animals, ghosts, sapphires, and other Montana topics.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, travel 19 miles west of Three Forks on Montana 2 or 15 miles east of Whitehall on Montana 2.Caverns open May 1 – September 30 and winter holidays.

Beaverhead Rock State Park, Dillon Montana

Many of the places on the Lewis and Clark trail were Montana landmarks long before there was a Montana or Lewis and Clark made their jaunt across the country. Beaverhead Rock, also called Point of Rocks, was identified by Sacajawea in 1805 as a landmark not far from the summer camp of her people, the Shoshone.

Beaverhead State Park, 62 Beaverhead Rock Road, Twin Bridges, MT 59754

If you are in the Dillon area, make sure to stop by the Patagonia Outlet Store. We always do.

Lemhi Pass National Historic Landmark

Lemhi Pass on the Lewis and Clark Trail

View from Lemhi Pass – USDA Forest Service

On the way up Lemhi Pass, Lewis and Clark split up and Lewis plus three other members of the Corps of Discovery went looking for Native Americans and their horses. Lemhi Pass straddles Montana and Idaho and is right on the Continental Divide. It’s where the members of the Lewis Clark Expedition left the United States Territories and ventured into unknown lands. It was, and still is, a rugged, formidable landscape.

Lewis called it, “ the most distant fountain of the waters of the Mighty Missouri.”

The Forest Service has interpretive signs at the pass during summer months.

Lemhi Pass National Historic Landmark, 12 miles east of Tendoy off ID 28.

Clark’s Lookout State Park

In 1805, William Clark climbed an overlook above the Beaverhead River to get a better view of the surrounding. You can stand in the same place and get the same view he did. An interpretive display shows the three compass readings Clark took on that day.

Clark’s Lookout State Park, 25 Clark’s Lookout Road, Dillon, MT 59725

Traveler’s Rest State Park

Traveler’s Rest is really special because it is the only Lewis and Clark campground that has been archaeologically verified. It’s an important Lewis and Clark site, but it was also used by Native People’s, especially the Salish people, long before the Corps of Discovery passed through.

Because the Corp took so much mercury, and mercury passes through the body, archaeologists were able to identify their latrine. The Corps of Discovery camped here September 9-11, 1805 and June 30-July 3, 1806.

Today, the park has interpretive programs, visitor center, special events, gift shop, picnic tables, restrooms, and water.

Traveler’s Rest State Park, 6717 Highway 12 W, Lolo, MT 59487

Lolo Trail – Weippe Prairie

Weippe Prairie was the end of the Lolo Trail after a brutal trek through the mountains. The Corps was pretty relieved to get out of the mountains and into this wide meadow.

“. . . Proceeded on through a butifull countrey for three miles to a small plain in which I found main Indian lodges. Those people gave us a small piece of buffalow meat, some dried salmon berries & roots . . . They also gave us the bread made of this root, all of ehich we eate hartily . . . They call themselves Cho pun-nish or Pierced noses. I find myself very unwell all the evening from eateing the fish & roots too freely . . .” From the Journal of William Clark, September 30, 1805

This National Historic Landmark is administered by the National Park Service, and is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. There are two main Visitor Centers, one at Park Headquarters in Spalding, Idaho, 11 miles east of Lewiston and the other at Big Hole National Battlefield, 10 miles west of Wisdom, Montana.

Nez Perce National Historic Park, Big Hole National Battlefield, 16425 MT-43, Wisdom, MT 59761

Lewis and Clark Store

Want to learn more about Lewis and Clark history?

Lewis and Clark’s Return Trip

On the return trip the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery split up in Montana. Lewis and three men went north to the Blackfoot River and over the Divide. They explored the upper reaches of the Marias River, the northern boundary of the Louisiana Territory. Clark, and the rest of the Corps crossed Bozeman Pass and headed down to present day Livingston and the Yellowstone River.

Museum of the Rockies – The Lewis and Clark Challenge Course

The Lewis and Clark Challenge Course (outside on the museum’s north lawn on Kagy Blvd.) could use a little maintenance, but it’s still a fun introduction to the Corps of Discovery if you are in Bozeman anyway. This interactive series of 14 stations (not all of them functioning) offers visitors a chance for a hands-on experience of the Lewis and Clark adventure. Free with your Museum of the Rockies membership or entrance fee.

Not too far from Bozeman, in Belgrade, you can play at the Lewis and Clark Park. It has nothing to do with Lewis or Clark, but there is a nice playground and a splash park open in summer.

Museum of the Rockies, 600 W Kagy Blvd, Bozeman, MT 59717

Lewis and Clark Park, 205 E Main St., Belgrade, MT 59714

Sacajawea Statue, Livingston

When it comes to people who helped Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea tops the list. And she did it while pregnant and then carrying a newborn. She deserves a statue. In our little town of Livingston, Montana, some folks got together and created a beautiful statue of Sacajawea riding a horse with baby Pomp. Clark and his crew got to the Yellowstone River here and continued their journey by boat.

There are a lot of reasons to visit Livingston, and one of them is the statue, surrounded by flowers, across from the Yellowstone River.

Sacajawea Park, River Road, Livingston, MT 59047

Pompey’s Pillar National Monument

 

William Clark's signature at Pompey's Pillar National Monument

Checking out William Clark’s signature at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument

Pompey’s Pillar was named for young Baptiste Charbonneau, infant son of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who accompanied the expedition and contributed greatly to its success. Nicknamed “Pomp,” the infant was born on the expedition. This Lewis and Clark Monument the only place along their actual route where you can see physical evidence of Lewis and Clark’s passing—and inscription from William Clark on the rock. (Other than the mercury-laden latrines at Traveler’s Rest State Park.)

During his return trip to St. Louis, Clark climbed the pillar and carved his signature and the date in the sandstone. Clark wrote, “This rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction on the Northerly Side of the river high romantic Clifts approach & jut over the water for Some distance both above and below…I marked my name and the day of the month and year.”

The Monument opens in early May, but even when it’s closed, visitors can walk 3/4 mile to the pillar. A Lewis and Clark Museum is open 9 am to 5 pm daily when the Monument is open. Entrance: $7/vehicle. It’s 30 miles east of Billings off exit 23.

Camp Disappointment National Historic Monument, Browning

Camp Disappointment is the northernmost campsite on the Lewis and Clark route map. Lewis and three men stayed here on their return trip. President Jefferson was hoping the Marias River (a tributary of the Missouri River) extended to 50 degrees latitude. If that was the case, the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase would extend north, giving more land to the United States. Lewis was disappointed to find that the river did not do what he wanted and thus wrote, “I now call camp disappointment.”

Located on privately owned land within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, permission is needed to access this site. This historic site is marked by a monument erected by the Great Northern Railway in 1925 and a sign at milepost 233 on US Highway 2 between Browning and Cut Bank, which is four miles directly south of the actual camp site.

Camp Disappointment

Two Medicine Fight Site, Cut Bank

There was only one hostile encounter on the Lewis and Clark path and it happened on the Two Medicine River when Lewis and three others went to north to explore the Marias River. They met and camped with eight Blackfeet people. In the morning, Lewis found the Blackfeet stealing their horses and guns and stabbed one man and shot another. The Blackfeet saw Lewis as a direct threat as Lewis and Clark had agreed to supply guns to the Blackfeet’s enemies, the Nez Perce and Shoshone.

Located on privately owned land within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, permission is needed to access this site.
Two Medicine Fight Site

Lewis and Clark Fun Facts

Lewis and Clark first names:

Meriwether and William

When did Lewis and Clark start their expedition?

May 1805

When did Lewis and Clark end their expedition?

September 1906

Where did the Lewis and Clark Expedition start?

The Corps of Discovery departed from Camp Dubois at 4 pm on May 14, 1804, and met up with Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri.

Who were the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (the Corps of Discovery)?
  1. Captain Meriwether Lewis (1774 – 1809)
  2. Captain William Clark (1770-1838)
  3. York (Clark’s slave) (ca. 1772-?)
  4. George Drouillard (Drewer, Drewyer) (1773-1810)
  5. Toussaint Charbonneau (1767-ca. 1840)
  6. Sacagawea (Sagajawea, Sakakawea) (ca. 1788-1812)
  7. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (Pomp, Pompy) (1805-1866)
  8. Seaman (dog)
  9. Sergeant Charles Floyd (1782-1804)
  10. Sergeant Patrick McLene Gass (1771-1870)
  11. Sergeant John Ordway (ca. 1775-ca.1817)
  12. Sergeant Nathaniel Hale Pryor (ca. 1772-1831)
  13. Private William Bratton (1778-1841)
  14. Private John Collins (?-1823)
  15. Private John Colter (ca. 1775-1812)
  16. Private Pierre Cruzatte (dates unknown)
  17. Private Joseph Field (ca. 1780-1807)
  18. Private Reubin Field (ca. 1781-ca. 1822)
  19. Private Robert Frazer (ca. 1775-ca. 1837)
  20. Private George Gibson (?-1809)
  21. Private Silas Goodrich (dates unknown)
  22. Private Hugh Hall (ca. 1772-?)
  23. Private Thomas Proctor Howard (1779-1814)
  24. Private Francois (William) Labiche (dates unknown)
  25. Private Jean Baptiste Lepage (1761-1809)
  26. Private Hugh McNeal (ca. 1776-unknown)
  27. Private John Potts (ca. 1776-1808)
  28. Private George Shannon (1785-1836)
  29. Private John Shields (1769-1809)
  30. Private John B. Thompson (?-ca. 1815)
  31. Private Peter M. Weiser (1781-?)
  32. Private William Werner (?-ca. 1839)
  33. Private Joseph Whitehouse (ca. 1776-?)
  34. Private Alexander Hamilton Willard (1778-1865)
  35. Private Richard Windsor (dates unknown)
Where did Lewis and Clark explore?

The Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest.

Where did the Lewis and Clark Expedition end?

The expedition went as far west as Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon and ended in St. Louis, Missouri.

Why did Lewis and Clark explore?

Their mission was to explore the unknown territory, establish trade with the Native Americans and affirm the sovereignty of the United States in the region. One of their goals was to find a waterway from the US to the Pacific Ocean.

How many states did Lewis and Clark travel through?

Eleven. Beginning at Camp Dubois in Illinois, they passed through portions of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

More Exploring with Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark for Kids

To answer every question from when did they start to when did the Lewis and Clark Expedition end (in a fun way), check out these resources for kids.

Lewis and Clark Tours

If you’d prefer learning with a Lewis and Clark guide, rather than travel on your own, there are several tours available. I led a (super fun and informative) Lewis and Clark tour in Montana with Off The Beaten Path, but don’t know much about the other ones.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition (Corps of Discovery) spent more time in Montana than any other state. You can visit Montana Lewis and Clark sites today, including Lewis and Clark Caverns, the Great Falls of the Missouri, and Pompey's Pillar. See an actual Lewis and Clark campsite and William Clark's signature on a rock. Find out how to visit all the Lewis and Clark sites in Montana in this article. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (Corps of Discovery) spent more time in Montana than any other state. You can visit Montana Lewis and Clark sites today, including Lewis and Clark Caverns, the Great Falls of the Missouri, and Pompey's Pillar. See an actual Lewis and Clark campsite and William Clark's signature on a rock. Find out how to visit all the Lewis and Clark sites in Montana in this article.

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