three boats two pirogues (dugout canoes) and a 55-foot-long keelboat
pushed off from a muddy bank of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis late
on a warm and buggy spring afternoon almost two centuries ago. After fighting the
current across the Mississippi, the boats entered the mouth of the Missouri River
to continue their long and dangerous transcontinental passage. From the Mississippi,
their trail took them through the leafy woodlands of todays Midwest, across
the seemingly endless Great Plains, up and over the snowy Rockies and, finally,
down the other side to their goal the blue Pacific Ocean.
Its a long trip, even by todays standards. Lewis and Clarks round-trip journey of more than 7,000 miles took almost 2-1/2 years. Celebrating the bicentennial of that historic expedition today by driving the route is going to require more than a couple weeks off work.
So, if you have limited time, yet youre fascinated by this historic tale of exploration and adventure, plan on seeing the very best parts those that havent been paved and billboarded. That way, youll be able to imagine what it was like two centuries ago. These sections of the trail allow you to not only see it, but to experience it on a mountain bike. Theres no finer way to get to know the country than to feel it firsthand. And there are no finer miles for doing so than the two sections along the Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the Lemhi Pass. Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery passed through both sections as they traveled west in 1805 after spending the winter in North Dakota.
But what the French labeled as bad has made it the least-changed stretch of trail in the entire route. Lewis and Clark worked their way upstream against the gathering current through this geographically unique landscape. The expedition rowed, poled and pulled their boats (with elk-skin ropes that broke often under the strain), surrounded by the same terrain that you can see today: high hillsides and colorful, layer-cake formations rising hundreds of feet skyward in the White Cliffs part of the monument.
The very best mountain biking in the monument lies just across the highway from the James Kipp Recreation Area campground, along the northern part of the Missouri Breaks Backcountry Byway. The route includes various white-knuckle roads descending from the byway to the river. For the most part, the riding isnt technical, but it is aerobic. Sucking in the thin air isnt easy, especially during climbs, but by riding quietly, youll stand a much better chance of seeing the elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, white-tailed deer, mule deer and raptors that inhabit this still-wild place.
At this location in 1805, Sacagawea, who had joined the party with her French-Canadian husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and her baby, Pompey, proved herself in a crisis. When her husband (an unskilled waterman) swamped the pirogue in a sudden squall, expedition member Pierre Cruzatte saved the craft by threatening to shoot Charbonneau if he didnt stop pleading to God for salvation with both hands and instead use his hands to turn the boat into the wind. Two other crew members began bailing furiously with kettles, while the teenage Sacagawea calmly and coolly saved some of the light articles that were washing overboard. Among them were the maps, journals and scientific instruments that, though light in weight, would have been a heavy loss indeed had they floated away.
Later in 1805, the expedition passed over the Continental Divide at Lemhi
The trail to Lemhi Pass goes through the beautiful green-and-tan open country of Horse Prairie, described by Lewis as roling or high wavy plains through which several little rivulets extend their wide vallies quite to the Mountains... forming one of the handsomest coves [valleys] I ever saw. The final dozen miles to Lemhi Pass are much smoother than the Missouri Breaks Byway. These dirt miles make for the best historic mountain biking, for youll never forget climbing under your own power to the Continental Divide. Here you can straddle the Missouri where, as Lewis wrote, expedition member Hugh McNeal ... exultingly stood ... and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri. While catching your breath at the top (elevation: 7,323 feet), you can look west to the incessant mountainsides in Idaho and imagine the explorers still having to trek onward for several more months all the way to the Oregon coast!
If you cant participate in the bicentennial celebration by following the route taken by Lewis and Clark in its entirety, consider traveling the Breaks and the Lemhi Pass by mountain bike to see the best parts of this timeless trail.
Dennis Coello has authored 13 books on bicycling and edited about 50 others. His work as a photographer has taken him throughout North America and to some 30 countries overseas.
Bicyclist Dennis Coello briefs you on critical safety measures to take when riding in the backcountry.