Bicycle Guide to the Lewis & Clark Trail

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Riding in the Footsteps of Lewis & Clark

Photo: ExplorersJefferson's 1803 instructions to Lewis stated, “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Even with the inconsistent spelling and the stilted grammar of the times, the instructions are very clear.

[The wonderful sculpture pictured here, "Explorers at the Portage" by Robert M. Scriver, may be seen at the Great Falls, MT, Visitor Center.]

In May, 1804, Lewis and Clark set out from St. Louis with 30 men to explore the new Louisiana Territory, which the United States had just purchased from France for three cents an acre. Only a few French traders had ventured up the Missouri to trade with Indian tribes that could be either friendly or dangerous. No European had seen the vast area between North Dakota and the Pacific Ocean. In doubling the size of the country, some thought Jefferson was farsighted; some thought he was foolish. In retrospect, his supporters think he was brilliant; his detractors think he was lucky.

Map of route followed by Lewis & Clark and the Corps of DiscoveryIn May, 1998, almost 200 years later, I set out from St. Louis to follow the footsteps of Lewis and Clark on my bicycle. Most people thought I was crazy; a few thought I was courageous. Why bike this route? First, it's a great ride — spectacular scenery, good roads with light traffic, a variety of accommodations and food, and wonderful people. Second, it's a unique way to see, feel, and fully experience our vast country; at 3,000 miles it's almost as long as a cross-country ride. Finally, this trip makes history come alive. There are many fascinating historical sites, exhibits, and museums along the way.

The Lewis and Clark program on PBS television first caught my interest and sparked the idea of riding this route; reading Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage confirmed my decision. Their 3-year expedition grabbed the imagination and attention of the whole country — as it still does today. Up the Missouri, over the Rockies, and down the Columbia. What hardships! What joys! What an accomplishment!

Photo: Katy TrailAlthough the Corps of Discovery traveled up the Missouri River by boat, one or more of the party often walked along the shore to hunt, explore, or just get away from the other men. We rode the first 150 miles on the new Katy Trail along the north side of the river. This beautiful bike trail runs through cool woods, rich river bottomland farms, and small towns making a comeback with tourist facilities after being abandoned by the railroad. There are old railroad trestles, new bridges, a tunnel, and many views of the river on one side and limestone cliffs on the other.

Photo: Katy O'Neil Bed and BikefestJust a few miles away from the river the land provides a dramatic contrast. Although the limestone bluffs are only about 100 feet higher than the river, they have been cut by thousands of rivers and streams to form a very hilly landscape. This is a land of small farms and orchards — many of them settled by Germans who came to this area in groups and brought their culture with them. Known as "Missouri's Rhineland," there are several wineries along the trail and in the nearby hills.

Hermann, Missouri, makes a good overnight stop — an attractive river town with two wineries, historic homes and buildings, several restaurants, B&Bs, and a town campground. We found some excellent wine and summer sausage at the Hermanhoff Winery, and then had sauerbraten for dinner at The Landing. After dinner we sat and watched the sun set over the river from Waterfront Park.

Although the gentle hills of western Iowa feel similar to Missouri, these are "loess hills," found only in China, eastern Washington, and here. These hills are made from very fine windblown soils, originally carried here by the glaciers. A good way to experience this area is riding the new 62-mile Wabash Trace Nature Trail from the Missouri border to Council Bluffs. This former military trail and railroad winds its fairly level way through very scenic, quiet, and hilly farm country. Shenandoah — childhood home of the Everly Brothers — makes a good overnight stop. The Depot Restaurant — a strong supporter of the rail trail development — also serves excellent food in a fun environment.

As an Easterner who has also spent a few years living on the West Coast, I have either flown over or driven through the Midwest as fast as possible. What a mistake! When you get off the interstates onto quiet roads, you have a chance to experience the awesome beauty and the friendly people in this part of the country. Furthermore, the productivity of these huge farms has contributed significantly to the greatness of our country.

One rainy morning in South Dakota I was hoping to find a restaurant for breakfast. The small town of Lake Andes looked mostly closed up, but someone directed me to the Wolf Den — built of cinder blocks with graffiti, no windows, and one unfriendly door. But the dozen pickups parked outside were a good sign. It was dark inside; but as my eyes adjusted, I saw a dozen men at one long table and a few others scattered nearby. As I walked up to the counter in my purple tights and bright yellow rain jacket, all conversation stopped. However, after the initial shock, they were all very friendly and started peppering me with questions about my trip. As the men's table broke up, one man came over, introduced himself, and we talked for another half hour about my trip and his experiences as a power company lineman.

As you ride farther west, the land becomes more arid, trees are scarcer, farms become larger, and crops change from corn to wheat. Traffic varies from light to non-existent. One day in South Dakota I rode on a paved county highway for two hours without seeing another vehicle on the road. However, I was comforted by occasional farms with tractors working in the fields, and I always felt that help would be freely given if needed. Although I carried four bottles of drinks in areas like this, it was always interesting and rewarding to stop and ask for water — if someone was home!

Although weather moves from west to east and common wisdom claims that prevailing winds are also west to east, my touring experience suggests that winds are much more variable. I ran into everything on the prairies. On my best day I had 20 mph tailwinds and made an easy 125 miles. On my worst day in North Dakota I had similar headwinds and struggled in low gears at 6–10 mph. I thought about the Corps of Discovery rowing, poling, and dragging their big boxy keelboat into this kind of wind as well as going against the river's current. Although it took me two extra hours to get to Bismarck, at least I knew I had a comfortable motel waiting for me.

A few days later I was telling the owner of Pedal and Paddle in Pierre about fighting the wind for the day into Bismarck. He asked how hard it was blowing, and I told him 20. "Oh," he said, "I thought you said it was really blowing." He told me about riding against—and with — 40 mph winds. Fortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule.

His assistant explained to me that headwinds are only psychological. If you have the right mindset, you just gear down, go slower, and don't let it bother you. I have mastered this approach on hills, but I have yet to master it with headwinds. I'll take hills any day over headwinds. Hills are rational; you know the climbs end and you will be rewarded by approximately equal descents. Winds, however, are emotional; they may go with you or against you for hours — or even days.

Photo: Fort MandanIn late October, 1804, a month after their unpleasant and dangerous encounter with the Teton Sioux Indians, Lewis and Clark came upon a series of Mandan Indian villages near present day Washburn, North Dakota. There were about 4,000 Indians living in densely populated villages, farming the immediate area, and hunting buffalo over the nearby plains. Fort Mandan was significant not only because it was their stopping place for the winter; it was also the farthest point on the Missouri River known to white traders. From here to Oregon was unknown.

Washburn has two very good visitor attractions today — a full size replica of Fort Mandan next to the river and a new Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. The display of a dugout canoe made by local volunteers describes many of their challenges, and really increases your understanding and appreciation of the work involved. Trying on the cradleboard that Sacagawea carried for 3,000 miles will also increase your respect for this amazing woman.

Photo: Fort Benton: Missouri RiverAcross much of Montana there are no roads near the Missouri, so the Trail follows Route 2 — known as "the Hi-Line," the northernmost railroad across the United States. The road rejoins the river near Fort Benton — another ideal place to spend a night. For many years the head of navigation on the Missouri, it is now small enough to walk around and big enough to have everything you need. This is an excellent place to take a rest from the bike and take a one day (or multi-day) canoe excursion on the river. Much of this wilderness stretch of the river is just like it was when Lewis and Clark passed by; eagles, heron, and other birds are plentiful.

Although the Mandans had warned Lewis and Clark about a waterfall and a half-day portage, Lewis discovered five large waterfalls and many rapids on a river hemmed in by canyon walls for twelve miles through what is now Great Falls, Montana. It eventually took them a full month to drag their canoes and equipment over rough and hilly land to avoid the falls. This must have dealt a hard blow to their dream of a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean, but they had bigger problems. It was now the middle of July, summer was moving on quickly, and the snow capped "rocky mountains" were still far away on the horizon.

Photo: Great FallsGreat Falls today is a city of 60,000. Even though the falls have long since been converted to dams to provide both electricity and flood control, you can still get a sense of how intimidating they must have been. The six-mile River's Edge Bicycle Trail provides great views of the river, dams, and daunting canyon walls that contain the river.

Many areas are gearing up for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2004, and Great Falls is the home of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and a new Interpretive Center. The displays provide a good overview of the entire journey of the Corps of Discovery.

We passed through Dillon, MT, with its population of 5,000 and pushed up river to the the Horse Prairie Hilton in the town of Grant. The Almanac says Grant has a population of 35, but it looked more like 6 to us — 4 of whom manage the old stage stop as a B&B. The silence and vastness of "Big Sky Country," the clarity of the air, and millions of stars were overwhelming — from the hot tub on the back deck.

Photo: East from Lemhi PassNext morning we headed west towards the mountains and climbed 2,000 feet on a dirt road to reach the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass. We gazed west from the summit of Lemhi Pass and tried to imagine what Lewis thought when he saw all those mountains ahead of him, and it was almost September. They had come to believe totally in the common wisdom of the day: that they would see a long gently sloping plain and a river leading to the Pacific Ocean. It turned out to be another four weeks of bitter cold and snow on rocky trails over Lost Trail Pass and Lolo Pass.


Although the Lemhi River flows into the Salmon, which flows into the Snake and then the Columbia, the problem was that the Salmon — also known as the "River of No Return" — was not considered "navigable." After scouting the river for several days, Lewis and Clark reluctantly abandoned the idea and hired a Shoshoni guide to lead them over the mountain route used by the Indians.

We rode down the spectacular Salmon River Canyon and spent a night in a rustic cabin in the old gold mining town of Shoup. A day of white-water-rafting here will demonstrate why this area is so popular today, but it's hard to imagine descending this river in crude dugout canoes when your lives literally depend on it.

From North Fork there is a 3,500-foot climb over Lost Trail Pass, and then a great ride down to Sula. Part way down is Lost Trail Hot Springs Resort, with funky cabins, a restaurant, and hot-spring pools. A few miles beyond Sula is a beautiful Forest Service campground with a grassy spot on the river reserved for cyclists.

The twelve days over the Bitterroots in an early September blizzard was the most difficult part of the trip for Lewis and Clark. Their guide lost his way, there was no game for food, and they were reduced to eating their candles and killing two horses for nourishment. This is still a huge wilderness area. The first dirt road was not built across the mountains until the 1930s, and the paved road along the river was not completed until 1962.


Photo: Lochsa River raftingToday the 2,000-foot climb to Lolo Pass is relatively easy — as mountain passes go — and the 77-mile ride down (pure down!) the Lochsa River is spectacular. DeVoto Grove has a short trail through a magnificent stand of cedars next to the raging river; it honors the great Harvard historian of the American West. Although I had never heard of him before I became involved with Lewis and Clark, I have since read several of his excellent books; and I never pass this beautiful memorial without stopping, reflecting, and enjoying the moment.


Photo: Jet Boat on Snake RiverLewiston, Idaho, where the Clearwater River joins the Snake River, is the gateway to Hell's Canyon. The Snake cuts the deepest gorge in the United States (deeper than the Grand Canyon) along the Idaho-Oregon border for 70 miles. Although it is possible to drive around its edges for several hundred miles and catch glimpses of its majesty, or hike some of the 1,000 miles of wilderness trails, the best way for cyclists to experience it is on a 1–2 day jet boat trip or a 1–6 day raft trip.


Photo: Eastern WashingtonThe Palouse area of eastern Washington is surprisingly hilly. These are fertile loess hills (like we found in Iowa) that produce 10% of the nation's wheat, as well as vegetables and fruit. Dayton is a delightful small town with several B&Bs and the excellent Patit Creek restaurant.


Photo: MaryhillThe final 300 miles of our route followed the Columbia River on alternating sides. The dams have changed this river dramatically during the last century — taking out all the rapids and replacing them with a series of lakes and locks. It's fun to visit a dam, watch the fish struggling up the fish ladders, tour a massive power plant, and watch the barges pass through the lock.




Photo: Oregon TrailJust west of Biggs Junction, Oregon, there is a small sign indicating a section of the Oregon Trail parallel to the frontage road. Because this area is too rugged for farming or commercial development, you can still see the ruts of the original trail as it struggles along the river. Below The Dalles, the cliffs on both sides of the river forced the Oregon Trail to head inland over the shoulder of Mt. Hood. Pioneers had the difficult choice of taking this Barlow Toll Road or loading their wagons on barges and rafting through the dangerous rapids.

Photo: Old Columbia HighwayBelow The Dalles we followed the Historic Columbia River Highway as it snakes along the cliffs above the river. This road was originally completed in 1922 as a scenic road for the growing number of tourists with automobiles. In the 1960s the interstate was built along the river — often on filled land. The old road was abandoned, and tunnels were filled in. In recent years sections of the old road have been restored and reopened. There are spectacular stretches past many waterfalls, over Rowena Crest and Crown Point, and the brand new section open only to bicycles and pedestrians through the Mosier Twin Tunnels.

Although Portland is a big city, it's been recognized for being friendly to bicyclists — if you know your way around! Get the Bike There map from Metro Regional Services ( if you intend to ride there. We skirted around Portland through the much smaller and more manageable Vancouver, Washington, across the river. Crossing the river twice on interstate highway bridges with bike paths provides a glimpse of what good highway planning can produce. Portland Airport is very near the I-205 bridge on our route, if you want to fly home from here.

Photo: LongviewWe proceeded along the Oregon side of the river and walked across the high Lewis and Clark Bridge into Longview — a planned town built for the Long-Bell lumber products company. Beyond Longview traffic is very light on the Washington side. Cathlamet is a cute little town on the river, but we continued a few more miles to Skamokawa, where we splurged on a B&B looking out over a creek to the main river. We spent a calm cloudy afternoon exploring around some of the islands in kayaks, watching many osprey and other birds, and finally sitting in our cozy room in the beautiful fog and drizzle, watching huge ships glide by in the main channel. Photo: Skamokawa

Back to Cathlamet, a 15-minute ferry ride over to Westport, and the final 30 miles to Astoria at the end of the Trail. This is a great place to spend a few days to savor your accomplishment. There are several B&Bs and motels in town, camping out by the beach, and several interesting restaurants — like the Home Spirit Bakery, the Columbian Café, and the Rio Café.


Photo: Fort ClatsopSix miles from downtown, the National Park Service operates a fun and informative visitor center at Fort Clatsop, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1805–1806. Ten miles farther south is today's resort town of Seaside, where they made salt for their return trip. These visits can be combined with a ride farther down the spectacular Oregon coast to make a circle back to Portland, especially if you're making connections with public transportation.

Astoria BridgeAnother alternative route back to Portland is to cross the daunting four-mile Astoria Bridge, visit the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Ilwaco (and maybe the beaches beyond), and then ride back along the Washington side to Skamokawa to reconnect with our route. Although this alternate route does not touch the river until Skamokawa, traffic is light on a pleasant road through rolling forests.

Copyright © 2013. Tod Rodger. All rights reserved.
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