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Seemingly endless Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations started this year. You can follow the most climactic section of the explorers’ historic journey with a gorgeous drive that starts and ends in Bozeman. The crux of the route is Lost Trail Pass, where even the intrepid Lewis and Clark famously became disoriented. Lost Trail, however, shouldn’t present any problems during a family drive in summer.
Start with a breakfast big enough for a frontiersman at the East Side Diner in Bozeman. Then pick up the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in Three Forks, about 30 miles west on Interstate 90. When Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition reached this junction of the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers in their quest to find the headwaters of the Missouri, their guide, Sacajawea, recognized her home country. Three Forks features the beautiful Sacajawea Lodge (built in 1910), where you should spend your first night.
In the morning, continue 16 miles west on Highway 2 to the spectacular Lewis and Clark Caverns. Next, visit the tiny railroad town of Whitehall, with four remarkable-and massive-Lewis and Clark murals. Then take Highway 55 south along the Jefferson River, where Lewis wrote of one of his men, “Goodrich caught several dozen fine trout today.” With luck, and a fishing permit ($15 per day), you can, too.
Twin Bridges is the heart of Montana’s world-famous flyfishing country, where the Ruby, Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers meet. From here Lewis and Clark followed the Beaverhead, soon-and incredibly-meeting Sacajawea’s birth tribe of Lemhi Shoshone. The chief turned out to be Sacajawea’s brother, who provided the expedition with desperately needed horses. You can track the Beaverhead to Dillon on Highway 41, and past it south to Clark Canyon Reservoir, which offers good boating and fishing for monster rainbows. From here, a four-wheel-drive road follows the actual trail followed by Lewis and Clark over Lemhi Pass, where the 300-year-old dream of a Northwest Passage waterway to the Pacific Ocean was forever dashed. Or you can take paved Highway 43, which parallels the historic route and then reconnects with it at Lost Trail Pass.
Halfway to Wisdom, hook a right into the jagged Pioneer Range to Maverick Mountain ski area for rugged hiking and mountain biking, followed by a soothing soak, dinner and the sleep of the innocent at nearby Jackson Hot Springs. Next morning’s drive across the epic Big Hole Valley leads to Lost Trail Pass, with outstanding hiking at the eponymous ski area and throughout the wild Bitteroot Mountains.
After overcoming the mountains, hunger and bad weather, the Corps headed north, as you will, along the Bitteroot Valley. From near present-day Missoula, the explorers turned west over Lolo Pass. Check out Missoula’s antique shops before leaving the Lewis and Clark Trail to return to Bozeman on I-90. Play the Old Works golf course on former smelter grounds in Anaconda ($30 for 18 holes with black-silica bunkers). Wrap up your trip with a Lewis and Clark Lager at the Montana Ale Works. Meriwether and William never had it so easy. -Jay Cowan
LENGTH 550 miles
DRIVE TIME From a full-throttle weekend (it stays light till 10 p.m.) to a leisurely week.
TRY TO AVOID Lost Trail Pass when it’s covered in black clouds, which can mean a blizzard.
DON’T MISS The “Lewis and Clark’s Journey of Discovery” at the Outdoor Theater in Whitehall (406-287-9235).
GET OUT OF YOUR CAR at Lewis and Clark Caverns. They went undiscovered by the explorers, but you shouldn’t miss them (adults $8; kids $5).
CONTACTS Missoula: missoulachamber.com; Bozeman: bozemanchamber.com; Lewis and Clark expedition: montanalewisandclark.org