On June 13, 1805, The Corps of Discovery witnessed “the grandest sight” when they became the first white men to see the Great Falls of the Missouri River. Lewis commented that “from the reflection of the sun on the spray or mist that arises from these falls is a beautiful rainbow produced that adds not little to the beauty of this majestically grand scenery.” Despite their splendor, the Great Falls presented danger and hardship for the explorers. All equipment and supplies, including canoes, had to be carried by hand or in makeshift wagons overland for approximately 18 miles to bypass the 21-mile stretch of the 5 falls. Today, the famed portage route can be followed as part of the legacy left by the famed expedition.
The Lewis and Clark expedition spent more than one month portaging around a series of waterfalls on the Missouri River. During this time, Lewis’ path crossed with a bear, a mountain cat, and 3 buffalo. Several members of the expedition were ill, including Sacajawea who was sick. Finally, all equipment and supplies, including canoes, had to be carried by hand or in makeshift wagons overland for 18 miles to bypass the 21-mile stretch of falls and rapids. Progress was slow, but the Corps pressed on and even celebrated 4th of July in Great Falls.
It’s impossible to visit Montana without tracing the portage route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Today, you can see the largest collection of artifacts, information, and exhibits of the Lewis and Clark trail at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. As you make your way through the detailed exhibits, the adventure that was the exhibition comes to life. How far can you pull a canoe, can you figure out which route to take, can you identify which plants could kill you? Enjoy a video in the plush theater; Ken Burns‘ film tells the remarkable story of the young army men, Clark’s slave York, and Sacagawea, who brought along her infant son.
The Great Falls Portage is a National Historic Landmark and ideal for history buffs, families, tours, and anyone who wants to experience the land as the Corps of Discovery saw it. From day hikes to scenic drives, Great Falls Montana offers unique experiences to learn about the expedition that transformed the West and changed the trajectory of American history.