Beyond Pompeys Pillar: Leave the beaten path and follow Lewis and Clark

Source: Billings Gazette
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ROB ROGERS

As summer turns into fall, it’s a good time to get out on the road and explore Eastern Montana, a stark and desolate expanse filled with wonder and delight.

And one of the best ways to see it is the way Meriwether Lewis and William Clark did.

The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation will host its annual meeting in Billings from July 21 to 26, the first time in its history. It’s a good reminder that Eastern Montana still has plenty of treasures to offer.

The eastern side of the state is dotted with interpretive sites and out-of-the-way stops that put you in the actual spots Lewis and Clark passed as they journeyed west in 1805 along the Missouri, and as Clark returned east in 1806 along the Yellowstone.

That wealth of locations means you can go beyond the usual Interstate 90 pull-offs and see more of the authentic and oftentimes forgotten places where the group stood, slept and counseled as the Corps of Discovery.

In late April 1805, the expedition came up the Missouri River and passed out of what would become North Dakota before entering present-day Montana where the river has its confluence with the Yellowstone.

It’s a famous spot on the river and a great place to pick up the trail.

To get there, head north from Glendive on MT 16 until you get to Sidney. At Sidney, Highway 16 veers east and the northbound road becomes Highway 200. Stay on Highway 200 until you reach Fairview, which sits right on the border between Montana and North Dakota.

After crossing the state line, turn north onto ND 58 and follow the road until you get to the turn off for State Road 147. Before visiting the confluence of the two rivers, you can make a quick stop at the small hamlet of Nohly, which sits at the end of Road 147.

Lewis and Clark spent April 27, 1805, their first night in what is now Montana, on the banks of the Missouri a mile from the present location of Nohly. You can find the exact spot by simply driving over to the famous railway Snowden Lift Bridge, the largest structure in the area that now spans the river where the expedition camped.

The bridge was constructed in 1912 by the Great Northern Railroad with the purpose of being able to raise, allowing riverboats to travel up the Missouri. The riverboats never came, but trains still cross the bridge today.

Once you’ve taken in the sites, go back down 147 until you get to ND 58 and head north toward Buford. Right after you cross over the Missouri, you’ll see signs for Fort Buford State Historic Site on your right, and a little further up the road you’ll find Fort Union National Historic Site.

Both were built a couple decades after Lewis and Clark passed through the area but they’re a great place to visit. The historic sites offer a good introduction to the history of the region with lots to see and do.

Fort Buford sits at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri rivers near the spot where Lewis and Clark spent the night of April 26, 1805.

The next morning, the expedition packed up its gear and got back on the river to continue its journey west. You’re going to do the same.

Follow Highway 58 north to Buford. Once there, head northwest on Highway 327 to Bainville. Bainville sits on U.S. Highway 2, which follows the Missouri River until you get to Nashua. It’s along this stretch of Highway 2 where many of the Lewis and Clark sites are a little off the beaten path and yet still accessible by car.

From Bainville head west on Highway 2 toward Culberston. Just west of Culbertson, Highway 2 crosses over Big Muddy Creek, which is marked with a sign. Just beyond the overpass, turn north on Indian Road, a dirt road that will take you nearly to the banks of the creek.

It’s a barren spot of land but you’ll want to make the stop. It’s here that Lewis and Clark camped for the night on April 29, 1805, and where Lewis, according to his journals, saw his first grizzly bear, which he shot and killed.

From there, continue west on Highway 2 until you reach Brockton. On the western edge of town you can turn south on South Track Road, which will take you to the banks of the Missouri.

It’s here, on the south side of the river, that the expedition camped on April 30, 1805. Clark, along with expedition guides Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacajawea, spent most of the day walking the banks of the river. Lewis encountered and shot a massive bull elk, which he said stood 5 feet 3 inches tall from hoof to shoulder.

Leaving Brockton, continue west on Highway 2 until you reach State Road 480 just east of the community of Sprole. Turn south onto 480 and before the bridge that crosses the Missouri is a dirt road that heads west toward the riverbank.

The end of this road gives a good vantage over the stretch of river where the expedition spent May 1 and 2, 1805. Lewis describes it as a windy stretch of the river. He reported that on the morning of May 2, they awoke to an inch of newly-fallen snow.

He also described finding a number of old American Indian camps along this stretch of the river, particularly around what is now present-day Poplar, the next stop.

Return to Highway 2 and continue west to Poplar, passing through town. On the western edge of the city, turn left on Road 34 which quickly ends. From there turn southeast on Road 17-1054. The road eventually drops straight south, ending at a bow in the Missouri River. To the east, you can see where the Poplar River empties into the Missouri and due south is its confluence with Redwater River.

Exploring the mouth of the Poplar River, Clark found nothing but porcupines, which is what he initially named the river. They also found the mouth of Redwater River and, looking west, described seeing countless buffalo in every direction.

Returning to Highway 2, continue west until you reach the intersection with State Highway 13, a couple miles before Wolf Point. Turn south onto Highway 13 until you reach the Missouri River. There on the banks is Lewis and Clark Park, a good spot to wrap up the trip.

The park marks the spot where the expedition spent May 4, amid countless buffalo and old Indian hunting campsites. The following day took them right to the spot where Wolf Point is today.

Lewis wrote in his journal, “The country is as yesterday, beautiful in the extreme.”