The Lewis and Clark Trail is a historical route that follows the path taken by the famous explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their expedition from 1804 to 1806. The trail spans over 3,700 miles and crosses through 11 states, starting in Illinois and ending in Oregon. The expedition was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean.
Today, the Lewis and Clark Trail is a popular destination for history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone interested in exploring the natural beauty of the American West. Along the trail, visitors can see a variety of historical sites, including forts, museums, and interpretive centers that showcase the expedition’s journey and the people they encountered.
You can also be active on this trip, especially if you go in summer or fall. The trail offers opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, and other outdoor activities that allow visitors to experience the same landscapes that Lewis and Clark saw over 200 years ago.
The Lewis and Clark Trail is a historic route that follows the path of the famous explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as they forged across the western United States in the early 1800s.
The trail spans over 3,700 miles and passes through or along 16 states, including Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington. If you add the states that Lewis and Clark each spent time in as they prepared for the trip, you can add Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana too. For purposes of this guide, though, we pick up where they began the expedition the border of Illinois and Missouri.
Each state offers unique landscapes, historical landmarks, and cultural experiences that make the Lewis and Clark Trail a must-see for any history buff or outdoor enthusiast, especially one with plenty of time to spend on the road.
The trail starts (in earnest) in Missouri, which is where the expedition began. Visitors can explore the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which marks the starting point of the trail. The trail then follows the Missouri River, passing through the rolling hills and bluffs of central Missouri. Along the way but unrelated to the expedition, visitors can see the historic town of Hermann, which is known for its wineries and German heritage. The trail also passes through the Mark Twain National Forest, which offers scenic views and outdoor recreation opportunities.
- Home Base: St. Louis, at the start of the trip
The Kansas section of the Lewis and Clark Trail is really short, along the Missouri River as it winds through the northeastern part of the state. A few more notable stops include the Lewis and Clark Park in Atchison, which features a replica of the expedition’s keelboat.
- Home Base: You might not need one, it is is a short stretch, but Atchison is a good one.
The Trail then heads into Eastern Nebraska, which is where the expedition saw the Great Plains for the first time. A notable sight, while not exactly on the trail, is Chimney Rock National Historic Site, which is a towering rock formation that served as a landmark for pioneers traveling west. It is a prominent site found in the records of Oregon Trail travelers and Mormons headed west. The trail also passes through the city of Omaha, a larger city and a good spot for a nicer hotel stay. Nebraska City is another stop right along the trail, which features a Lewis and Clark museum.
Home Base: Omaha, or Nebraska City if you want something smaller
Heading in to South Dakota you quickly get to the open, grassy plains that Lewis and Clark write a lot about in their journal. Since you are following the Missouri River, you will go through the central part of the state, including near Lake Oahe (a great fishing lake) and lots of traditional Native American territory. There is lots of open road as you travel the trail through South Dakota. The Trail does’t quite take you into the Black Hills of Western South Dakota, but you will be pretty close if you want to take a day to explore.
Home Base: Yankton, which is near Lewis and Clark State Park, or the state Capitol city of Pierre
The North Dakota section of the Lewis and Clark Trail is where the expedition spent the most time, as they wintered at Fort Mandan near the present-day city of Washburn. Visitors can see the reconstructed fort and learn about the daily life of the explorers, and it is one of the more educational stops along the entire trail. The trail also passes through the city of Bismarck, which has several museums and cultural attractions and is another good place to find a decent hotel for the night. To the north, you are going to pass through some Badlands-type areas around the Missouri River, a rugged and beautiful area with lots of outdoor activities.
Home Base: Bismarck, a nicely-appointed city within a short drive of Fort Mandan
You are going to spend lots of time in Montana as you follow the Lewis and Clark Trail, but the good news is that the eastern and western parts of the state are very different, so there is lots of variety. You begin following the Missouri River through the rugged ranch land of eastern Montana, until you get to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Here you will see the Gates of
the Mountains Wilderness Area, which is a scenic canyon that Lewis and Clark named for its towering cliffs. The trail also passes through the city of Missoula, Montana’s capital city. Note that the outbound and return routes for Lewis and Clark were different in Montana. Coming back, the route focused more on the Yellowstone River. A neat sight on this route is Pompey’s Pillar near Billings, where Lewis and Clark passed and Clark inscribed his name and the date on the face of the huge rock. As you pass through Montana, you will be near some of the best fly fishing rivers in North America, so consider taking a day or two for that.
Home Base: Billings (plains) or Missoula (mountains), depending on which route you are following
Lewis and Clark had a tough time getting through Idaho, even though it was not a long stretch compared to other states. They had to get through Lemhi Pass in order to pass over the Bitterroot Mountain Range in the Rockies, and their diary suggests they encounter many defensive Native tribes. The route follows the Clearwater and Snake Rivers as they wind through the rugged mountains and canyons of the state. Visitors can see the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which tells the story of the Nez Perce people and their interactions with Lewis and Clark. The trail also passes through the city of Lewiston,
which has several historic buildings and museums.
Home Base: Salmon, a smaller town but on the Trail and close to the Sacajawea Interpretive Center
The Washington section of the route follows the Snake River to the Columbia River, and then follows it as it winds through the eastern part of the state. Sacajawea State Park in Pasco is a notable stop, and it marks the spot at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers where the expedition camped for several days. It is actually a National Historic Site. The trail continues through the Pacific Northwest plateaus and passes through the city of Vancouver, bordering the large Portland metro area.
Home Base: Kennewick or the Tri Cities area
The final leg of the Trail follows the Columbia River as it winds through the scenic Columbia River Gorge. Visitors can see the Fort Clatsop National Memorial, which is a
replica of the fort where the expedition spent the winter of 1805-1806. The trail also passes through the city of Astoria. Doubling-back to Portland provides a great place to finish the trip in style, return your car if you rented one, and fly home.
Home Base: Portland. Go out on the town and celebrate your trip.
Notable Sights Along the Lewis and Clark Trail
The Lewis and Clark Trail is filled with historical sites that offer visitors a glimpse into the past. A key site for any history buff is Fort Clatsop, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1805-1806. You can tour the reconstructed fort and learn about the challenges the explorers faced during their stay. We are big fans of Pompeys Pillar, where William Clark carved his name into the sandstone during the expedition. After seeing the historic signature, enjoy scenic views of the Yellowstone River. Also a must-do is Fort Mandan near Washburn, ND, which is where the expedition spent significant time waiting out winter.
Museums and Exhibits
If museums are your thing, there are several to hit along the Trail. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana, is a must-see for history buffs. Among other things, it features interactive exhibits, artifacts, and displays that bring the expedition to life. The Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Nebraska City, Nebraska, is another great museum that highlights the expedition’s impact on the region.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long is the Lewis and Clark Trail?
The Lewis and Clark Trail is approximately 3,700 miles long, stretching from Illinois to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. The exact length of the trail can vary depending on the route taken and the starting and ending points.
When is the Best Time to Do the Lewis and Clark Trail?
The best time to travel the Lewis and Clark Trail depends on personal preference and the activities planned. Summer months offer more predictable driving conditions, warmer weather and more outdoor activities, while fall and spring offer cooler temperatures and fewer crowds. We don’t recommend going in winter. Winter months can be harsh with weather-impacted driving, and many attractions may be closed.
Can you Bike the Lewis and Clark Trail?
Yes, biking the Lewis and Clark Trail is possible and popular among cyclists, but it is a long ride and you will be on some heavily-trafficked roads at times. Plus, the terrain can be challenging in some areas and cyclists should be prepared for varying weather conditions.
Is it possible to follow the Lewis and Clark Trail by car?
Yes, doing a great American road trip is the recommended way to follow this trail. The general trail route is accessible by car on nearby highways, but depending on how exactly you want to follow the trail, some areas may require a 4-wheel drive vehicle or other specialized equipment. Some of the area Lewis and Clark traveled through is now private, such as ranch land, so be respectful and don’t trespass.
How long does it typically take to travel the entire Lewis and Clark Trail?
The amount of time it takes to travel the entire Lewis and Clark Trail can vary greatly depending the routing you take and how relaxed your pace is. Some travelers complete the trail in a few weeks, while others may take several months while stopping for days in spots and soaking-in the landscape.
There is no shortage of information available on Lewis and Clark’s route and the Trail itself. The National Park Service website (https://nps.gov/lecl/planyourvisit) is an excellent starting point for planning a visit to the trail. The website includes information on trail history, maps, and recommended activities.
In our opinion, THE best book on the subject is “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose, and we highly recommend reading it either before or during your trip. This book provides a detailed account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, based on their diaries, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the trail.
Another notable book is “Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes” by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. This book offers a unique perspective on the expedition by examining the impact it had on Native American tribes along the trail.
You can also pick up a copy of the Diary, in its raw form, to read Lewis’ words verbatim which is fun to do along the trip.