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Lewis & Clark and The Gates of the Mountains

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Meriweather Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame arrived on the Missouri River in the Helena, MT, area in mid-July of 1805. Paddling upstream in dugout canoes and pirogues with other members of the Corps of Discovery, they were looking ultimately for the Columbia River that they believed would be their passageway to the Pacific Ocean.


Earlier on the morning of July 19, William Clark proceeded by land to get ahead of the canoes in hopes of finding some Shoshone Indians. He took with him a party of men and their Indian guide Sacajawea, herself a member of the Shoshone tribe. It was Lewis & Clark's hope that the Shoshone's would be friendly and provide them with horses with which to cross the Rocky Mountains they knew were standing between them and the Columbia.


That evening, Lewis's party entered what he described as "the most remarkable clifts we have seen yet." We know that area today as Gates of the Mountains.

The party would camp that night at the bottom of those cliffs, about halfway through the five-mile canyon that the Missouri River carved out millions of years before. Here is Meriweather Lewis's journal entry from that day:


" . . . these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet. every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. the tow[er]ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us. the river appears to have forced it's way through this immence body of solid rock for the distance of 5¾ miles and where it makes it's exit below has thrown on either side vast collumns of rocks mountains high. the river appears to have woarn a passage just the width of it's channel or 150 yds. it is deep from side to side nor is ther in the 1st 3 miles of this distance a spot except one of a few yards in extent on which a man could rest the soal of his foot. several fine springs burst out at the waters edge from the interstices of the rocks.

it happens fortunately that altho' the current is strong it is not so much so but what it may be overcome with the oars for there is hear no possibility of using either the cord or Setting pole. it was late in the evening before I entered this place and was obliged to continue my rout untill sometime after dark before I found a place sufficiently large to encamp my small party; at length such an one occurred on the lard. side where we found plenty of lightwood and pichpine. this rock is a black grannite below and appears to be of a much lighter colour above and from the fragments I take it to be flint of a yelloish brown and light creemcolourd yellow.— from the singular appeaerance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains."


Today you can re-trace Lewis and his party's route through The Gates of the Mountains. A tour company provides 2-hr boat rides where a guide will point out where Lewis and his men camped, along with the abundant wildlife like eagles, hawks, bighorn sheep, bears, and otters still make their home there today.


The area was also the scene of another historic event. In 1949, 13 firefighters lost their lives in the Mann Gulch Fire, which was chronicled by Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It) in his book, Young Men and Fire.


Join Front Seat Tours for a trip to Gates of the Mountains on Sunday, July 11, 2020. Our tour will also include a stop at Missouri Headwaters State Park, where Lewis & Clark camped after meeting up following the Corps of Discovery journey through Gates of the Mountains. For tour info, click here.


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