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Lolo Trail Nationa Historic Landmark
A Brief History
Steve F. Russell

Created: November 18, 2009
Revised: March 7, 2013



    The Lolo Trail is an historic trail passing over the Bitterroot Mountains between Lolo, Montana in the Bitterroot River valley and Kamiah, Idaho in the Clearwater River valley. In actuality, the Lolo Trail is three major, separately identifiable, historic trail treads that sometimes join but are nearly always separate.
    Between Lolo, Montana and Lolo Pass, there is only a single historic trail tread. Between Lolo Pass and Green Saddle, there are two separate historic trail treads. Between Green Saddle and the Weippe Prairie, there are three separate historic trail treads. There is also the tread of the fishing trail down the Lochsa River that was not a part of the main trail but is also included in the landmark. Since 1992, there has also been about thirty miles of recreation trail constructed in the historic trail corridor.
    Because of the multiple-tread nature of the Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark, we sometimes use the term Lolo Trail System but in this document, the term Lolo Trail will be used. The multiple treads have also been a source of confusion when trying to describe and manage the trail. This document is written in an attempt to minimize that confusion. Much of the landmark is on federal land managed by the Forest Service. Other trail segments are on private land, timber company land, and state land. Place names mentioned in this document can be found on Clearwater National Forest visitor maps.
    These trails were initially explored and developed by the Nez Perce and Salish (Flathead) tribes and were used primarily to pass between western Montana and north central Idaho. Travel was for business, recreation, and adventure. The business use was primarily plant (berries, roots and medicine) and fish (salmon) gathering.  Recreation and adventure use involved visiting high mountain meadows to enjoy the atmosphere and escape the river valley heat in the summer. The friendly tribes also used the trail to visit each other. Other tribes in the northwest United States occasionally used the Lolo Trail but sometimes not for peaceful purposes.
    As far as we know, the first written record of the Lolo Trail was created when the Corps of Discovery under the command of Lewis and Clark passed over it in the fall of 1805 (westward) and the spring of 1806 (eastward) during their exploration of a route through the Louisiana Purchase. They left us a record providing maps and geographic descriptions of the trail and its surroundings.
    The journal accounts and word-of-mouth reports of the Lolo Trail quickly spread across the western plains and western mountains of the continent. It was not long before mountain men and fur trappers from both the United States and Canada started using the Lolo Trail. Not long after the fur trappers, came the gold miners and then the federal government. The Lolo Trail was well traveled during the 1800s.

    The Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark, as designated in the National Register of Historic Places, applies to the various trail treads (described previously) that pass between Lolo, Montana and Weippe, Idaho (Weippe Prairie). These various trail treads can be classified (or summarized) as follows:
 The major types of historical use and associated dates of the treads of the Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark are:


    The Northern Nez Perces Trail 1730-1866 is the original horse trail that developed between the lands of the Nez Perce and the lands of the Salish. Near the western end of the trail, between the Weippe Prairie and Green Saddle on the Clearwater National Forest, the trail was split into two branches. One branch followed a northerly route over Snowy Summit, which we call the Snowy Summit Branch. The southerly branch went through Hungery Creek, which we call the Hungery Creek Branch. From Lolo, Montana to Kamiah, Idaho, the Northern Nez Perces Trail 1805 that was followed by Lewis & Clark (through Hungery Creek) is exactly 143 miles long.

Nez Perce and Salish (Flathead) circa 1730-1866
    The route of the Lolo Trail was probably used for foot traffic for hundreds of years before horse traffic started circa 1730. Evidence of a foot trail has never been found, perhaps because the horse traffic wore the trail so deeply that the foot trail was destroyed. The Nez Perce and Salish (Flathead) would have initially determined the location of the trail through experience and some minor trial-and-error. This approach resulted in a very practical trail through the rugged mountains..
    Food was not easy to come by on the high, dry ridges of the trail so side trails led to meadows and down to the North Fork and Lochsa Fork of the Clearwater River where fish and food plants could be obtained. Some of these side trails became well worn and were later used by the Forest Service for fire fighting access. Other side trails were little worn and have become nearly untraceable.
    We learn from the Lewis & Clark Journals that the Hungery Creek Branch of the Northern Nez Perces Trail was being used in 1805-1806. Their Lemhi Shoshoni guide, Toby, took them westward on that branch in 1805 and their Nez Perce guides took them eastward on the same branch. The Journals are the only record of this branch being used. Our next extant journal, from John Work in 1832, records his party's passage along the Snowy Summit Branch. Every journal record afterwards never again mentions the Hungery Creek Branch, only the Snow Summit Branch.
    I've speculated that, during the early 1800s, the Nez Perce greatly expanded their system of horse trails and decided the Snowy Summit Branch was the best route for their travel. After the development of the Bird-Truax Trail 1866, I believe the Nez Perce used both their traditional trail and the new trail. In 1877, I believe they used both trails but primarily the Bird-Truax Trail 1866. In all my years of hiking both of these trails, I prefer using the original trail in many places because of its directness. It seems faster and easier in many respects but the 1866 government trail would be easier on horses and most hikers.

Lewis and Clark 1805-1806
    The Corps of Discovery, under the command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, followed this trail (westward) in 1805 and (eastward) in 1806 between Lolo, Montana and the Weippe Prairie. During their westward trip, they diverted from the main ridge and followed the Koos-Koos-Kee Salmon Fishing Trail for several miles before climbing up Wendover Ridge and joining the main trail at the top. They also  followed the trail from Kamiah, Idaho to the Weippe Prairie (eastward) in 1806.
    On the west end of the Northern Nez Perces Trail, the Corps followed the Hungery Creek Branch of the Northern Nez Perces Trail. This trail passes Bowl Butte, Hungery Creek, Fish Creek, Mex Mountain, Eldorado Creek, Cedar Creek, Lolo Creek, Crane Meadows, Wilson Creek, and Jim Ford Creek. The geographic notes, mileages, and maps in their journals are the first written documentation we have of the location of the tread of the Northern Nez Perces Trail. In 1805, their trip westward was a cold, rainy, snowy, hungry one that caused them to suffer from lack of food and the elements. Their trip eastward in 1806 was over deep hard-packed snow which made the trail much easier traveling.

John Work 1831
    John Work lead a large party of Hudson's Bay fur trappers over the Northern Nez Perces Trail in 1831. He reached the trail at the Weippe Prairie and followed it eastward to Lolo, Montana. This party followed the Snowy Summit Branch of the Northern Nez Perces Trail from Musselshell Meadows to Green Saddle. This trail passes Lolo Forks, Camp Martin, Snowy Summit, Beaver Dam Saddle, Rocky Ridge, and Weitas Meadows. From Green Saddle eastward, there was a single trail, the one followed by Lewis & Clark, all the way to Lolo, Montana.

John Mullan 1854
    Captain John Mullan was twenty-three and a West Point graduate when he came west in 1853 to serve in the Pacific Rail Road Survey expeditions under the command of  Issac I. Stevens, Gov. of Washington Territory. Mullan did many surveys including his trip over the Lolo Trail, done in the fall of 1854. His survey followed the Snowy Summit Branch of the Northern Nez Perces Trail. His journals concluded that the Lolo Trail route was unsuitable for a railroad.
    I've concluded from reading his journal accounts that Mullan never really took the Lolo Trail seriously as a railroad route over the Bitterroot Mountains and probably knew ahead of time it was impractical but still needed to do the survey for completeness. I am puzzled by his lack of quality in the survey. His distance estimates are among the poorest of all the journals about the Lolo Trail and his published map of the trail is much more inaccurate than the maps of Lewis & Clark. His journal comments, however, give us some insight into the nature of the trail.

George Nicholson 1866
    In 1866, Nicholson joined the expedition of the Virginia City and Lewiston Wagon Road (Bird-Truax Trail 1866) as its surveyor. He was a young man, eager to experience the adventures of the west. It was Nicholson, more than any other person, who was responsible for the documentation we now have of both the Northern Nez Perces Trail and the Bird-Truax Trail 1866. Nicholson was also very interested in the Lewis & Clark adventure over the Lolo Trail because he speculated on their route and corresponded with Reuben G. Thwaites, the editor of the centennial version of the Lewis & Clark journals. Although intensely interested in the route of Lewis & Clark, Nicholson never followed the Hungery Creek Branch. All his travel was on the Snowy Summit Branch. It is unknown whether Nicholson ever again visited the Lolo Trail after he returned east in the fall of 1866.


    In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the federal government decided that it would be in the best interests of  the nation to speed up westward expansion by building a series of wagon roads west of the Mississippi. One of the wagon road projects chosen for funding was the Virginia City and Lewiston Wagon Road that was being strongly promoted by the merchants of Lewiston, Idaho and the new Idaho Territorial Government. This road would be built to link Lewiston with the gold fields of Montana, especially Virginia City. The main idea was that goods that were sent by ship to Lewiston could then be freighted to the Montana gold fields and thus create economic prosperity for the people of Idaho, especially the merchants of Lewiston.
    In 1865 and early 1866, the organization and planning was done for the wagon road and a Supervisor and Dispersing Agent was chosen to head the project; Wellington Bird of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Bird selected George Nicholson, a young civil engineer, to do the civil survey of the wagon road and Oliver Marcy to document the earth science along its traverse of the Bitterroot Mountains. Bird chose Sewell Truax of Lewiston to locate the wagon road grade that would be followed. He also asked William Craig to help him select the best route over the mountains between Lewiston and the Bitterroot Valley. Craig was a well known and respected pioneer in Idaho Territory and a good friend of the Nez Perce people inhabiting the Clearwater River area. Craig also knew the country very well.
    In the late spring of 1866, Nicholson, a Nez Perce guide named Tah-Tu-Tash (Kamiah) and Craig did a quick survey of the Northern Nez Perces Trail (Lolo Trail) and the Southern Nez Perces Trail (Magruder or Darby Trail) and decided on the Lolo Trail as the general route of the wagon road. Using the Snowy Summit Branch of the Northern Nez Perces Trail as a guide, Truax located a wagon road route between the Weippe Prairie and Lolo Pass on the Montana-Idaho border. There were several criteria for selecting a wagon road route that were important in order to have the lowest cost and most practical route. In general, the road location had to: 1) minimize the distance traveled, 2) minimize excavation, 3) minimize bridge building, 4) be of a practical grade, and 5) stay to the sunny slopes as much as possible to maximize snow melting in the spring and fall. The wagon road laid out by Truax closely followed the original Indian trail but incorporated hardly any of its tread because the old trail did not meet all of the practical criteria needed for wagon travel.
    During the summer and fall of 1866, surveying, clearing, and construction of the road was attempted. However, Bird quickly realized that the money and time allocated to the project fell far short of that needed to complete a wagon road so he decided it would be better to develop a well constructed pack trail to serve the need for transportation of goods. The trail workers cleared the timber and brush from a path several feet wide and did minimum grading to provide for a pack trail. They started in the west and worked eastward. Several miles short of Lolo Pass, the trail evidence indicates that a bare minimum of work was done on the pack trail, thus causing most of the pack train traffic to still use large segments of the original Northern Nez Perces Trail.

Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail 1877
    In 1877, a war broke out between the US government and several non-treaty Nez Perce bands. The Nez Perce decided to leave the Clearwater and Joseph Country of  Oregon and go to their friends, the Crow, in central Montana. They traveled across the Lolo Trail route using, primarily, the Bird-Truax Trail 1866. There are many books published about this war and several of them describe the travel across the Lolo Trail.

US Forest Service 1907-1935
    Around 1907, the US Forest Service began incorporating the Bird-Truax Trail 1866 into their system of trails needed for fire suppression and fire lookout access and supply. By 1910, forest management was definitely progressing with the construction of a ranger cabin next to the Lolo Trail at Bald Mountain. A large trail system came into being in the next twenty years and the Lolo Trail was the main line trail for a large area of the national forest. In a few places, the Forest Service abandoned the long switchbacks of the Bird-Truax Trail 1866 in favor of the more direct original Indian trail. Forest Service use and stock driveway use of the trail wore the tread deeply and widely in some segments. In other segments, we can still see the trail in almost its original 1866 condition.


    The Salish from the Bitterroot Valley and the Nez Perce from the Clearwater Valley had Salmon fishing weirs on the upper Lochsa River above Weir Creek. Lewis and Clark, in 1805, reported seeing some of these fishing weirs. This trail was not as frequently used as the main Northern Nez Perces Trail so much of its tread can no longer be found. Several Indian trails dropped off the main ridge of the Lolo Trail to access various parts of the upper Lochsa River. These trails were located at Ashpile Peak, Jerry Johnson Lookout, Wendover Ridge, Parachute Hill, and other places. The fishing trail followed by Lewis & Clark went from the mouth of Brushy Fork, over Beaver Ridge, and down to the confluence of Crooked Fork and White Sand Creek. It then went along the north side of the Lochsa River, passing through Powell Ranger Station and Lochsa Lodge, and on to Wendover Ridge where it went back up to join the main Lolo Trail at the top. Parts of this trail were incorporated into the Forest Service trail system starting about 1910. Some historic literature refers to it as the "down river trail."

Lewis and Clark 1805
    Traveling westward on September 14, 1805, the expedition came to a fork in the Lolo Trail. The right hand fork was the main trail that went west, crossed Crooked Fork, and climbed to the top of Rocky Point. The left hand fork going south was the salmon fishing trail to the Lochsa River. Toby, their Shoshoni guide, led them down the fishing trail and to Powell Ranger Station for their evening camp. This diversion from the main trail was unfortunate but understandable. The main trail went sharply down a broad ridge and was not easy to see. The fishing trail had been recently used and was well worn. When they got to the Lochsa River, their journals reported seeing some of the fishing weirs.


    In the early 1990s, the US Forest Service began opening the western segments of the Bird-Truax Trail 1866 to provide hiking and horseback riding recreation to hunters, outfitters, and summer hikers. Most of this work occurred between Musselshell Meadows and Sherman Peak. The opening of the tread was done by volunteers under a Federal Government program called Take Pride in America (TPIA). This program offered volunteers the opportunity to do various public works projects with federal land managers and/or archeologists. When the TPIA program was discontinued, the Clearwater National Forest continued with the volunteers under a local program called Take Pride in the Clearwater (TPIC). Many segments of the original 1866 tread are being used as the tread of the adventure trail but, in some places, a rerouted trail has been constructed to lessen the steepness and erosion of the original trail. Some segments of the original trail tread have been filled in with dead brush and logs.
    The Nee-Mee-Poo Adventure Trail is appropriately signed in keeping with its intertwining with the historic trail and can be accessed, using the 500 Road (Lolo Motorway) between the months of July and October. At other times of the year, the access road may be closed with snow. The Adventure Trail is being maintained by the Forst Service with the use of volunteers and contract workers.


    I welcome any feedback from visitors to this site. Please email me if you have any comments or suggestions about how this web page can be improved or questions about historical accuracy. All information has been based on: 1) my personal observations and experience hiking the trail. or 2) original journal sources. Thank you. Steve F. Russell, SFR@IASTATE.EDU

Copyright (c) 1999-2005 Steve F. Russell  All Rights Reserved

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