Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bitterroot Mountain Drive to Lolo Pass Along the Lewis and Clark Expedition Route

Wednesday was another nice day for a drive. We had been to the Lolo Pass in 2008 but wanted to drive the route again.   It is just a nice drive along the Lochsa River and then up into the mountains.  The Bitterroot Mountains are part of the Bitterroot Range, part of the Rocky Mountains, located in the panhandle of Idaho and westernmost Montana. The mountains encompass an area of 4,862 square miles, are bordered on the north by Lolo Creek, to the northeast by the Clark Fork, on the south by the Salmon River, on the east by the Bitterroot River and Valley, and on the west by the Selway and Lochsa Rivers. Its highest summit is Trapper Peak, at 10,157 feet.  Lolo Pass, elevation, 5,233 feet, is on the border between Montana and Idaho, approximately 40 miles west-southwest of Missoula, MT.

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There are vey few overlooks.  The pass is the highest point of the historic Lolo Trail, between the Bitterrroot Valley in Montana and the Weippe Prairie in Idaho. The trail, known as the "Nez Perce Trail",  was used by Nez Perce in the 18th century, and by the Lewis and Clark Expedition on their westward snowbound journey in September 1805.  The visitor’s center at the pass has a small interpretive museum and shows history films about the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  There is also a trail to the expedition’s camp site. Can you imagine what Lewis and Clark thought when they reached a ridge sand aw the mountains in the picture above as far as the eye could see?  I can only guess how daunted they must have felt.  But one of the most amazing things about the story of the expedition is their determination to complete their task and never once thought of turning back.  It was a rough and hard journey over these mountains trying to get through such thick trees, brush, and snow. 

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To get to the actual ridge trail the expedition took, you have to take a forest service dirt road that connects to the main original larger trail, which is still a rough road.  It is too steep and narrow for a large vehicle like our truck.  There are all kinds of forest service roads for public use and hiking.  Highway 12 goes all the way from Missoula to the Weippe Prairie but that would have been a 350 mile round trip, so we decided not to go that far. 

After a winter at Fort Clatsop in present-day northwestern Oregon, the Corps of Discovery returned the following June. The Lolo Trail is a now a National Landmark.   Lolo Hot Springs is 7 miles east in Montana.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition camped by these springs.  The springs are now a public swimming pool area with a few gift shops and camping area.  After crossing the pass the first time on the way west, and getting lost, the expedition came out onto the Weippe Prairie.  There they met the Nez Perce, many who had never seen a white man.  The Nez Perce showed the expedition the way to the Clearwater River, which led to the Snake River, which led to the Columbia River, which led the expedition to the Pacific ocean. 

When camped in Lewiston, ID, in 2008, we drove to the Weippe Prairie from the west side of the Bitterroot Mountains.  It is one of my favorite spots.  There is hardly anything there except a very tiny area you can hardly call a town.  The area is mostly just farmland.  But the drive up switchbacks from the Clearwater River brings you to the open prairie and it so beautiful with the big sky, a breeze lightly blowing the grass, the Bitterroot Mountains in the background, and above all, just the quiet and serenity of the place.  It felt like a place that time forgot. 

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When we leave Missoula on Tuesday, we are driving south down the Bitterroot Valley.  That will also take us close to more Lewis and Clark areas talked about in their journals. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Back Roads of Montana and National Bison Range

What an absolutely beautiful drive we had on Monday as we explored the back roads of northwest Montana that wound through the prairies, mountains, and along rivers.  A gorgeous day with plenty of blue sky and pleasant temperature.  We got up early and were on the road by 7:30 AM.   Our first destination was the National Bison Range, about a 40 minute drive north of Missoula.  The bison range is on the Flathead Indian Reservation.  The 18,500-acre bison range is home to about 500 head of bison, plus black bear, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, & elk.  The drive is an 18 mile one way hard packed gravel road that winds over the edge of prairie hills, through a forest, and back down to the valley.  From various higher hills, there are fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.   The view of the farm and ranch lands from above made the valley look like somebody just laid a patchwork quilt over it.  The area seemed like a real hidden gem. 

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The Flathead River flows through this area and the Mission Mountains are in the background of this next picture.  The Bitterroot Mountains to the southeast in the 2nd picture can be seen from the top of our drive.   

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As soon as we entered the park at 8 AM, we were rewarded with a sighting of a coyote on the ridge.  Pictures may be a bit blurred because signs all through the park tell you not to get out of your car.  Plus, with the truck running and driving on gravel, it was hard to control the shaking.  I did cheat once in awhile and got out, and we were able to get out of the truck at the rest area.  It was still early morning so some areas were still in shadow.  We saw a small group of bison and a few individuals throughout the park. We also saw mule deer, antelope, and even a chipmunk.  But no sighting of elk or bear. 

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The big horn sheep were way up on a far ridge, so with the camera zoomed all the way out, it was still a bit shaky.  So Doug got out his spotting scope.  We also saw a nice big eagle out hunting for his breakfast.  The drive took about 2 hours because we drove pretty slow as we scouted the area very carefully looking for the wildlife.  

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This was such a treat and don’t know why we didn’t discover it on previous visits to Missoula. 

Our second destination was to view areas that show remaining evidence of Glacial Lake Missoula.  Lake Missoula was a prehistoric glacial lake in western MT that existed periodically at the end of the last ice age between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. The lake measured about 3,000 square miles and contained about 500 cubic miles of water.  The Glacial Lake Missoula National Natural Landmark is located about 68 miles northwest of Missoula at the north end of the Camas Prairie Valley.  It was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1966 because it contains the great ripples, often measuring 25 to 50 feet high and 300 feet formed by repeated cataclysmic floods over only about 2,000 years, rather than through the millions of years of erosion that had been previously assumed.  The lake was the result of an ice dam on the Clark Fork caused by the southern encroachment of a finger of an ice sheet into the Idaho panhandle.  The height of the ice dam typically approached 2,000 feet,  flooding the valleys of western Montana approximately 200 miles eastward. It was the largest ice-dammed lake known to have occurred.  The periodic rupturing of the ice dam resulted in the Missoula Floods – cataclysmic floods that swept across eastern WA and down the Columbia River Gorge approximately 40 times during a 2,000 year period. The cumulative effect of the floods was to excavate 50 cubic miles of sediment and basalt from the scablands of eastern Washington and to transport it downstream.  These floods are noteworthy for producing canyons and other large geologic features through cataclysms rather than through more gradual processes. 

Doug researched where to find some of the “ripples” and we were able to see some of them and also see some of the other land features where the water flowed through mountain areas, etc..  It is just beyond comprehension as to the size of this amount of water and ice!  Ripple marks on the landscape are easily visible from a plane.  In the bison range there is a marker that shows the highest level of the water.  Back down in the valley, we would have been under 1,300’ of water at that location as seen in the picture below taken from the bison range.  Missoula would have been under 1,000’ feet of water.  When the ice dam broke, the water rushed across the landscape at 50 to 60 miles an hour!  You can see some ripples running across the center of the 2nd picture.  The 3rd picture shows one of the passes that the water rushed over.  Just unimaginable!!

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That was really interesting to see.  Since we were out that way, we crossed over the pass above into the valley on the other side to have lunch.  What a neat little place off the beaten path we found in Hot Springs, a tiny town nestled up against the base of a mountain way out in the middle of nowhere.   The food was better than what we would find in any larger town!  We even had lunch with REAL cowboys.  Horse trailer plus horse in the parking lot,  plaid shirts, stained jeans and cowboy hats,  worn boots, and even worn spurs!  Just good old Montana working cowboys. 

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We completed our drive by going back to Missoula by way of more scenery.  It was so pleasant on wide open roads with almost no traffic and landscape that took us back into the forest and along the Clark Fork River.   It was so pretty out there!  We have been on lots of scenic drives, but our route the other day has become one of our more memorable ones.  Amazing how quickly the landscape changes from prairie to forest in just a short distance between the two.  The 2nd picture is Rainbow Lake, a lasting result that formed after the Missoula floods.  We turned off the main road and took a short jaunt down a dirt road to stand at the edge of the lake.  Wouldn’t you know, there was a small bridge just a few yards up the road with this view!  But there was nowhere to pull over.  Not bad shooting from a moving truck!  

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It is just such a scenic area of Montana and we enjoyed every minute of it!  To top off the day, our route brought us back to I-90 at St. Regis, many miles west of Missoula.  We had stopped there on our way to the the campground.  We knew what they served! Yep! Huckleberry Ice Cream!  So of course, we got another fix!  I also took advantage and stocked up on a few huckleberry products.  The day was well worth the long hours in the truck. 

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Missoula, Montana, Through the Labor Day Weekend

As we left Spokane, the interstate took us across the border of WA and Idaho and up into the Coeur D’Alene National Forest, which is part of the Bitterroot Mountain Range.  We have driven that route before and it is a nice pleasant drive that winds through mountains, forest, and follows the Clark Fork River into Missoula.  The drive also took us along part of Lake Coeur D’Alene in Idaho, which is a really gorgeous area.  Give me the mountains and I am always happy! 

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We are staying at Jim and Mary’s RV Park until Sept. 2nd.  We wanted a nice place to stay for the Labor Day holiday.  It is a nice RV park, very busy, and full most nights this time of year.  Sure glad we thought ahead to make reservations!  The owners (no longer Jim & Nary) take excellent care of the park.  The park is nestled among trees and just beautiful flower beds are at almost every site cultivated right here in the owner’s greenhouse.  Everything is still so colorful!  It is like walking outside into your own back yard.  The garden inserted on the right of the 1st picture is one of two that line the entrance of the small office.  We even have a few nice views of the mountains from our site. This park is probably so popular because as you turn right out of the park, you are on Highway 93, which is a major highway that takes you up to Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park.  That, too, is a nice drive and we have driven it a couple of times as a day trip to Kalispell.   We have been to Glacier National Park a few times in previous travels. 

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As a treat for the campers, on Wednesday nights a local cowboy comes to the park and sings cowboy and western songs.  He was pretty good and an older man.  His side kick was also an older man who plays the banjo, etc.  The side kick was also of Native American heritage and played an Indian song on the drum and sang in the Indian language.  Uh….Where’s Custer!!?  For refreshment, we were served Huckleberry Ice Cream!  Umm..think I’ll go again next week just to get the ice cream! 

We stayed at this park in 2004 the first visit.  We thought we had discovered a pleasant small college town (including Wal-Mart).  Well, guess people discovered the mountain pass was open!!  When we returned in 2008, we were amazed at the growth and bumper to bumper traffic, literally, down the main drag of the shopping area!  Now, in 2014, this place has exploded!  Traffic is still bumper to bumper but stop and go all the way down the main drag for at least 5+ miles!  You can find just about every chain store and restaurant in America with a location in Missoula! There is even a fairly new enclosed mall and housing developments everywhere.  Even the old downtown and back streets are heavy in traffic.  Unbelievable!  Why aren’t these people working? They can’t all be retirees and college students!  Thank goodness the RV park is a few miles away from town.

Missoula postcard 

Missoula is located along the Clark Fork River near its confluence with the Bitterroot River in western Montana and at the convergence of five mountain ranges, thus is often described as the "Hub of Five Valleys".  Archaeological artifacts date the Missoula Valley's earliest inhabitants to the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago with settlements as early as 3,500 BCE. From the 1700s until European settlements began a hundred years later, the land was primarily used by populations of the Salish, Kootenai, Blackfeet, and Shoshone tribes. Located at the confluence of five mountain valleys, the Missoula Valley was heavily traversed by local and distant native tribes that periodically went to the Eastern Montana plains in search of bison, leading to inevitable conflict. The narrow valley at Missoula's eastern entrance was so strewn with human bones from repeated ambushes that French fur trappers would later refer to this area as "Porte d' Enfer," translated as "Hell's Gate". Hell Gate would remain the name of the area until it was renamed "Missoula" in 1866.

Western exploration to the area began with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which stopped twice just south of Missoula at Traveler’s Rest (first from September 9–11, 1805, and again from June 30-July 3, 1806) before splitting up on the return journey, with Clark taking the southern route along the Bitterroot River and Lewis travelling north through Hellgate Canyon on July 4.  In 1860 hell Gate Village was established just west of present-day Missoula as a trading post to serve travelers on the recently completed Mullan Road, the first wagon road to cross the Rocky Mountains to the inland of the Pacific Northwest.  The desire for a more convenient water supply to power a lumber and flour mill led to the movement of the settlement to its modern location in 1864.  The name "Missoula" came from the Salish name for the Clark Fork River, "nmesuletkw", which roughly translates as "place of frozen water" and possibly refers to the ancient Glacial Lake Missoula once located in the valley. Growth accelerated with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883, and the Town of Missoula was chartered the same year. Missoula was founded in 1860 as Hellgate Trading Post while still part of Washington Territory. By 1866, the settlement had moved five miles upstream and renamed Missoula Mills for the lumber industry, later shortened to Missoula. The establishment of Fort Missoula in 1877 to protect settlers further stabilized the economy.  By the 1990s, Missoula's lumber industry had gradually disappeared, and today the city's largest employers are the University of Montana and Missoula's two hospitals. Missoula is also home to the University of Montana. 

We plan on exploring some more Lewis and Clark sites.