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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: