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 Northern Nez Perces Trail 1730-1866
Hungery Creek Branch
Snowy Summit Branch
The Bird Truax Trail 1866
The Koos-Koos-Kee Salmon Fishing Trail 1805
Nee-Mee-Poo Adventure Trail 2009
The major types of historical use and associated dates of the treads of the Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark are:
Before circa 1730: foot traffic between the Salish and Nez Perce, access to mountain meadows and food sources.
Circa 1730-1877: The Lolo Trail was developed and used by native
people with horses. This use included a wide area of travel to the east and
south. One of the most often cited travel reasons was to hunt buffalo in central Montana.
1805-06: The trail followed by the Corps of Discovery under the
command of M. Lewis and W. Clark as they explored for a transportation route
through the Louisiana Purchase.
1832: John Work of the Hudson's Bay company led a fur trapping brigade
of over 200 people across the Lolo Trail. The party of men also included
their wives and children as well as many horses and dogs. They traveled eastbound
from the Weippe Prairie, over Lolo Pass, and on to Lolo, Montana.
1854: The route of a railroad survey conducted by John Mullan.
1866: The construction of a government trail (Bird-Truax Trail 1866)
between Weippe, Idaho and Lolo Pass on the Idaho-Montana border.
1877: The war between the US government and the non-treaty Nez Perce bands.
1907-1935: The main line trail used by the US Forest Service to
access the land between the Lochsa Fork and North Fork of the Clearwater
1926-1935: Construction of a one-lane natural-surface road along the Lolo Trail route that we call the Lolo Motorway.
1935-Present: Major trail use was abandoned in 1935 in favor of using
the Lolo Motorway. Minor use of some segments by hunters continues to the
1992-Present: The construction of several miles of the Nee-Mee-Poo
Adventure Trail, a recreation trail created on, or near, the Bird-Truax Trail
NORTHERN NEZ PERCES TRAIL 1730-1866
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
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
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 theKoos-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
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
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.
BIRD-TRUAX TRAIL 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