Welcome to the Historic Trails Research
Lolo Trail Website

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 Virgi