Crossing Lolo Pass

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Idaho-Montana Border

After Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery crossed what is now Lolo Pass, on the Idaho-Montana border in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains west of Missoula, they described it as the most challenging yet majestic portion of their journey. Today, U.S. Highway 12—the Lewis & Clark Highway—eases the rigor of the route, but the scenery is much as Lewis and Clark, and millenia of Nez Perce travelers before them, saw it.

At the 5,223-foot pass, which marks the state border, visitors will find the Lolo Pass Visitor Center overlooking patches of timber-flanked meadow. The Lolo Pass Visitor Center buildings were a part of the 1923 Old Mud Creek ranger station. In the 1970s, they were moved to Lolo Pass and restored. There, visitors can learn about the arduous 11-day journey of Lewis and Clark across the Bitterroots as well as the historic 1877 exodus of the Nez Perce Indians across the pass as they fled the U.S. Army’s attempts to confine them to a reservation. Lolo Pass lies along the ancient Nez Perce National Historic Trail and is one of the designated sites of Nez Perce National Historic Park, which commemorate this traditional route that the Nez Perce used for thousands of years to connect buffalo hunting grounds in the Great Plains with their ancestral homes in northeast Oregon.

From the visitor center, you can find out about trails and trail conditions and buy a trailhead parking permit. Lewis & Clark described the Lolo Pass region as the most challenging yet majestic portion of their journey. You can choose a trail that suits your ability and time and set off on your own to explore. The accessible Glade Creek Trail leaves from the Lolo Pass Visitor Center and ends at the Glade Creek Campground, where Lewis and Clark made camp. Another trail heads to Weir Creek Hot Springs.

For a more immersive experience, book a guided hike with Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures. These fully outfitted hikes range from one to five days and let you retrace Lewis and Clark’s route on the historic Lolo Trail, a network of primitive footpaths worn into the forest by thousands of years of Nez Perce footsteps. Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures offers hiking, biking and walking tours suited for novice to more advanced guests. Experienced mountain drivers should tour the Lolo Motorway, a primitive, single-lane road, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, which follows portions of the Nez Perce trail. Travelers will find no services on this narrow, winding route, but plenty of ridgetop vistas.

Seven miles east of the pass, you’ll find Lolo Hot Springs. There, you can soak weary bones in the natural mineral pools, dine, and camp or spend the night in one of the resort’s cabins (lolohotsprings.com).

To learn more about visiting Lolo Pass, go to the U.S. Forest Service website at fs.usda.gov and search for Lolo Pass.