Lemhi Pass and Sacagawea

It had been a chilly night, dipping down to about 20 degrees, and my truck’s windows were coated with frost in the morning.  I tumbled out of the truck, ate some breakfast while watching the sunrise, then hiked a hundred yards down to Lemhi Pass. 

Above:  After exploring the historic Lemhi Pass, I headed south and arrived at Yellowstone National Park around 5 p.m.  Then I had a heck of a time finding a campsite but I finally found one, at Lewis Lake, well past sunset.

This is an interesting area with dirt roads from Lemhi Pass spreading out in five directions, like the legs of a spider.  Two dirt roads headed west: a short road, following roughly the route that Lewis and Clark took during their journey west, and a much longer route with a gentler grade.  One road headed south past the “Steven Ambrose campsite” where I’d camped and along the Continental Divide between Idaho and Montana.  There was also the road from the east going up Trail Creek, which I’d taken yesterday.  And there was a short, dead-end road leading to a monument nearby dedicated to Sacagawea, the lone woman who had traveled with the Lewis & Clark expedition. 

I was the only one at the quiet pass and by 8 a.m. it was still pretty cold, but I was warmed by the sunshine.  I walked down the Sacagawea road, which is about a half-mile long and ends at a U.S. Forest Service parking area.  There are several signs here describing the contribution that Sacagawea (most likely pronounced “sa-COG-a-WE-ah”) had made to the Lewis & Clark expedition.  Other signs described a well-attended dedication ceremony that had been held here for her back in the 1920s, many years after she'd died.  No one is certain when she died, where she died, what she looked like, or even how her name was pronounced.  But, as Steven Ambrose pointed out in his book “Undaunted Courage,” Sacagawea was probably the most important person in the entire Lewis & Clark expedition, and for two reasons.

First, being a woman with a baby, her presence indicated to the many groups of Indians which Lewis & Clark had encountered that this wasn’t a war party.  Without Sacagawea and her child, it’s very likely that the party would’ve been attacked and most likely wiped out at some point.  Second, crossing over the Continental Divide, Lewis and Clark were desperate for horses to carry their gear.  Without horses, the expedition wouldn't make it across the Divide and on to the Pacific.  In one of the most amazing coincidences in American history, when Lewis & Clark reached the summit, they encountered an Indian chief with horses who, incredibly enough, was Sacagawea's long-lost brother.  Sacagawea had been born in this area but was captured by the Sioux when she was a young girl and grew up hundreds of miles east of here.  Now she was returning to her homeland and bumped into her brother here at Lemhi Pass, who provided horses to the expedition.

And the funny thing is, initially to Lewis & Clark, Sacagawea was just "collateral." They wanted her husband, the French trapper Charbonneau (who turned out to be pretty useless), to join their party as an interpreter -- his wife Sacagawea was just part of the package.  This memorial, near Lemhi Pass, is one of the only monuments dedicated to Sacagawea anywhere in the U.S.  A few feet from her memorial is a spring, the source of Trail Creek and thus what you could consider to be the absolute headwaters of the Missouri River.

I spent a few hours at Lemhi Pass, thinking about Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea, and I took a panorama photo.  Around 10 a.m., I packed up the truck and headed west, down the road that follows the Lewis & Clark trail.  Forty minutes later I was at the bottom, at Idaho Highway 28, then I headed across southern Idaho to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

I reached Yellowstone late in the afternoon, showed my National Park Pass to the ranger at the entry station, then glanced at the board showing campground availability.  It’s never good to show up at a National Park late in the day without a campground reservation, especially Yellowstone, but I figured it was late in the season, so I shouldn’t have any trouble finding a campsite.  Wrong.  Every campground I passed during the next two hours had apparently filled to capacity just minutes before I arrived.  And boy was the park crowded.  Even this late in the season, the roads were packed with tourists.  The oncoming traffic on the two-lane roads was non-stop, “car, car, car, car, car, car…” all doing 40 mph, and this went on for an hour.  After having camped alone at Lemhi Pass the previous evening, the traffic and crowds in Yellowstone were pretty unbelievable and reminded me why I hadn’t visited this park in 20 years. 

Well after dark, I pulled into the Lewis Lake campground on the southern edge of the park and found what may have been the very last empty campsite in the entire park.  By the light of my candle lantern, I made dinner at the picnic table, then climbed into the back of my truck and went to bed.  I hadn’t seen much of Yellowstone that afternoon and evening, scrambling around the park trying to find an empty campsite, but I figured I’d check it out tomorrow.

Lemhi Pass to Yellowstone National Park




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