The route that lies west of here, the Lolo Trail, was different from other east-west 19th century American trails. It did not witness a flood of cross-country migration. There were no covered wagons here.
Unmapped and shifting over time, it penetrated such formidable terrain that it was only passable with the aid of those who had traveled it before, with a knowledge passed from generation to generation. Long before it became an explorer’s route, it was an American Indian trail. Lewis and Clark would have been lost here without the aid of their Indian guides. On June 27, 1806, William Clark described these mountains as:
“…Stupendous Mountains principally coveredwith snow like that on which we stood; we are entirely serounded by thos mountains from which to one unacquanted with them it would have Seemed impossble ever to have escaped…”
The Bitterroot Mountains were the most difficult part of a trail that connected the plains of the Columbia River with those of the Missouri. Its unyielding topography and dense timber stubbornly resisted “improvement for wheeled vehicles" until the 1960s. And try as they did, railroads were never able to penetrate the mountains to the west. U.S. Highway 12 roughly parallels the Lolo Trail, which is mostly above you, atop the ridges and saddles north or south of the highway.
Except for changes in the vegetation, the Lolo Trail looks much like it did hundreds of years ago. Watch for other interpretive signs that will tell you more of the story. If you do, you’ll understand why Congress chose to preserve the settings as the Nee Mee Poo National Historic Trail and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which together make up the Lolo Trail.