First stop and day one is a trip to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. If there is a local museum, then this is where I always begin.
Our National Park Service does a great job of explaining what happened on the Lewis & Clark expedition, and these centers give me a great point of beginning for each area of the trail. But this one in Great Falls is run by the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.
The falls are an important moment in Lewis & Clark’s 8,000-mile expedition. It was 1805 and as a point of personal reference, I realized that this was only about 23 years before my ancestors made their migration from South Carolina into Florida. Also, America was only 27 years old when Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase.
His purchase doubled the size of our nation, but Jefferson had already prepared for Lewis & Clark to explore this area long the purchase. So they were already on their way to the west before the ratification of the purchase by Congress was made.
All of this happened during my fifth great grandparents lifetime, Joel and Elizabeth Carter Walker. Maybe they read about it in their local newspaper and discussed it. Or maybe they heard about it by word of mouth. Either way you can be sure it was big news all across the nation in 1805.
The interpretive center is built into a scenic bluff with a spectacular view of the Missouri River. Its highlight is a two-story diorama of the expedition’s portage around not just one but five falls, only one of which is called Great Falls.
The portage took a month as Lewis, Clark, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, her baby, all their supplies and even the canoes had to be portaged. It was an 18-mile portage in the intense heat of June.
This is desert country and the prickly pear cacti tortured the men’s feet because their moccasins were not enough to keep the puncturing plants at bay. The members of the expedition became much fatigued.
Here is why they had to portage. The Great Falls of the Missouri River are a series of five waterfalls, which are located within a ten-mile area of the river. Black Eagle Falls is over 26′ high, Colter Falls is over six feet high, Rainbow Falls is over 44′, Crooked Falls is 19′ high, and the Great Falls itself is 97 feet high.
The river drops a total of 612 feet from the first of the falls to the last. Meriwether Lewis said they were the grandest sight he saw on the entire expedition.
The Great Falls portage is through privately owned land and is not open to the public. After all, this is the west, and western water law is what they follow out here.
In the east we do not own the land under our waters, they are sovereign lands. But out here, they do. So to see the falls by water is impossible. You would have to row against the current and then would only see the first falls, as it would be illegal today to portage around the falls.
You can, though, see them from roads and trails. The Interpretive Center is just off of River Road which runs along the south side of the River. Just before reaching the center, I stopped at an overlook to see Black Eagle Falls, which was partially destroyed by a dam. Below is a picture of before the dam and after.
The Interpretive Center is on Hidden Springs Road just off of River Rd. The center has a great film about the portage with actors in period style clothing. It even had a trained grizzly in the story, but at one point I guess he forgot that he was trained and ran the actor playing Lewis out into the stream. In Lewis’s journal the bear stopped at the edge of the river. I guess he wasn’t that hungry. The scene in the film was a funny, but a very real moment in making the documentary.
They also devised a simulation of what it was like to pull the canoes along over the hard ground. I tried my strength and found out that I was only able to pull the canoe at four miles per hour. And that was only for about 5 seconds. One day they were able to hoist a sail and sail the canoe across.
If you continue past the Center on Hidden Springs Road, you can see Rainbow Falls from another overlook.
Colter Falls is submerged under the reservoir formed by the Rainbow Falls dam. It is the only one of the five falls that cannot be seen, but almost all the falls have been affected by the dams in one way or the other.
To reach Crooked Falls I hiked down a small trail next to the river leaving from the trailhead at the second overlook on Rainbow Falls. There is a paved trail, but it winds around and is a longer trail. I took the unpaved trail near the edge of the bluff overlooking the river.
I got to a fork in the trail at one point and had my choice of a “more difficult” or a “most difficult” trail to take. Both led to the same place. I took the “more difficult” and still have no idea why they thought it was difficult at all. I wore a pair of plastic Birkenstock slides so I didn’t chance the “most difficult” one.
Finally, I reached Crooked Falls, but the water flow from Rainbow is so low that much of these falls are dry. Still, though, the entire scene was beautiful, as I walked high above the south side of the river. It is only in the mid 80s today, but the sun is intense. Thankfully I had a cross breeze.
Next, I went in search of the Great Falls themselves. I drove across the river and took the north side River Road until the Ryan Dam Rd. forked off to the right. It ran through farm lands.
The road curved and I followed it down until it came to a rim of a canyon. The river was below. There was an island below this dam with a wonderful view of the falls and the dam above. A bridge provided foot access to the island.
But before I got out of the car I took a moment to snack. I was hungry. I had a little packet of an Arbonne fizzy-powdered drink mix to add to my water. My sister gave it to me the last time we were together in Orlando.
So I poured the whole thing into my bottled water, whereupon it erupted. My bottle looked like a pink volcano, and there was no way to stop it, as it flowed out the top and over my hands. I jumped out of the car but not before some of it got on my clothes. Thankfully the car was untouched.
Would have been ok, but there was no running water in the primitive bathrooms and the river was way below in the canyon. Also the volcanic water bottle was my last one. It was a sticky mess that was only alleviated by licking the junk off my hands. Thank you Arbonne and Linda!
I finally made my way over to the island and to a rock outcropping with a view platform. Of course there is much less water spilling over the falls than in Lewis & Clark’s day. It was still quite a sight and even the smaller waterfalls were still magnificent. I took a picture but the angle of the sun is all wrong. It is already past 6 pm.
It was a great first day, and I’ll travel on up the river in the morning. Tomorrow I’ll make it all the way to the headwaters of the Missouri.