RIVERS WEST 45-Day RV Caravan
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from France with the hope of finding a water route linking the Columbia and Missouri rivers that would ultimately connect the Pacific Ocean with the Mississippi River system. He selected Meriwether Lewis, his personal secretary, to lead the expedition. Lewis then asked William Clark to join him as co-commanding captain of the venture, and they gathered a diverse military Corps of Discovery to make the two-year journey to the Pacific and back.
The following summer, the Lewis & Clark Expedition departed from Camp Wood just outside of St. Louis, paddling their canoes upstream on the Missouri River. The following spring, they arrived in Three Forks, Montana, meeting up with Shoshone Indians who guided them over the Bitterroot Mountains. There, they boarded canoes that transported them down the Columbia River. And on November 15, 1805, one year, six months and one day after leaving St. Louis, they arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River, where it feeds into the Pacific Ocean.
It doesn’t take Fantasy RV Tours this long to follow the epic route of Lewis and Clark, but we do take 45 days to experience it. We drive on well-maintained roads – no paddling here – but we also take the time to soak up the history and scenery experienced by these early explorers.
Our journey begins in St Charles, Missouri, where we meet other Fantasy adventurers for our orientation, get-acquainted party and welcome dinner. We are also treated to a live performance of actors reenacting Lewis and Clark’s incredible expedition. We’re located just outside of St. Louis, and we spend the next two days enjoying two guided bus tours, visiting William Clark’s gravesite, Daniel Boone’s home, the Camp River Interpretive Center, Union Station and Cape Wood. Later, those not faint of heart can ride the tram up the 630-foot iconic Gateway Arch as well as watch a movie about Lewis and Clark’s westward travel.
After exploring the St. Louis area and the departure point of the expedition, we head to the village of Arrow Rock, Missouri. We learn about the history of ‘Boone’s Lick Country’ through the exhibits and presentations at Arrow Rock Park. The next day we move on to Platte City, where we spend time in this small town which is part of the Kansas City metropolitan region. We enjoy a guided tour of Kansas City, stopping at the World War I museum, the only public museum in the United States dedicated to this conflict. We visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum – not your typical museum. In 1856, the Steamboat Arabia was carrying more than 200 tons of cargo along the Missouri River. It hit a tree snag and sank. Over time, the Missouri River changed course, eventually burying the Arabia and its cargo beneath a Kansas cornfield. The payload, protected from light and oxygen, was remarkably well preserved. In 1991, this cargo was transferred to the museum. From fine china to tools to children’s toys, it is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.
We also take time to stop at Clark’s Point in Case Park, where Lewis and Clark stopped in 1806 to view the Missouri River Valley. Today, a commemorative statue on this spot recognizes the explorers.
At our next stop, in Greenwood, Nebraska, we venture to Council Bluffs to visit the Lewis & Clark Monument. We also visit Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, started by a priest who dreamed that every child could be a productive citizen if given love, a home and education. And we end the day watching a melodrama at Eugene Mahoney State Park.
We drive on to North Sioux City, South Dakota, but experience several interesting venues along the way. We stop at Ft. Atkinson, the first U.S. military post west of the Missouri River and originally established upon the recommendation of William Clark. We visit the monument to Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the Lewis & Clark expedition and the first soldier to die west of the Mississippi River. The Corps of Discovery stayed in the Sioux City area from late July through early September in 1804, and we visit the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center to view their permanent exhibits. Our travels continue along the banks of the majestic Missouri River, stopping in Chamberlain at the Akta Lakota (which means to honor the people) Museum and Cultural Center, telling the stories and history of the Northern Plains Indian Tribes. Then it’s on to Pierre, South Dakota’s capital city.
Our Pierre city bus tour takes us to Oahe Dam, one of the largest earth-rolled dams in the world, creating Lake Oahe, the fourth largest artificial reservoir in the United States. We move on to the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, relating tales of the gutsy homesteaders and others who settled in this state. Next, we tour the South Dakota State Capitol – a four-story neoclassical building with a granite foundation that rests on boulders collected from the surrounding prairies. Under the dome in the rotunda, four large round paintings of Greek goddesses symbolize the four main South Dakota themes: agriculture, livestock, mining and family. At Lilly Park, the site where Lewis and Clark had their first meeting with the Lakota Sioux, we are joined by a guest speaker.
Our Fantasy Expedition continues into North Dakota, spending four nights in Bismarck. On our itinerary is a visit to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, where General George Custer’s last home has been reconstructed. It’s also home to On-a-Slant Indian Village, a 400-year-old community of the Mandan tribe which thrived for 200 years. We enjoy a local lunch and then tour the State Capitol, a nineteen-story art deco building constructed in 1933. The next day we’re off and running with a city tour of Bismarck and a visit at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, featuring exhibits of many of the items used on the expedition. We stop for lunch at the reconstructed Fort Mandan, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter from 1804 to 1805. We are joined by the Missouri Muzzle Loaders, who reenact the winter campout for our group, allowing us to fire antique guns, play hatchet-throwing games and sample food cooked over an open fire, just as the original Corps did.
While in Fort Mandan, the Lewis & Clark Expedition encountered Sacagawea, a young Shoshone Native American woman with a newborn baby. She had been kidnapped by a rival tribe when she was only 12 years old and later sold into slavery. Lewis and Clark realized that they would eventually need the help of the Shoshone tribe and hired Sacagawea as a translator. Thus a woman and a baby joined the Corps.
At our next stop in Medora we enjoy a pitchfork fondue dinner and western musical theater at Theodore Roosevelt National Park – definitely one of the highlights of this trip. Chefs load rib eye steaks onto pitchforks and fondue them in hot oil, serving them with all kinds of cowboy fixings. We continue the trail into Montana, stopping overnight in Fort Peck and the small town of Havre to tour beneath the streets. When the town’s wooden buildings were consumed by fire, the residents and local businesses simply moved into their basements, digging a series of tunnels to connect them together. There’s an underground bank, funeral parlor, drugstore, saloon, Chinese laundry and, of course, a bordello. While in town, we also tour the Wahkpa Chu’gn historic buffalo jump, dating back 2,000 years.
We continue on to East Glacier National Park, where we spend a few nights and days exploring the breathtaking mountain peaks, alpine meadows, glaciers and lakes of this amazingly beautiful region. We tour the park in one of their iconic red buses and enjoy lunch at the magnificent Glacier Park Lodge.
It took Lewis and Clark three weeks to portage their boats along the last 15 miles of the Missouri River because of the five waterfalls on the way to Great Falls. Fortunately it doesn’t take us nearly as long. Upon arrival we’re treated to dinner and a living-history performance by the Lewis & Clark Honor Guard. The next day, we have a guided bus tour of various Corps’ sites, including Ryan Dam, Black Eagle Falls and the actual portage route used by the expedition. We top things off with a visit to the C.M. Russell Museum, home to the paintings and bronzes of Charlie Russell, an internationally known artist and cowboy who spent most of his life in central Montana.
Our first night in Helena offers a special treat. We travel via horse-drawn wagons through high mountain forests to the hand-crafted Moose Mountain Cabin for a memorable evening of good food and live music at the Last Chance Ranch. The next day, we enjoy a guided bus tour of the city, visiting the the State Capitol, the beautiful Cathedral of St. Helena and the Mansion District. Helena, at one point, was believed to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. Many of the homes built by these millionaires still stand today.
On the way to Dillon, we stop in Virginia City, a very much alive Old West Victorian gold mining town. When the gold ran out, the town remained, although there were not enough resources to remodel the buildings. It’s still the true and original Old West, offering lots of natural beauty and history. The next day we head to Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers merge to begin the 2,300-mile Missouri River.
After enjoying a campground cookout the prior evening, we travel on a guided bus tour over Lemhi Pass and to Camp Fortunate, where a key episode took place on the journey of the Corps of Discovery. On August 13, 1805, Merriweather Lewis finally made contact with the Lemhi-Shoshone tribe. He was anxious to trade for horses so they could cross the mountain ranges ahead. Although initially a tense situation, a Shoshone woman recognized Sacagawea, as she had been with her at the time she had been kidnapped years before. Coincidentally, the leader of this Shoshone group turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother, and the horse trading began. These strokes of luck led to the name Camp Fortunate. We continue on to Bannack State Park and Bannack Ghost Town to enjoy a picnic lunch.
The next day, we stop at Big Hole National Battlefield, a memorial to the Nez Perce Indians who died here in 1877. The U.S. Army was enforcing a national policy to place all American Indians on reservations to make way for expansion. Here, they attacked the non-treaty Nez Perce, killing about 750 of them. We stay in Lolo and enjoy a Lewis & Clark living-history performance before continuing on to Orofino, Idaho. We enjoy a delicious dinner on the banks of the Clearwater River at the High Country Inn and take a guided tour of Clearwater Canoe Camp, where after their land crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805, the Corps rested and built five dugout canoes in order to continue their journey.
We move westward, stopping in Clarkston, Washington, in order to learn more about the Nez Perce at a presentation at the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding. We experience a more modern form of transportation with a jet boat cruise through Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River. (Lewis and Clark would still be paddling!) Then it’s on to Portland with a stop in Boardman.
Fantasy has a lot planned in Oregon’s ‘City of Roses.’ We stop at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center that relates the story of how the Columbia River created the gorge during the Ice Age. Lewis and Clark discovered the gorge and were followed later by Oregon Trail pioneers and the railroad. Arriving in Portland, we enjoy a reenactment of the Corps’ arrival in Oregon through a living-history performance. The following day, we take a guided bus tour of the Columbia Gorge Highway, viewing the magnificent Multnomah Falls – 611 feet of cascading water. We visit Bonneville Dam and experience firsthand the operation of two of the nation’s largest hydroelectric powerhouses as well as stop in the underwater viewing rooms to watch migrating fish travel upstream. At Cascade Locks, we experience the Columbia River aboard a sternwheeler boat. The following day is spent on a bus tour to Mount St. Helens to remember the 1980 eruption at the Volcanic Monument and Johnston Ridge Observatory. We eat lunch at Hoffstadt Bluffs to catch a panoramic view of the mountain and flood plain, where mud rushed down into the valley after the explosion, raising it a mile higher than before.
Finally we reach the Expedition’s final destination – where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. We take a guided bus tour to Knappton Cove Heritage Center, where Asian immigrants were once quarantined upon their arrival in America. We move on to Dismal Nitch, which got its name from Captain Clark’s reference to this cove as a ‘dismal little nitch’ when the Corps were trapped for six stormy days by fierce winds and high waves just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. We visit Fort Clatsop, built by the Corps of Discovery and their home for three months. Lewis and Clark named the fort for the friendly local Indian tribe, the Clatsop, who came to the fort nearly every day to visit and trade.
On our final day, we reminisce not only about our time traveling this route together, but also the amazing journey undertaken by the brave and adventurous Lewis and Clark and their crew. We visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, following their trail as well as the one we have taken over the past 44 days. That evening, we enjoy our Fantasy Farewell dinner, bid goodbye to our fellow adventurers and head out on our own journey – now so much more informed and appreciative of the trails opened by the pioneers before us.