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Landscapes of the American Spirit

by Mary Apple, Montana State Office

Madison River through the Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Area 

The Madison River flows through the Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Area.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). The NLCS contains some of the West’s most spectacular landscapes.  It includes over 886 federally recognized areas and approximately 27 million acres of national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, national scenic and historic trails, and conservation lands of the California Desert.

Montana’s NLCS lands include Pompeys Pillar and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Area, the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce national historic trails, the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, and 39 wilderness study areas.

Whether you’re a history buff, a hiker, a river floater or whitewater rafter, like viewing wildlife or spectacular scenery, or maybe just want to get it away from it all, these areas have something for you. 

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

Under the command of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the members of the Corps of Discovery traveled over 3,700 miles between May of 1804 and September of 1806. Their journey followed the courses of the Missouri and Columbia rivers. Nationally, the BLM manages about 330 miles of land along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.  Of the 330 BLM miles, 310 are in Montana and include the crown jewels of the trail--Pompeys Pillar and the Upper Missouri River Breaks national monuments.  

Pompeys Pillar National Monument

During his return trip to St. Louis, William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition climbed the Pillar and carved his signature and the date in the sandstone.  Clark wrote, “This rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction on the Northerly Side of the river high romantic Clifts approach & jut over the water for Some distance both above and below...I marked my name and the day of the month and year."

While archeological digs and other recent research have uncovered artifacts that may have been left by the Corps of Discovery, Clark’s inscription is still the only remaining physical evidence of Lewis and Clark’s passing visible on their actual route. This historic carving on the sandstone butte that Clark called a “remarkable rock” has inspired generations of visitors for more than 100 years.

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument covers about 375,000 acres of BLM-administered public land in central Montana. These lands hold a spectacular array of plant life, wildlife, unique geological features, endless recreational opportunities and significant historical and cultural values.  The rugged landscape has retained much of its unspoiled character over the centuries and, as a result, offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and dispersed recreation. In some areas, the BLM lands are intermingled with State of Montana lands and private property. The monument designation applies only to the BLM-managed lands. Landowner permission is required prior to using private property for any activity.

Upper Missouri River Wild and Scenic River

The 149-mile Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River flows through the monument. The land and the rugged, surrounding uplands (commonly call the Missouri Breaks) are defined in part by their history.  The entire region was the homeland and lifeblood of American Indians. The river served as the pathway for Lewis and Clark, then the waterway for steamboats and a drawing card for fur trappers and traders.  Later, the river and the Missouri Breaks were sanctuaries for desperados trying to stay a step ahead of the law. 

Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Area

The Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness area is one of the four units of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area. It was the first BLM- administered land to enter into the wilderness preservation system. The 6,000-acre area offers beautiful wilderness scenery plus exciting whitewater rafting featuring the famous Class IV-V “Kitchen Sink” rapids. The 1,500-foot cliffs that border the canyon provide a dramatic backdrop for nature study, hiking, rafting and fishing along the nine-mile Bear Trap Canyon National Recreation Trail. The trail follows the river the length of the canyon but can only be accessed from the north end (no through-hiking). 

Nez Perce National Historic Trail

The 1877 flight of the Nez Perce from their homelands while pursued by U.S. Army Generals Howard, Sturgis, and Miles, is one of the most fascinating and sorrowful events in western U.S. history.  Chief Joseph, Chief Looking Glass, Chief White Bird, Chief Ollokot, Chief Lean Elk, and others led nearly 750 Nez Perce men, women, and children and twice that many horses over 1,170 miles through the mountains, on a trip that lasted from June to October of 1877.

Their desperate and circuitous route as they tried to escape the pursuing white forces is what we now call the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Their four-state route, dictated by terrain and strategy, measured over 1,170 miles.  From first to last, a warrior force that never exceeded 250 men fought 20 engagements with pursuing forces which totaled some 2,000 soldiers plus uncounted civilian volunteers and support from Nez Perce enemies. The Nez Perce were finally captured on October 5 by Col. Miles, just 40 miles short of their Canadian goal.

The trail enters Montana along the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone.  It then heads north to the Bear's Paw Mountains, ending 40 miles from the Canadian border. 

Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

The 3,100-mile long Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs from Canada to Mexico through the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Crossing the spine of the North American continent numerous times, it traverses some of America's most spectacular and isolated scenery, offering views unlike any other trail in the world. The BLM manages a segment of the trail in southwestern Montana. This segment crawls through the Centennial Mountains from Monida to Red Rock Pass. The trail passes through some of the most scenic country in southwestern Montana.



Last updated: 06-28-2012