The Ravalli County Museum in Hamilton has promoted the Bitter Root Valley as the center of three historic trails in Montana. The museum building is in the old Ravalli County Courthouse at South 3rd and Bedford - on the same block as the current Courthouse. In this article, you'll see two ways to spell the valley's name - Bitterroot and Bitter Root. That's a story for another time. On to the trails!

"The Valley of Three Trails" includes the famous trek of Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery, the Native American Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) trail, and, thousands of years ago, the path of the Ice Age Floods. Each trail has been recognized by national organizations (including the U.S. Congress) as important historic routes.

Glacial Lake Missoula

The historically earliest path can also be your start of tracking an Ice Age event that affected all of the Pacific Northwest - Glacial Lake Missoula. An ice dam blocked the Clark Fork River at what is now Sandpoint, Idaho. A glacier had backed up water from that point into Western Montana, all the way up the Bitterroot to a point south of Darby. The ice melted, released an unimaginable flood that created the scablands of Washington and the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon. The dam would re-freeze, melt, and flood again - over and over until the glacier retreated. The museum has an outdoor display with a huge boulder that was carried by the ice.

Native Americans used the connecting paths

The Native Americans used parts of the Nee-Me-Poo trail as a route to hunting grounds and the buffalo in eastern Montana. Then, in 1877 Chief Joseph led about 750 Nez Perce men, women and children out of their reservation, following the trail from Idaho into Montana's Bitter Root Valley, over to what is now Yellowstone Park and ending just short of the Canadian border in the Bear's Paw Mountains, where they were stopped by the U.S. Army. U.S. Congress added the route to the National Historic Trail system in 1986.

Lewis and Clark with their Corps of Discovery

Then there's the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. They passed through the valley on their way to the Pacific Coast and liked it so much that when they came back, William Clark went back through the valley on a return route to St. Louis. Meriwether Lewis went a separate way into the northern part of Montana and they rejoined later in eastern Montana.

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Each trail is teeming with history and it's all explained at the Ravalli County Museum. Tourists also enjoy weekly noon hour concerts of local musicians on the lawn in the summer with Tuesday at 12.

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