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All aboard with Lewis and Clark: from the plains to the Pacific, retrace the incredible Journey of the Corps of Discovery by train while visiting parks that preserve the truly wild West.

With the soothing expanses of he Great Plains behind you d the jagged teeth of the northern Rocky Mountains ahead of you, it is easy to imagine the stark fear--and exultation--that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark felt during their famed expedition across this landscape 200 years ago. As your conveyance huffs and heaves its way across the Rockies, you can sense the difficulty of their travails, as they abandoned their canoes to cross what they called the "formidable mountains." Instead of riding a horse as they did, however, you are following their journey by train.

As the nation celebrates the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, now through 2006, the National Park Service and Amtrak have teamed up to offer several Lewis & Clark Discovery trips as part of their nationwide Trails & Rails Partnership Program. Modern trains with storybook names like the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight--retrace the route of Lewis and Clark from the expedition's beginnings in St. Louis (via two short routes in Missouri) to its triumphant climax in the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, travelers can visit scenic and historic sites associated with the journey, as well as parks that preserve other significant events such as the 19th-century fur trade and gold rash. On board, historians, naturalists, and other interpreters offer multifaceted presentations that bring the story to life, connecting the distant past to the vistas just outside the window.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

This Empire Builder route begins in the town of Minor, North Dakota, which sprang to life with the arrival of the Great Northern Railroad in 1886. Railroads once heralded a new, high-speed age, and Minot residents nick-named their town the "Magic City" because of its rapid development. This leg of the route is sponsored by the nearby Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, which preserves historic and archaeological resources related to the Northern Plains Indians. More than 50 archaeological sites at the park have revealed a period of human settlement spanning thousands of years, most recently marked by five centuries of Hidatsa earth lodge habitation. The park features 11 miles of trails through natural and cultural areas.

During summer months, the Knife River program on the Empire Builder operates roundtrip from Minot to Malta, Montana, three days a week. A rotating roster of interpreters--including

cowboy poets, local historians, and even a Mandan-Hidatsa flutist--hold programs in the train's lounge car, which features extra-high windows that offer panoramic views of the Dakota and Montana landscapes. Travelers can also watch part of Ken Burns' and Dayton Duncan's acclaimed documentary; Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, as well as a video about trail stewardship produced by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. For more details, visit

Knife River Indian Villages is about 22 miles from the Fort Mandan historic site and the North Dakota Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. Now reconstructed, Fort Mandan interprets Lewis and Clark's memorable 1804-05 winter encampment there, where the two first met their Shoshone companion and guide, Sacagawea. The interpretive Center hosts exhibits related to the entire expedition, with a special focus on the Fort Mandan period. Visit for details.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

After wintering at Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark moved on to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers near Williston, North Dakota, spending several spring days at "this long wished for spot." Today, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site sponsors a one-day journey on the Empire Builder between Williston and Shelby, Montana, which traces one of the most notable sections of the Lewis and Clark trail. As Lewis and Clark journeyed west along the Missouri, traveling with Sacagawea and the rest of their party, they began to experience immense difficulties. The Rocky Mountains loomed ahead of them, and the Missouri River's current was so strong that the crew towed their heavy canoes with ropes while walking along the shoreline. Towing soon gave way to wading, with the men pushing and pulling their canoes upstream by force of muscle and sheer will. Near Great Falls, Montana, the team portaged their canoes for 18 miles around a series of cascades before they could travel by river once again.

Although the Empire Builder is able to bypass these difficulties, travelers can still witness the dramatic landscape changes that confronted Lewis and Clark along this route. As with the Minot-Malta route, on-board programs range from interpretive talks to "traveling trunk shows" with pelts and other pass-around artifacts, which are offered seven days a week.

At Shelby, travelers can detrain to visit the Great Falls Lewis and Clark Interpretive Centre, which is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily during the summer. The center offers films, interpretive programs, and permanent exhibits about the expedition and local Native American tribes.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

In the Pacific Northwest, travelers on certain Empire Builder and Coast Starlight routes can relive the joyous moments, in November 1805, when Lewis and Clark first felt the tides shifting beneath their canoes on the Columbia River. "Great joy in camp," Clark famously wrote, "we are in View of the Ocian [sic] ... this great Pacific Octean [sic] which we been so long anxious to See."

Today, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is sponsoring Trails & Rails programs on the Empire Builder between Seattle mad Havre, Montana, and on the Coast Starlight between Seattle and Portland and Eugene, Oregon. On-board programs focus on the latter period of the Lewis and Clark expedition, when the Corps faced fierce winter storms along the coast and a scarcity of game. The situation was so dire that the crew voted to move their operation to the Oregon side of the Columbia, where elk and deer were reportedly numerous. Significantly, Lewis and Clark counted the votes of all present--including those of a woman, Sacagawea, mad a black man, York, a slave who accompanied the expedition. Once in Oregon, the crew established Fort Clatsop, recording numerous plant and animal species and other data before breaking camp and heading east the following spring.

At the terminus of the journey in Seattle, visitors can stop in at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which preserves artifacts related to the 19th-century gold rush that transformed the city. In 1897, news that gold had been found in the Canadian Yukon sent tens of thousands of people to Seattle's commercial district, where they stocked up on supplies before striking out for the Klondike Gold Fields. Today, park visitors can watch gold-panning demonstrations and take a walking tour of the nearby Pioneer Square Historical District.

More information can be found at For more information about parks in Seattle, visitors can stop in at NPCA's Park information Center at Pioneer Square.

In the spring of 1805, near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, Meriwether Lewis observed "immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture." Two decades later, Fort Union would be built on the site by John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. The confluence was an ideal location for a trading post, attracting many American Indian tribes from the surrounding areas, including the Assiniboin, Crow, Mandan, Hidatsa, Chippewa, and Sioux. During and after the Civil War, the fort was retooled as a Union stronghold, and the site was later inhabited by a group of Hidatsas.

Today, the Empire Builder rumbles past Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site on its long journey west, making this the perfect side trip for the Lewis and Clark traveler. Visitors can stay in one of several hotels and inns available in Williston, North Dakota, and rent a car or motor coach for the 25-mile trip southwest to the park (visit for more information about lodging and transportation). The park is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day in the summertime. In addition to the restored fort, the site features the historic Bourgeois House, which now serves as the visitor center and museum, as well as the 1850s-era Indian Trade House. Special events include the annual Indian Arts Showcase in August and the Labor Day Living History Weekend. (Visit the park web site at for details.)

Two miles away, Fort Buford State Historic Site, an 1866 military supply depot, features a museum and annual reenactment, a picnic area and a campground ( Nearby, the new Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center highlights the area's geology and history, covering Lewis and Clark, the fur trade, and modern settlement. Call 701-572-9034 for more information.

To plan a Lewis and Clark train trip, or for more information on other trains nationwide that are taking part in the Trails & Rails program, your first stop on the web should be This Park Service site includes brief descriptions of the various trains and routes, as well as the parks that sponsor on-board programs. Through this program, visitors can ride the rails to parks in the desert Southwest, the Deep South, and the revolutionary Northeast. The Trails & Rails site also links to park web sites that offer in-depth information on history, visitor services, and other accommodations at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site (, Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (, and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (, among others.

Some of these sites, such as Fort Union, are fairly isolated, so visitors should check on accommodations and services beforehand. Nearby towns and recreation areas usually offer a range of lodging options, including hotels, inns, and campgrounds.

The Trails & Rails site also links to Amtrak's web site,, where visitors can make reservations online. Travelers may browse for possible itineraries by clicking on "Trains & Destinations" and choosing the part of the country they want to visit or the specific train they want to travel on, such as the Empire Builder or the Coast Starlight. Reservations also can be made by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL (872-7245), although you will have to navigate through an automated menu to speak with a representative. Costs vary widely depending on accommodations and length of travel, but check the Amtrakweb site regularly for special offers and discounts. The variety of choices means that affordable trips are possible; depending on the day, a one-way trip from Williston, North Dakota, to Shelby, Montana, can cost about $50 for an adult traveling in coach.

NPCA's web site also offers links to parks, as well as information about its Parkscapes travel program. Space is still available on two special trips this fall: Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks in Washington, September 12 through 18; and the Hudson Valley of New York, September 25 through October 1. Visit for more information, or for reservations, call 1-800-628-7275, ext. 136.

To learn more about the expedition and trail stewardship, visit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail web site at or the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation site at A clearinghouse of Lewis and Clark bicentennial information can be found at

Kim A. O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia. She last wrote about a settlement of a long-standing dispute in Great Smoky Mountains.
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Title Annotation:excursions
Author:O'Connell, Kim A.
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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