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Nez Perce Trail: Part III

Posted in Events on May 1, 2012
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The war between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce Native Americans became fully engaged beginning with the White Bird battle on June 17, 1877 (this is Part III of the series that began in the March issue of this magazine). The Nez Perce were made up of bands led by five different chiefs who refused to move onto the reservation with boundaries defined by the Army.

They won that first battle but they knew they were outnumbered and outgunned. The war could not end in their favor. Warriors in the band drew the attention of the soldiers by attacking them from every possible position. In the meantime, the rest of the band moved across the Camas Prairie as fast as 800 men, women, and children could travel while herding 2,000 animals.

The Army caught up with them again near Kamiah, Idaho. Another battle took place but casualties were low. When the fighting subsided, General Howard’s men were on the west side of the Clearwater River, but the Nez Perce crossed to the east side. Once again, a raging river acted as a boundary between the two forces. The Nez Perce knew where the safe crossings were located and the Army did not. While the soldiers searched for a crossing, the Nez Perce headed east and entered the Lolo Trail.

Today, the Lolo Trail is a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes the Lolo Trail corridor, the Nez Perce Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Lolo Motorway. The Nez Perce called it the K’useyneisskit, which means “Trail to the Buffalo.”

General Howard eventually crossed the river, but then waited for reinforcements. His numbers grew to 600 troops before he resumed his pursuit into the mountainous terrain of the Bitterroot Range. They found the Lolo Trail to be in horrible condition. Fallen trees lay across the road from both sides. To get the wagons through, the road had to be cleared. General Howard fell farther behind his prey.

The Lolo Trail travels through dense forest with rumbling clear water creeks before it climbs to higher elevations.

Into the Valley

The first week of August, the Nez Perce crossed the Continental Divide and entered the Big Hole Valley. They thought the soldiers were far behind and no longer a threat. The five bands of Nez Perce led by five chiefs were exhausted from their flight. They were in friendly territory camped in a place where they had camped many times before.

They had an agreement with the people in that valley to live in peace. As they had done for years, they traded with the settlers and the chiefs kept the young braves from causing any trouble. The Nez Perce felt safe and saw no reason to post sentries.

The people in the valley did not trust the Nez Perce. When Colonel Gibbon arrived from a new fort in Montana, people from the valley joined his Army as volunteers. Gibbon was intent on attacking the Nez Perce without waiting for General Howard to catch up. Using a pass that now bears his name, Colonel Gibbon entered the valley known as Big Hole.

It never gets high enough to be above tree line but the trees do thin out at times.

On August 7th and into the 8th, Gibbon’s soldiers crossed the pass using cover of the night and descended on the camp in Big Hole. The night of the 8th, they formed a line hidden in heavy brush outside the camp. Before daylight on the morning of the 9th, an Indian walked away from the camp and discovered the soldiers hidden in the brush. Shots were fired. The battle began. Soldiers charged into the camp killing many of the Nez Perce still in their beds. No effort was made to spare anyone, including the women and children.

As Nez Perce warriors emerged from their tents, a counter attack was formed and the soldiers were forced back into the brush. Gibbon had underestimated the fighting skills of his prey. He had grabbed the tail of the proverbial tiger.

The soldiers complained the mountainside was so steep they had to sleep in an upright position. The road is cut into the side of those mountains with steep drops on one side and steep walls on the other.

Nez Perce sharpshooters kept Gibbon’s soldiers pinned down in the brush. Other braves gathered survivors in the camp, tended to the wounded, and began moving south. All through the 9th and into the 10th, Gibbon and his men were kept at bay while the Nez Perce escaped. They left behind everything they owned including their tents, winter clothing, and supplies. By nightfall of the 10th, all the Nez Perce were gone and the battle was over.

Follow the Trail

Now 2012, Lone Writer and Happy Jack followed the trails used by the Nez Perce and the soldiers 143 years earlier. They picked up the Lolo Trail east of Kamiah and followed it across the Bitterroot Mountains. There were no fallen trees to block their path, but the many sawed logs lying on both sides of the road were evidence such blockages had been cleared.

The Lolo Trail follows the highest ridges through the mountains and frequently offers views in all directions. It passes through a dense forest and never rises above tree line. Occasional historic markers have been placed along the way to point out camps that were used even before the days of Lewis and Clark.

The sides of the mountains are steep. Written accounts from the soldiers included complaints of sleeping in a near vertical position. At the time of the war, the road was more of a path than a road. When the Army came with their wagons and cannons, a lot of work had to be done causing long delays.

The road to the top of Gibbons Pass travels through a forest that has either burned or been eaten by disease. There are many dead trees along the way.

For Lone Writer and Happy Jack, however, cruising along in their Nissan Xterras was effortless. There was no need to engage four-wheel drive or the factory-equipped lockers. They occasionally shifted into low range for engine braking on the steep declines and the high clearance came in handy in certain areas. Overall, it was just a very scenic drive through the mountains.

The Lolo Trail ends near the Montana state line. From there, a paved road follows the route of the Nez Perce to Lolo, Montana. The Nez Perce can then be followed going south where the battle of Big Hole took place. Parts of that trail are paved and parts of it leave the highway. The section that crosses the Continental Divide at Gibbons Pass is a scenic drive through a dense forest. The Big Hole Battlefield is a National Historic Place with a visitors center. A footpath meanders through the battlefield with Tepee poles marking the location of the Nez Perce camp.

Join us next month as we conclude the Nez Perce Trail through Yellowstone National Park and across Montana to the Big Bear Battlefield.

At the top of the Continental Divide, there are other trails to explore in addition to the one used by the Nez Perce.


Much of the information used in this story was obtained from a well-written guidebook called, Following the Nez Perce Trail, written by Cheryl Wilfong.

Maps and other information were provided by the Nez Perce Trail Foundation: 194 Hwy 28, Salmon, ID 83467, (208) 940-0053. You are invited to join the foundation. Your membership fees help to support improvements to the trail.

The Xterra Pro-4X driven by Lone Writer is provided by Nissan. Tires are provided by BFGoodrich. GPS and mapping software is provided by DeLorme.

PhotosView Slideshow

Navigation: GPS Positions
This route begins in Kamiah, Idaho. Kamiah is located on the eastern edge of the reservation.
0.0 46 13.8372 116 0.8993 East of Bridge at Kamiah. Turn east on Woodland Road.
0.4 46 14.1320 116 1.3350 Turn right on Glenwood Road.
1.7 46 14.7054 116 0.1711 Turn left on Adams Grade.
5.7/0 46 15.0935 115 57.1014 Turn left on Woodland Garibel Road.
3.4/0 46 16.6684 115 59.6059 This is the beginning of Lolo Road. Turn right.
0.6/0 46 16.9990 115 59.1897 Take the left fork.
7.3/0 46 20.3522 115 56.0011 Turn left.
2.4/0 46 22.5399 115 55.9738 This is the town of Weippe. Turn right to continue the route.
12.8/0 46 20.8312 115 44.1432 Turn left on FR103 to continue the Lolo Trail.
0.3/0 46 21.0895 115 43.9133 Take the left fork.
7.7/0 46 23.9557 115 38.6608 Turn right and cross the bridge.
6.8/0 46 25.4564 115 33.6914 Turn right on 104.
0.7/0 46 24.9197 115 33.4147 Turn left to continue Lolo Trail 500.
23.9/0 46 26.7201 115 12.8027 Take the left fork.
9.4/0 46 30.7927 115 6.0268 The road was closed ahead at this point and we had to take the detour to Highway 12. The closure was temporary so you may be able to finish this last section of the Lolo Trail.
8.3/0 46 27.1933 115 4.6810 Turn left on Highway 12.
67.0 This is the town of Lolo.
From Lolo, the Nez Perce Trail has been paved going south on Highway 93. It is possible to pick up parts of it running alongside the highway. We recommend using the “Following the Nez Perce Trail” guidebook for the many turns involved in doing that. The last leg to Big Hole is described below.
0.0 45 49.0737 113 57.4972 Just past MP 11 on Highway 93 at the south side of the Bitterroot Ranger Station, turn left on Edwards Road. This is a steep climb to the pass.
0.2/0 45 49.0883 113 57.2081 Turn right on 106.
2.3/0 45 47.3584 113 56.4416 Take the left fork.
6.2/0 45 44.8239 113 54.8698 This is Gibbons Pass at the Continental Divide. Continue straight on 106.
0.7/0 45 44.3252 113 54.2894 Turn left staying on 106.
7.8/0 45 39.5920 113 48.7507 Turn left on the paved highway SR43.
9.0/0 45 38.2588 113 38.5663 This is the Big Hole National Battlefield.

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