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Scenic Gates of the Mountains

Sacajawea II boat
Sacajawea II.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Tourboat
Gates of the Mountains.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Sacajawea II boat
Sacajawea II.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

"...I called it the gates of the rocky mountains"

- Lewis
19 July 1805

At the point where the plains surrounding Great Falls gave way to mountain foothills, the expedition again took to the river. They passed Square Butte, which they named Fort Mountain, and entered canyon lands. Anxious to locate signs of Sacagawea's Lemhi Shoshone band, Clark split from the party with three men to travel over land. To avoid being mistaken for enemy tribes, Clark dropped paper, clothes, and cloth tape so the Shoshone and other tribes would know that, "if by accident they met his track, that we were white men."

The three-mile long river passage, now a reservoir, cut through 1200-foot high cliffs. Lewis' journal of July 19, 1805, describes the passage and the optical illusions common to travelers:

"the towering and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble in on us…this rock is a black granite below and appears to be of a much lighter color above. This extraordinary range of rocks we called the Gates of the Rocky Mountains."

The towering cliffs and twisting passage earned the name as passage through the canyon gave the illusion that the gates swung wide to allow travel. Lewis was so hopeful of meeting with signs of local tribes that he made careful notes of anything unusual.

His notes referred to "big-horned anamals," meaning bighorn sheep, traces of Indian camps, the particulars of plant life, and the merits of dried buffalo dung as fuel for cooking fires. His descriptions of the passage are the most colorful and capture his mood:

"…the rocks approach the river on both sides, forming a most sublime and extraordinary spectacle. Nothing can be imagined more tremendous than the frowning darkness of these rocks, which project over the river and menace us with destruction."

Lewis may have been referring to the Bear's Teeth, pillars of rock that stand sentinel at the beginning of the canyon.

"The convulsion of the passage must have been terrible, since at its outlet are vast columns of rock, torn from the mountain, which are strewn on both sides of the river - the trophies, as it were, of a victory."