Northwest Passage Scenic Byway


Clearwater River near Orofino
The Clearwater River near Orofino
The Lewis and Clark Discovery Center in Lewiston
Lewis & Clark Discovery Center
Hells Gate State Park

More than 200 years ago, the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery made their way through this part of Idaho. If it wasn't for the Nez Perce who lived in the area, they probably would have starved to death. Anyway, this part of Idaho hasn't changed much in the years between then and now. The forests are still green, the rivers clear and the mountains rugged.

The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway is a 202-mile route all the way across Idaho between Montana and Washington. Except for the leg between Kooskia and Grangeville, the entire route follows US Highway 12 (which parallels the Nez Perce and Lewis & Clark National Historic Trails in this area). From Lolo Pass at the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains, the route parallels the Lochsa River to the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway Rivers at Lowell. Then the route follows that Middle Fork of the Clearwater River to the confluence with the South Fork of the Clearwater. From there, the main stem of the Clearwater flows past Greer, then Orofino, then to the confluence with the North Fork of the Clearwater and on to Lewiston where it meets and merges with the Snake River. There's a split in the byway at Kooskia. From Kooskia over the hill to Grangeville, the byway follows Idaho Highway 13. Grangeville is the gateway to Gospel-Hump Wilderness, Snow Haven Ski Area and the Camas Prairie. Elmers Park and Visitor Center is also in Grangeville. At Elmers Park you'll find a nice exhibit of a complete Tolo Lake mammoth skeleton. You can also get directions there to visit the Nez Perce National Historic Park sites at Tolo Lake, Weis Rockshelter and White Bird Battlefield.

Long Camp/Riverfront Park in Kamiah
Long Camp/Riverfront Park

The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway is a route across the heart of the ancestral Nez Perce homeland. The Nez Perce National Historic Park maintains sites at Spalding and Kamiah. The town of Orofino sits almost on top of a Nez Perce settlement that was first founded about 4,000 years ago. There's another ancient settlement at Kooskia. At Kamiah is "the Heart of the Monster," a geologic formation that figures prominently in Nez Perce creation stories and legends.

The Lewis & Clark Discovery Center is four miles south of Lewiston in Hells Gate State Park. The Discovery Center offers sculptures, exhibits and video presentations pertaining to the 1805-6 journey of the Lewis & Clark Expedition across Nez Perce country. "Canoe Camp" is located on the banks of the Clearwater in Orofino. The Nez Perce taught Lewis & Clark how to build canoes here in the fall of 1805, just before the expedition set float on the Clearwater and headed downstream to the Pacific Ocean. Canoe Camp is managed as part of the Nez Perce National Historic Park and offers a sample dugout canoe and an interpretive trail through what remains of the old fishing area from 4,000 years ago. Dworshak Dam and Dworshak National Fish Hatchery are located across the Clearwater from Canoe Camp.

At Riverfront Park in Kamiah is an interpretive kiosk that commemorates the six-weeks that Lewis & Clark spent camped with the Nez Perce in 1806. "Long Camp" is directly across the river from the park. Just down the road is "the Heart of the Monster," another prominent site of the Nez Perce National Historic Park.

Between Kooskia and Lolo Pass, nearly the entire journey parallels the Lochsa and Selway National Wild and Scenic Rivers (for the fishermen and whitewater aficionados in the crowd). The National Forest Service offers a couple of historic sites to visit along the route, then there's the Lolo Pass Visitor Center at the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains.

Clearwater River near Greer
The Clearwater River near Greer
Photos courtesy of Byways.org and Idaho DOT