Mountain Passes: Lolo Pass

The Bitterroot range of the Rocky Mountains is even today considered one of the most impenetrable of mountain ranges — meaning that it is very difficult for humans to move through it by foot, horseback, car, truck, or all-terrain vehicle. And if it is difficult today, imagine how it was back in 1805, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered this tangle of 10,000-foot peaks, thick timber, and strewn boulders. 

Lewis and Clark and their expedition companions in the Corps of Discovery were the first Euro-Americans to see this vast territory.  Along the way they were helped by Indian guides such as Sacagawea, who carried her infant son.

When the expedition reached Lolo Pass, they camped there alongside a stream, then began traversing the pass the next morning. The going was extremely difficult, with deep snow drifts, sharp rocks, and thick trees. By the third day there was no more meat and no wild game in sight. The explorers resorted to eating soup, fish, berries, and roots. They ate three of their horses. Then they ate a coyote. They were extremely cold and depressed because of the difficulty of the mountains. When their food ran out, they ate candles to fill their empty stomachs. Crossing the the mountain range through Lolo Pass took eleven days.

On the eleventh day, the sick and starving Corps of Discovery stumbled out of the Bitterroot Mountain Range. They were met by the Nez Perce Indians, who had never seen white or black men before. But the Nez Perce recognized pain and courage, and they fed the group, saving their lives. In his journal Clark called the Nez Perce “the most hospitable, honest and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”

Lolo Pass

Mountain Range: Bitterroot  Mountains
Elevation: 5,235 feet
Grade: 5.5%
Location: On the Montana-Idaho border, in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Lewis and Clark made it to the Pacific Ocean and wintered near the mouth of the Columbia River, in a fort they built. During the winter the men repaired old clothes and sewed new ones. By the time they left the coast on March 23, 1806, they had sewn 358 pairs of moccasins out of elkhide and deerhide — almost one dozen pair of shoes per person.

Eager to return home after nearly three years of very difficult travel, the Corps moved swiftly, knowing that once they re-crossed Lolo Pass, the waters would flow homeward and they would make good time.

img_6297_1_11But Lolo Pass was not ready to let anybody cross. When the Corps reached the Bitterroot Range in May, the Nez Perce warned them that the pass was covered in very deep snow: it would be impossible to cross until June Or maybe even July.

The explorers waited for a few weeks, but on June 10 they could contain their impatience no longer: despite warnings from the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark set out through Lolo Pass once again.

This proved to be a mistake. Fifteen-foot-deep snow drifts filled the pass, rendering the path invisible. There was no grass for the horses to eat and, once again, no game for the hunters to hunt. Having barely survived Lolo Pass once, Lewis and Clark recognized the danger more readily on the second crossing —  they could starve to death, or they could just barely make it to the other side, where there would be no Nez Perce waiting to help them. 

The explorers turned back to the Nez Perce camp. For the first time in its long journey, the Corps of Discovery had retreated. This dejected and depressed them all. They knew not what lay ahead. By the time Lolo Pass was crossable, could they make it back to the Mandan villages before bitter winter set in? 

At last, on June 25, with the help of two young Nez Perce guides, the Lewis and Clark expedition tackled Lolo Pass again. This time they made it through: by the Fourth of July they were on the east side of the Bitterroot Range, heading downhill and downstream toward home.

stelprdb5246119Traveling faster than they imagined possible, the explorers reached the villages on August 14 and three days later left the Mandans, headed homeward. Approximately five weeks later, on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery reached St. Louis. 

Three years had gone by since the explorers left Pittsburgh, more than two years since they left St. Louis. Citizens were astounded: many had given up the explorers for dead. As well they might have been had it not been for the Nez Perce.

Decades later, the Nez Perce, cheated out of their lands by the false treaties of the United States, were pursued by the US Cavalry. The Nez Perce eluded the Cavalry by fleeing eastward and crossing Lolo Pass at night. Hoping to escape to Canada, they were stopped forty miles short of the border. 

Today two historic trails — the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Nez Perce Trail —  cross through Lolo Pass.

Lolo Pass

men rush westward,
western tribes flee northward —
pass stands still, monument and


You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, Panther Pass.

Mountain Passes: Panther Pass

Contrary to common perception, Europeans didn’t first occupy the land that became the United States in an east-to-west direction. The Spanish marched from south to north, establishing the town of Santa Fe in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

French missionaries and explorers, on the other hand, moved through the new land from north to south, using the waterways of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to establish contact with native tribes of what are today Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Arkansas. On the lakes and rivers, of course, the French encountered no mountains and no mountain passes.

The Spanish, moving across the land by foot and on horseback, did encounter mountains. So it should come as no surprise that they encountered mountain passes. (It’s said that the first European to discover a mountain pass in what is today the US was Coronado, who in 1540 marched through the pass called La Glorieta, southeast of Santa Fe, searching for legendary cities of gold.) One of the passes traversed by the Spanish was named after the mountain lions that roamed North America. The North American mountain lion goes by various names in different parts of the continent: cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

In southwestern Texas the puma is called a panther. In the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend area, the panther preys mainly on deer and javelinas (wild pigs). And although these large cats prowled throughout the Chisos Mountains, the place they were most often spotted was in a particular mountain pass. Naturally this pass came to be called Panther Pass. The Chisos Mountains, incidentally, are the southernmost mountain range in the US, and are also entirely contained within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park (1,252 square miles). 

Named after the giant turn the Rio Grande makes as it flows east to the Gulf of Mexico, the Big Bend area is spectacular. This is a land of wide variety: harsh desert, rugged mountains, bountiful river. It’s populated by shrubs, cacti, trees, reptiles, birds, and mammals, many of them found nowhere else in the United States. Mainly, though, the land of the Big Bend is desert. Until modern times only Indians native to the area could survive there. They knew which roots provided food, which plants provided moisture, which caves provided shelter. 

Panther Pass

Mountain Range: Chisos Mountains.
Elevation: 5,770 feet
Grade: 15% in some places
Location: In Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas.

Although the desert was not suitable for farming, it was rumored to contain another kind of wealth: gold. And gold was a lure to the Spanish, who forced natives to mine both silver and gold. This new-world wealth was then loaded onto ships that sailed to Spain. 

Eventually mines are mined out or abandoned for some other reason. Then legends of lost mines spring up. Possibly because so many miners kept the location of their mines secret, the legends were believed. 

One of these many legends says that the Spanish forced prisoners to work in a fabulous mine north of the Rio Grande. This mine was located on what is today called Lost Mine Peak, in the Chisos Mountains. According to legend, the prisoners marched from the Spanish stronghold, Presidio [Fort] San Vicente, which sat on a bluff above the Rio Grande, through the desert, through Panther Pass, and into the dark mine. The gold mine was so rich, legend has it, that the Spanish  blindfolded the prisoners en route so that not one of them would never know its exact location.


Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Mountains

How does a gold mine get “lost”? Legends always have an answer. In the case of the Panther Pass gold mine, legend says that the Commanche, who did not want Europeans taking their silver, their gold, or their land, raided the mine and killed everyone in it. Then they sealed the mine entrance with rocks and covered it with brush so that nobody could ever find it again. 

But legends of lost gold mines always give hope to treasure hunters, and the legend of the Panther Pass mine is no different. Supposedly if a person stands in the chapel door of Presidio San Vicente on Easter Sunday, the sun’s first rays will shine on the exact location of the Lost Mine.    

Thousands of prospectors and treasure hunters have looked for the Lost Mine, but nobody has found it. Perhaps that’s because all that remains of Presidio San Vicente are adobe ruins. Or perhaps it’s because Easter Sunday falls on a different date each year. Or maybe it’s because the Earth wobbles on its axis as it rotates, so never again will the first rays of the sun on Easter Sunday strike exactly where they struck 300-some years ago. Or, perhaps . . . the entire legend is total fabrication.

Most likely nobody has found the Lost Mine because it never existed. As they move through the world, humans leave records behind: records of births and deaths, records of ownership, and records of profit or loss. Nowhere in Spain, Mexico, or Texas is there any kind of written record (ledgers, letters, deeds) of a gold mine just beyond Panther Pass. 

But don’t let that stop you. If you’re set on treasure hunting, you can drive or bike an asphalted road through Panther Pass, cross the Lost Mine Trail, and start looking.

Panther Pass

No lost gold
there’s nothing where
the puma yowls
and prowls
the arid rocks.


You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, The Cumberland Gap.