Idaho Scenic Drives: Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

By: Clark Norton

By traveling the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway you can follow in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who traversed this link between the Missouri River and the Columbia River through the unexplored Rocky Mountains.

Lewis and Clark's arduous journey proved that no easy route existed; however, they were led by Sacagawea to the trail through the mountains that had been used by generations of Nez Perce Indians. Along the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, you will see numerous Nez Perce cultural sites and Lewis and Clark campsites. 

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Archaeological Qualities of Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

At Big Eddy, evidence of early native occupation has been discovered. In Eimers Park's Tolo Lake, the remains of mammoths and an extinct species of bison were discovered at the bottom of the lake in 1994. During the excavation, archaeologists determined that the bones exhumed were only a fraction of what is actually at the bottom of Tolo Lake.

Qualities of Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Although a conglomeration of cultures and people make up the Northwest Passage, none of the cultures has preserved its heritage like the Nez Perce. Agriculture and industry fostered by the coming of homesteaders and gold miners exist side by side with the customs of the Nez Perce. Experience one of their powwows, or see the Nez Perce National Historic Park, where local arts and crafts are displayed.

Qualities of Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Before the Northwest Passage became a nationally recognized corridor, the route was home to the Nez Perce, and it remains their home even today. For thousands of years, this native culture built villages and camps along the Clearwater River. The Northwest Passage was a main route for the Nez Perce as they traveled through the mountains and forests of what is now northern Idaho. The society of the Nez Perce met the society of European culture when Lewis and Clark traveled through the area in 1805 and 1806.

After the coming of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, new visitors wanted to do more than explore. Trappers, missionaries, and miners soon followed, and they interacted with the Nez Perce. For a time, people gathered in the area in hopes of discovering gold. The mining districts from this period in history eventually became the towns that are now on the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.

In the 1870s, conflict mounted between the Nez Perce and the U.S. government. The battle ended with many of the Nez Perce dead; the rest were moved to reservations. Today, the byway travels along the Nez Perce Indian Reservation and passes Nez Perce National Historic Parks in Spalding and Kamiah.

Qualities of Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Although many of the valleys are now green agricultural fields, the mountainsides are covered in trees, and the sights and smells of the forest still have an overwhelming presence on the byway. Canyons and valleys appear along the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway to display the varied topography of the area. Rocks exposed along the byway are part of basalt lava flows from the Columbia Plateau that formed millions of years ago.

In addition to the scenery, wildlife also thrives here. The rivers are filled with fish, such as steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, and the forests are home to deer, elk, and other species. The variety of tree and plant life that grows along the byway creates a habitat for all these creatures.

Qualities of Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

The road is surrounded by rivers. Along the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, travelers can hardly escape the allure of the Clearwater River and its forks. Nearby,

you will also find the Snake and Salmon Rivers. And whether you choose to enjoy what's in the water or the water itself, you won't be disappointed. Chinook salmon swim in the waters, and fly-fishing for steelhead trout is one reason people return

to the Northwest Passage. White-water rafting on one of the byway rivers is also irresistible.

If you get enough of the water, a walk in the woods may entice you. Travelers take trails through mountains for the sweeping vistas they can enjoy along the way. National forests, wilderness areas, and even state parks give you the opportunity to find trails and go exploring.

Find more useful information related to Idaho's Northwest Passage Scenic Byway:

  • Idaho Scenic Drives: Payette Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in Idaho. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

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Highlights of Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

A view from Lolo Trail along Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.
A view from Lolo Trail along Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.

The Northwest Passage encompasses four different landscapes: open canyon, closed canyon, valleys, and panoramic views. From Spalding to Orofino, enjoy the sights of an open canyon, where the water moves along the canyon's flat bottom between sloping hills. From the hillsides, you will see panoramic views of the river and surrounding land.

Near Orofino and Harpster, a closed canyon dominates the landscape with steep canyon walls and dense forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. The closed canyon is where the river moves faster around corners and down hills through the trees. Sometimes, a glimpse of the water is enough to make visitors want to stop and explore this beautiful area. In the closed canyon area, rocky outcroppings add to the rugged mountain atmosphere.

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The valley landscape from Kamiah to Stites is characterized by a much calmer river and agricultural fields of green. From Harpster to Eimers, the view from the road is broad and sweeping. National forest lands are perennially beautiful, and the nearby pastoral fields change with the seasons, just as the Clearwater River does.

Begin at the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway's western end at the town of Spalding.

Nez Perce National Historic Park: The Nez Perce National Historic Park in Spalding is located on U.S. 95, the best place to get an overview of the park. The National Historic Park is spread across 38 separate sites in four states; several of the sites lie along this byway. Learn the history of the Nez Perce at one of the sites.

Nez Perce Village: The highway rest stop at Lenore contains interpretive signs about a Nez Perce village that used to stand here. The site was believed to have been occupied for some 8,000 years.

Canoe Camp: Four miles west of Orofino comes Canoe Camp, where Lewis and Clark built five dugout canoes in 1805 so they could continue their expedition down the rivers. It's a good spot for fishing or bird-watching.

Big Eddy: Northeast of there, on the Dworshak Reservoir, is Big Eddy, where you can picnic, swim, canoe, fish, hike, or camp.

Long Camp: One mile west of the town of Kamiah is the site of the Lewis and Clark Long Camp, part of the Nez Perce National Historic Park in Kamiah.

Heart of the Monster: In East Kamiah, two miles upstream from the Clearwater River bridge in Kamiah and the point at which the Nez Perce forded the river in 1877, is the Heart of the Monster, a rock formation and source of one of the Nez Perce nation's oldest legends. (The legend has it that a coyote saved the Nez Perce, as well as all animal life, from being swallowed by the monster.)

Clearwater Battlefield: Two miles south of Stites, watch for a pull-off on the west side of the road that marks the Clearwater Battlefield; the Nez Perce were pursued here in 1877. The site can be viewed from the highway.

White Bird Hill: The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway ends at Grangeville. South of Grangeville stands White Bird Hill, site of the famous battle of the Nez Perce wars. From the hill, view the wheat-and wildflower-filled prairie as well as canyons and mountains.

Follow the footsteps of Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea along this incredible drive -- the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway.

Find more useful information related to Idaho's Northwest Passage Scenic Byway:

  • Idaho Scenic Drives: Payette Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in Idaho. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

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