In September, 2019, Gene and I headed to Montana for the TBEX conference, but also to explore the beautiful state. On the plus side, we also got to see my niece who had recently moved to Great Falls. They were amazing, but I was also looking forward to seeing the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. This may not be on everyone’s to-do list while visiting the area, but I am related to John Colter who was part of the expedition. Thus, I was very interested and excited to be able to explore this museum. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we first arrived, but I was surprised at how big the center really is.
Once we made our way in and paid the entrance fee to the USDA Forest Service, we headed to the 158-seat theater to watch one of the two introductory videos they play continually throughout the day. While watching the video we learned a little bit about the 8,000-mile journey across western North America as well as the important experiences with Plains and Northwest Indians.
We only saw one, but it was interesting and informative. I would suggest seeing it before venturing off in the rest of the center. Like I said before it is quite large. Apparently it is 25,000 square feet, opened to the public on May 5, 1998, and includes the exhibit hall, an education room for hands-on curriculum-based activities, a retail store, as well as the aforementioned 158-seat theater. Getting a small map will help you navigate through the center.
One of the things most people can’t help miss, and probably check out first is the two-story diorama of the portage of the Missouri River’s five great falls. At this exhibit, you can test your strength by pulling a boat against the Missouri River current. It was not easy at all. Gene even had a hard time fighting the current. I just kept thinking of their disappointment at the impossibility of a Northwest Passage water route. After all, that was what the whole expedition was about, finding a Northwest Passage water route. The Great Falls made that impossible. They may be beautiful but made a passage infeasible.
It must have been devastating to realize this, as well as the knowledge that transporting canoes, supplies and other equipment overland meant hauling everything by hand or by a hand-made wooden trailer and pulley system up rocky cliffs and mountainsides, through brush and forest and through miserable weather conditions. The misery continued as what was thought to be a few day’s journey, turned out to be a month-long endeavor as the men successfully negotiated their way by foot around five waterfalls, some of which were as much as 70 to 80 feet in height. Talk about a massive undertaking.
Besides the portage exhibit, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center offers an in-depth view of 20 specific events that shaped the outcome of the exploration. Each display is based on the actual reports and journal summaries of Captains Lewis and Clark and their men. While some of the displays contain replicas, I thought it was really cool that some had original artifacts of specimens that the team sent back to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. One of the most impressive was an accurate hand-drawn map of their trail from St. Louis to Ft. Mandan (what is today, North Dakota) and specimens of unusual plants and animals found along the route.
Another exhibit that Gene liked a lot was about historical weapons which included pistols and rifles. While some were used to impress local tribes and self-defense, many were primarily used for hunting. Apparently this exhibit took five years in the making as the volunteers spent many hours bringing the replicas to life. It was nice to see what they had to use during their journey.
If you are the outdoors type, you might have been interested in paved trails outside the center. There are many stopping points where visitors can recreate the vision of Lewis’ and Clark’s bold journey west more than 200 years ago. We did walk around a little and couldn’t help but notice the spectacular views of the Missouri River. For the more adventurous type, you can take a trail to the neighboring Giant Springs State Park, the site of another historic landmark along with the Lewis and Clark Trail (fees apply).
I will end with saying we had a great time exploring the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and learning so much about the expedition. Sadly there was not any information about John Colter, but that’s ok. Here is a link to their website with more information about visiting the center. I am going to end with their Mission statement below. Hope you get to visit one day soon if in the area.
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center Mission Statement
“The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center imparts to the public a personal sense of President Thomas Jefferson’s vision of expanding America to the west; it inspires awe and awakens curiosity toward the challenges faced by the expedition as they portaged the great falls of the Missouri River and explored the ‘unknown’; brings to life the daily experiences of the expedition and the environment and native peoples of the ‘uncharted West’, and celebrates the indomitable spirit of human discovery we all share.”
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center Visitor Information
4201 Giant Springs Road Great Falls, MT 59405
Tues-Sat 9-5, Sun 12-5 and closed on Mondays
Adults (age 16 and older): $8.00 each
Children (age 15 and younger): Free
Group (for 20 or more paying adults): $6.00 each
Federal Passes Honored (Annual, Senior, Access, Military and 4th Grade passes)
The Interpretive Center is accessible. Elevators are available. Service animals are permitted. They also have a 30-minute audio tour available in English, Spanish, French, German, and Japanese.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center can be reached by following the brown Interpretive Center / State Park signs in Great Falls. 1/4 mile west of Giant Springs; 1.5 miles east of Black Eagle Dam.
The Interpretive Center has parking for recreational vehicles, buses and other large modes of transportation. There is plenty of parking for large groups.
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