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One of the most tragic and heroic chapters of the American West occurred in the summer and early fall of 1877, when Chief Joseph’s band of 750 "non-treaty" Nez Perce Indians were ordered to turn over their land in the Wallowa country of north-eastern Oregon and move onto a small reservation. Conflict ensued and the Nez Perce engaged in an epic flight, by foot and horseback, through present-day Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in a futile effort to escape to Canada.
The Nez Perce had only 250 warriors among them but fought in some 20 battles and skirmishes against a total of more than 2,000 soldiers aided by numerous civilian volunteers and Indians of other tribes. Their route went through three states, dictated by topography and skillful strategy. The Nez Perce traveled over 1,500 miles before they were trapped and forced to surrender at Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains in October of 1877. They were stopped just short of the Canadian border where safety awaited them. General William Tecumseh Sherman called the saga of the Nez Perce "the most extraordinary of Indian wars."
Surviving Nez Perces were sent to several years of exile in present-day Oklahoma before they were allowed to return to reservations in the Northwest, where their descendants still live.
Starting in present-day Spalding, The Nez Perce National Historic Park visitor center features a museum, movie and tours to better acquaint the visitor with the Nez Perce Culture. Near present-day Kamiah, visitors can observe the significant cultural site of the "Heart of the Monster." The actual trail loops and cuts northeast across the Idaho panhandle along the Lolo Trail on the banks of the Lochsa River ( U. S. Hwy 12) and enters Montana through Lolo Pass near present-day Missoula. The band turned sharply south, fleeing down the Bitterroot River Valley until they encountered Col. John Gibbon’s troops and fought a battle that is commemorated by the Big Hole National Battlefield Monument and Visitor’s Center, Route 43 near Wisdom.
Entering Yellowstone Park from the west, the Nez Perce encountered some of the earliest tourists and prospectors and two white men were killed. The Nez Perce exited Yellowstone two weeks after they entered, narrowly missing an encounter with their enemy, General William Tecumseh Sherman, East of Yellowstone, the Nez Perce plotted a masterful escape from two columns of Army forces. They feinted up the Shoshone River near present-day Cody and escaped along a route that took them straight up the narrow Clark’s Fork Canyon. Highway 296 northwest from Cody now bears the name, "The Chief Joseph Highway." Yellowstone’s Nez Perce Creek, which feeds the Firehole River, is named for this desperate bid for freedom.
The band entered present-day Montana along the Clark’s Fork and ventured north until engaging in the Canyon Creek battle against U.S. Calvary General Sturgis. The site of the battle is 7.5 miles north on Secondary Highway 532 and is now the location of the Chief Joseph Statue and Canyon Creek Battlefield Marker. South of Chinook, the Bear Paw Battlefield is now a National Park and the final stop on the Nez Perce National Historic Park. A self-guided trail marks the Battlefield, while the Blain County Museum in Chinook serves as the interim Visitor Center for the National Park Service.