The evening of July 19, 1805 was a hot one in the wilderness that would later become Montana.
On the Missouri River, not far north from present day Helena, the hardy members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition pushed their way up the strong current of the Missouri River. Rock embankments made towing from shore impossible, and the deep channel forced the men to row rather than pole their boats forward.
As they entered an awe-inspiring canyon in the Rocky Mountains, suddenly there loomed before them towering rock formations. Meriwether Lewis's journal entry describes the scene this way: "we entered the most remarkable cliffs that we have yet seen. These cliffs rise from the water's edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1,200 feet. Solid rock for the distance of 5 and 3/4 miles. The towering and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us. The river turned through a narrow gorge, and at each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage....then the mountains appeared to open like a gentle giant gate as the expedition drew near it".
The exhausted travelers were forced to row past dark until they could find a place large enough to pull ashore and camp. That night in his journal, Lewis wrote: "from the singular appearance of this place, I shall call it: The Gates of the Mountains".
At this time Captain Clark and a few men struck away from the main party for overland exploration.
The name Lewis gave the area stuck, and for nearly two centuries travelers have ventured down this stretch of the Missouri River to marvel at it's natural wonders. The towering cliffs and twisting passages earned the name, as travel through the canyon waterway gives the optical illusion that gates swing open wide to allow travel through.
Today it is still magnificent country, and available for today's adventurer. It looks virtually the same as when Lewis and Clark first laid eyes upon it. Great towering walls of limestone still stand guard over the river.
The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is located about 20 miles north of Helena, Montana, and is comprised of 28,562 acres (38 mile stretch of river). It is an administrated unit of Helena National Forest, located within or adjacent to that Forest. The Forest and the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness form a combined core of a diverse 70,000-acres wildlands complex in the north end of the Big Belt Range. The area lies between an elevation of 3,750 feet near Meriwether Canyon to a high of 7,980 feet on Moors Mountain.
The canyon area is only accessible by water or traveling more than a dozen miles over trails through the Helena National Forest and Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area.