Exploring the Lewis and Clark Trail in Illinois and Missouri

The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 – 06 remains one of North America’s great travel stories and adventures. A small group of men, one woman, a baby and a dog exploring a region as yet undocumented by non-native explorers. Of course, I have problems with the concept of Manifest Destiny and the ultimate decimation of the Indigenous culture. But from the basic formula of a travel adventure, I love the Lewis & Clark journey.

Lewis and Clark sculpture in St Charles Missouri
Photo courtesy of St. Charles CVB

Nearly two decades ago, I had the honor of writing six of the 11 chapters in Fodor’s Lewis & Clark Trail Guide. This opportunity came my way because I grew up on the Mississippi River and now live on the Missouri River, precisely at a point the Corps of Discovery passed and noted in their journals. Despite the passing of time, the Fodor’s book is remarkably current.

The research for that book and other travel opportunities have allowed me to travel nearly the full length of the approximately 3200 mile trail from Camp DuBois in Illinois (just across from St. Louis) to the Pacific Ocean. In recent years, the National Park Service extended the Lewis & Clark Trail to include Pittsburgh, PA, where Meriwether Lewis ordered supplies and studied medicine. Louisville, Kentucky is also a stop. It is here that William Clark recruited the majority of the 27 soldiers that would make up the Corps of Discovery. All together, the Lewis & Clark Trail is now 4900 miles long.

But the real journey starts at the mouth of the Missouri, where it flows into the Mississippi.

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The Lewis and Clark Trail Starting Point in Illinois

Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis is the little community of Wood River, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1803/04 preparing for their journey. Today there are a couple of interesting stops. I like the Confluence Tower, a 150-foot tower near Hartford. Standing at the top, you can see where the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River. Think about the power here – the two longest rivers in North America joining forces.

The grounds of the Confluence Tower include a small garden that showcases many plants that Meriwether Lewis documented on the trail, as well as medicinal plants used by Native Americans at the time. The area has a nice picnic area and a campground. There is a cost to ride the elevator to the top – $10 at the time we visited.

Just a few miles away is the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, a nicely done visitors’ center that includes a movie explaining the preparations the Corps of Discovery made in this area. They spent five months at Camp Dubois.

The highlight of the visitors center is a replica 55-foot keelboat, the type of boat that carried the men up the length of the Missouri River.

The Lewis & Clark Trail in St. Charles Missouri

Across the Mississippi River, Confluence Point State Park, just north of St. Louis, allows you to stand as close as possible to the merging of these powerful sources.

The confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers at St. Charles, Missouri

Confluence Point is just outside of St. Charles, which is where, on May 14, 1804, that the Corps of Discovery pushed off the banks and proceeded up the Missouri River. Frontier Park is the exact spot where the team camped the few days prior to leaving. Today you can experience a downtown area not that different from when the boys were here. Sure, there’s electricity and indoor plumbing, but most of the buildings are authentic to that time when Meriwether Lewis was making last minute purchases for the road trip.

The Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Museum digs into the details of what developed in these parts and some of the biggest challenges the boys encountered. You can see reproduction of keelboat and pirogues, maps and tools. For actual artifacts, visit the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. This comprehensive museum in Forest Park includes William Clark’s sword, rifle and original maps.

Lewis & Clark Museum in St. Charles Missouri
Photo courtesy of St. Charles CVB

Lewis and Clark Sites in St. Louis Missouri

Most people know the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial as the St. Louis Arch. A few years ago, the park was renamed the Gateway Arch National Park. The museum at the base of the Arch does the best job anywhere of explaining the significance of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and how it shaped the future of America.

Before departing St. Louis, you should plan a visit to Bellefontaine Cemetery. Some of the city’s most prominent leaders are buried here, among them, William Clark. After the Corps of Discovery successfully returned to St. Louis in September 1806, William Clark eventually became the territory’s first governor. He lived the rest of his life here until his death in 1838. He and several members of his family are buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery.


Missouri’s Katy Trail and the Corps of Discovery

The Katy Trail is the nation’s longest rails-to-trails route, crossing 240 miles across the state of Missouri. It starts right there in St. Charles and for the next 165 miles is considered the official route of the Lewis & Clark Trail. I can’t say I have a favorite part of the Katy trail, but your Lewis & Clark experience is probably the richest on the 40 mile stretch from St. Charles to Marthasville. There are dozens of historical markers along the way. Marthasville is considered the last point of civilization for the crew as they slowly moved west.

Lewis & Clark Keelboat on the Missouri River
Photo Courtesy of St. Charles CVB

Clark’s Hill State Park is another nice stop. The Corps camped here in early June. The two Native American burial grounds that Clark noted in his journals are still in tact. Head on upstream to Missouri’s state capitol, Jefferson City, named for Thomas Jefferson and his vision of western expansion. There are several sculptures of Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea in and around the capitol. Be sure to stick your head into the senate chamber to see the fabulous four paneled mural by Richard Miller depicting Thomas Jefferson greeting Lewis & Clark on their return.

Each little community along the river has something to offer the mojotraveler. I particularly enjoy Rocheport and Arrow Rock, Kansas City and Weston. When you get to Kansas City, be sure to cross over into Kansas City Kansas to find Clark’s Point for this spectacular view.

Lewis & Clark Statue at Kaw Point in kansas city kansas
Courtesy Kansas City Kansas CVB

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Geotourism Program

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Geotourism Program is designed to support the natural assets, cultural attractions, and historically important places that make the Lewis and Clark Trail a unique and vibrant tourism attraction. The program helps the people, places, and businesses connected by the trail to tell the story of what’s unique and authentic about their place and create a resource for travelers to explore the length, breadth, and diversity of the Trail.