Mountain Men and the Bad Pass Trail

Rock cairn on Bad Pass Trail
Rock cairn on Bad Pass Trail


What was the Bad Pass Trail?
The Bad Pass Trail weaves its way along the rugged western edge of Bighorn Canyon, from the mouth of the Shoshone River to the mouth of Grapevine Creek. Before the mountain men arrived, native people walked the trail for 10,000 to 12,000 years.

This trail was probably part of a much larger web of commerce and interaction between native people. When the mountain men gave the Bad Pass its name in the early 19th Century, it began a new role as a route for commerce in the world wide fur industry.

Mountain men made their way from widely dispersed trapping grounds or from rendezvous, and finally arrived at the mouth of the Shoshone River. From there, they followed the Bad Pass Trail until they reached the mouth of Grapevine Creek where they unloaded pelts from pack animals and built bull boats on the spot. Once the boats were built, they loaded their pelts into them, and from this point they could float down river all the way to St. Louis.

Why Mountain Men Came To This Region
Since the early 1700s, a combination of events that happened thousands of miles away had lasting repurcussions on this land. The region that became the American West was coveted by world powers and by leaders of a new nation who dreamed of a country that reached from coast to coast.

Meanwhile, fur was the rage in fashion and beaver was the basis of the fur trade because it was the best fur for felting. The events unleashed unleashed tremndous interest in this region and sent a wave of explorers, entrepreneurs, traders and trappers westward.

Even as Lewis & Clark explored the west, mountain men pushed into this region to start commercial ventures aimed at filling the demand for fur. The industry was driven westward because other areas to the east and northeast of the Mississippi River were becoming relatively depleted of beaver, and the west was known to be rich in beaver.

The fur trade in the American West flourished from 1807 to 1840. It was a leading industry in the world and the primary industry west of the Mississippi. At the height of the fur trade (about 1830) the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Missouri river system played a prominent role in delivering fur to the world.

Why Mountain Men used the Bad Pass Trail
An economical way was needed to ship pelts from the remote west to the St. Louis market. Before overland routes were established, the Bighorn, Yellowstone and Missouri River system provided a ready-made highway from the heart of beaver country to St. Louis. However, there was one problem with this route - the rapids in Bighorn Canyon couldn't be run by boats laden with goods. Using the Bad Pass trail allowed them to avoid the dangerous rapids and cascades.

The First Mountain Man On the Trail?
No one knows who was the first mountain man on the trail. Most mountain men didn't keep journals and many of them couldn't write. Since their income depended on beaver, they didn't talk much about routes until they were common knowledge. These factors make for few early references to the trail. However, the first recorded description of the mouth of the canyon was written on August 31, 1805 by Francois Antoine Larocque who worked for the Northwest Company.

The second man was probably George Drouillard. he was previously a member of the Corps of Discovery and was working for the Missouri Fur Trading Company when he became the first white man to visit the southern end of the trail. While on a scouting mission he spotted a Crow village at the mouth of the Shoshone River and paid them a visit in 1807.

Mountain Men on the Bad Pass Trail
One may guess from its name that the Bad Pass Trail was not a good road. As captain Bonneville related his travels of 1833 to Washington Irving, he talked of crossing the Bighorns by "a rugged and frightful route...called the 'Bad Pass'" It wasn't just terrain that caused them problems. Mountain men recorded at least one mauling by a grizzly, four mountain men were killed by Blackfoot Indians along the trail.

While many mountain men whose names we'll never know frequented the Bad Pass, a list of those who are known reads like a Who's Who of Mountain Men. Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Bill Sublette were just a few of the well-known men who traversed the Bad Pass trail.

Some of the more prominent expeditions that crossed the trail include:

  • In 1824, Andrew Henry led the first major (non-native) pack train over Bad Pass while on his return from the rendezvous held by his company on the Sweetwater River.
  • On his way from rendezvous on Henry's Fork of the Green river in July 1825, William Ashley's party carried 100 packs of beaver (at 3 packs/horse) over Bad Pass. Ashley's arrival in St. Louis was celebrated on October 4, 1825, where he delivered pelts worth $50,000 (equal to nearly $1 million today).
  • Traffic on the Bad Pass in 1833 was heavier, and included pack trains from three major parties, which were led by Captain Bonneville, Nathaniel Wyeth, and Robert Campbell.

All of these groups were returning from the "big doin's" at rendezvous on the Green River.

Traffic Declines on the Bad Pass Trail
Four factors caused a decline in traffic on the Bad Pass Trail:

  1. Shorter and less dangerous overland routes were established from the trapping areas to the St. Louis market.
  2. The whims of fashion dictated that silk hats replace beaver hats.
  3. A new process was found to make good felt from cheaper fur.
  4. Beaver became scarce in the American West by 1839.

These developments caused the fur industry to decline and the Bad Pass to fade in importance. By 1840, many mountain men gave up trapping and looked for a new line of work, which soon presented itself in the form of guide services.

Mountain Men's Place in History
The most important result of the fur trade was that it produced the mountain men, who systematically explored the west. Through exploration they gained expert knowledge of the land and native people, which made them perfectly suited to guide military expeditions and civilian wagon trains headed for California and Oregon.

More than any other group, mountain men were the technicians of the westward movement that enabled the United States to achieve its vision of Manifest Destiny.

Bad Pass Trail Today
Although the Bad Pass was used for over 10,000 years and played a small role in opening up the West, only rock cairns and broken traces of it remain. You may see parts of it along Bad Pass Road, where you may hike the historic trail. Like the mountain men did long ago, let the cairns be your guide.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area South District Visitor Center
20 US Hwy 14A

Lovell, WY 82431


307 548-5406
(307) 548-5406 is the South District in Lovell, WY. (406) 666-9961 is the North District in Fort Smith, MT.

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