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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

In the Steps of Chief Joseph

Updated: May 18, 2020

Chief Joseph Trail Ride

This morning—while you read this post--hundreds of riders on spotted Appaloosa horses, are saddling up to retrace the steps that Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe took 142 years ago to escape to freedom while the U.S. Army pursued them. Each year in July, a group of dedicated riders ride a hundred-mile segment of the 1,500 miles trek Joseph and his people took through the roughest land on the face of the earth. From beautiful Lake Wallowa in eastern Oregon, through the plunging Imnaha Valley and Hell’s Canyon (the deepest gorge in North America), over the Continental Divide FOUR TIMES, through dangerous rushing rivers, through Yellowstone Park (the sacred land the Nez Perce called “unfinished by God”), down rocky trails and up steep ascents, and finally, to the Plains and rolling swells of Montana. The trail stops at the Bear Paw Battlefield, just 30 miles from the Canadian border.

It’s a tradition that was started in 1965 by a handful of members of the still-young Appaloosa Horse Club. They were admirers of Chief Joseph and dedicated to the horses the Nez Perce had developed, trying to reincarnate the dazzling breed that had been cast to the winds of oblivion when Chief Joseph and his tribe finally surrendered in 1877. The Nez Perce would lose their land and the beloved horses they had carefully developed for generations. About 60 years after Joseph’s surrender, the Appaloosa Horse Club was formed. Thanks to that small group of Appaloosa lovers and Nez Perce tribal members, who joined in reclaiming their proud legacy, the Chief Joseph Trail Ride is a shining tradition that not only celebrates a great man and his great people, but a great horse breed that is now admired and loved around the world. (SEE OUR POST ON WEDNESDAY ABOUT THE APPALOOSA BREED!)

The complete route is divided up into thirteen 100-mile segments, one segment per year ridden in order, following as closely as is logistically possible to Joseph’s original route. (In 1877, the land was still wilderness and unsettled for the most part. Today, nearly all the land is privately owned, so permissions and logistics are challenging to navigate.) The ride takes thirteen years to complete all 13 segments of the cycle. Each day, the riders cover between 20-25 miles of the trail, so horses and riders must be in top condition. All horses must be registered Appaloosas. But it’s not all hard riding and sore butts. At the end of the day, there are many events, music, great food and drink, campfires, and stories. And lifelong friendships are made.

The chronological segments include:

  • 2017 - Joseph to Doug Bar, OR (Wallowa Lake, Imnaha Canyon, Doug Bar)

  • 2018 - Grangeville/Tolo Lake Loop, ID

  • 2019 - Stites to Mussellshell, ID (Camas Prairie, Clearwater Battlefield)

  • 2020 - Mussellshell, ID to Wendover Camp (Lolo Trail, Clearwater National Forest to Packer Meadows)

  • 2021 - Lolo Hot Springs to Stevensville, MT (Ft. Fizzle, Bitterroot Valley)

  • 2022 - Darby, MT to Big Hole Battlefield

  • 2023 - Jackson, MT to Leadore, ID (Horse Prairie, Bannock Pass, Birch Creek)

  • 2024 - Spencer, ID to West Yellowstone (Camas Creek Battlefield, West Yellowstone)

  • 2025 - West Yellowstone and Yellowstone Park

  • 2026 - Cooke City, MT to Clark Fork River (Yellowstone Park, Absaroka Mtns, Dead Indian Hill, Sunlight Basin & "Suicide Slide")

  • 2027 - Clark, WY to Laurel, MT (Yellowstone Valley, Canyon Creek Battlefield)

  • 2028 - Ryegate to Roy, MT (Musselshell, Big Snowy and Judith Mountains)

  • 2029 - James Kipp Park, Missouri River, Bear Paw Battlefield

This year, the 100-mile segment is the third leg from Camas Prairie (near the point where the corners of three states—Washington, Oregon and Idaho—connect) to the Clearwater Battlefield, near Stites, Idaho. At this point, 142 years ago, the Nez Perce numbered about 750, including 200 warriors, and about 3,000 horses. General Oliver Otis Howard was pursuing the them. Howard was a leading general in the Civil War at many key battles, including Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg and had lost his right arm in battle. He was now charged with defeating Chief Joseph. He was determined to stop Joseph at the Clearwater and led 500 troops against Joseph’s 200 warriors and set up Gatling guns and howitzers on the bluffs of the Clearwater River to rain down destruction on the Indians.

But Nez Perce warriors attacked the soldiers on the bluffs from the back and the ammunition mule train and nearly captured it. They surrounded the troops on the bluffs and held them at bay until the entire Nez Perce tribe could cross the Clearwater River and begin their ascent into the Bitterroot Mountains to the Lolo Trail. Through feigning and flanking, the warriors held the U.S. troops for several days. The Nez Perce were known to have extremely keen sharpshooters and the Army suffered far greater casualties: 15 dead and 25 wounded, compared to four Nez Perce dead and six wounded. The battle was front-page news across the nation and Americans watched in awe as the Nez Perce desperately outfought the U.S. Army and its best generals as they surged toward the Canadians border and freedom.

This week, the Chief Joseph Trail riders will spend many miles rocking in their saddles and listening to the hoofbeats of their spotted horses across the Idaho wilderness and some of the most beautiful land on the face of the earth. They will cross the Clearwater River below the bluffs where Gatling guns and howitzers once thundered and the valley cracked with deadly gunfire. And they will try to imagine what it must have been like for Joseph and his people on that same trail 142 years ago this this month....


PHOTOS: (1) The Chief Joseph Trail Ride retraces the route Chief Joseph took in 1877, as he and other Nez Perce chiefs tried to save their people from imprisonment on the reservation by making a desperate attempt to escape to Canada. Over four months, the Nez Perce covered 1,500 miles in four states through some of the roughest and most spectacular terrain on earth, engaging the pursuing U.S. Army from all directions in a dozen battles. (2) Early in their trek, the had to navigate the treacherous Imnaha Valley and Hell’s Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. (3) Chief Joseph’s band lived for many thousands of years on beautiful Wallowa Lake, now in eastern Oregon. The trail begins here, at their ancestral home. (4) The trail ends about 1,500 rugged miles later, on the Bear Paw Battlefield in northern Montana, just about 30 miles from the Canadian border. Shown in photo is Kristen Reiter, the chief organizer of the Chief Joseph Ride today, passing below the flag at half-staff at the Bear Paw Battlefield in 2016, her hat removed in honor of those who had fallen. Chief Joseph’s brother, the great warrior, Ollokot, died at the Bear Paw. The Nez Perce tribe provided a ceremonial blessing at the battlefield, with drumming and traditional song. Then Nez Perce youth participated in the Empty Saddle presentation to honor their dead. All participated in a Healing Ceremony at the end, when a Nez Perce elder offered a prayer of peace. Photo by April Herrin. (5) Horses and riders fording a river on the Chief Joseph Trail. Photo by Kristen Reiter. (6) The cover of the first Chief Joseph Trail rider brochure in 1965. (7) Hundreds of Chief Joseph riders spread out on a plain in central Montana. (8) Veteran Chief Joseph trail rider and very successful competitive national endurance rider, Karen Bumgarner, on her gorgeous Appaloosa, Rio. This photograph made the recent March/April 2019 cover of Appaloosa Journal! Appaloosas are renowned for their endurance and stamina. (9) A map of the 1,500-mile Chief Joseph Trail from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to Bear Paw Battlefield, Montana. The trail goes through four states: Oregon, Idhao, Wyoming, and Montana, and Yellowstone National Park. (10) The Appaloosas of the Chief Joseph Trail Riders grazing in the evening at camp. Photo by Kristen Reiter. (11) Many Nez Perce tribal members participate in the ride, wearing beautiful Nez Perce ceremonial dress. Some of Chief Joseph’s own descendants have ridden the ride! Photo by Jack McNeel. (12) An Appaloosa enjoying a good horse laugh at the end of the day on the Chief Joseph Trail. The event is a showcase of the world’s most beautiful, blooded Appaloosas and people who love them. It would make Chief Joseph proud.

See related posts:

-The History of Appaloosas

- In Honor of Chief Joseph

-The Saga of Jackson Sundown


Posted July 22, 2019 on Facebook

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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