One band of 750 Nez Perce who were not under any treaty with the U.S. Government, fought numerous engagements with the 7th Cavalry during their attempt to reach Canada and escape being forced into an Indian Reservation. Beginning near Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon, the Nez Perce headed east into Idaho. They crossed Lolo Pass into Montana and fought a major battle at what is now know as Big Hole National Battlefield. After that, the Nez Perce continued traveling south and east, back into Idaho and then into Wyoming entering Yellowstone National Park near West Yellowstone, Montana. The tribe left the park crossing Sylvan Pass and followed the Clarks Fork River back into Montana. From there the Nez Perce headed almost straight north for Canada and almost made it. The Nez Perce were near starvation and exhaustion after fighting their last battle north of the Bear Paw Mountains, less than 40 miles (64 km) from the Canadian border, when they surrendered to U.S. authorities. Chief Joseph is widely credited with leading the Nez Perce on this journey, but he functioned more like a camp supervisor and guardian who was entrusted with handling the logistics of camp and travel and taking care of the women and children.
At the time of the surrender, Chief Joseph was the most prominent surviving leader among the group and was ultimately the one who decided that they must surrender. A few members of the tribe did manage to escape to Canada, but the vast majority were relocated to Kansas and Oklahoma for eight years before being allowed to return to Idaho, near their ancestral home.
The trail passes through numerous National Park Service managed areas and National Forests. While Oregon was already a state, the other three states the trail now passes through were still merely territories. None of the forest lands were managed by the federal government, but Yellowstone National Park was created 5 years prior to the Nez Perce journey. The trail also passes through privately owned property and it is best advised to obtain permission to enter these areas from local landowners. Little of the trail is actually a foot trail, but much of the journey can be closely followed by roads. Attempts are underway to continue to preserve right of way to allow greater access for visitors.