Biking the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho

If thoughts of Idaho conjure images of plains and potatoes for you, think again. The northern panhandle region is home to towering mountains, glacial lakes and some of the most incredible outdoor adventures you can imagine. And it’s home to one of the best bike rides in North America—the Hiawatha Trail, located at the Idaho/Montana border.

P1000231Called the Crown Jewel of Rails to Trails, the stunning Hiawatha Trail consists of 15 miles of easy downhill or flat-grade biking trails on the historic Olympian Hiawatha route, where a railroad ran until the 1970s. Once the most scenic stretch of railroad in the U.S., the trains once traversed through 11 tunnels and over 9 high trestles, covering a 46 mile route that crossed the rugged Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana.

In May 1998 the first 13 miles of the trail were opened to the public for hikers and wilderness biking. This stretch of the trail between Roland and Pearson currently goes through 8 open tunnels and travels over 7 high trestles following the mountainous terrain, and the portion of the trail from Moss Creek to Pearson is open only to non-motorized traffic. The very gentle grade makes it doable for almost anyone; I saw five-year-olds pedaling alongside their parents or grandparents. High train trestles take you above the treetops, and tunnels burrow through mountains in one of the most breathtaking settings imaginable.

The very beginning of the trailhead is, in fact, the longest tunnel—Taft Tunnel, which burrows for 1.6 miles under the Bitterroot Mountains at the state border. I have to admit, it was a little disconcerting and creepy at first to enter the tunnel; within a few dozen feet we were immersed in darkness, with the only sounds the dripping of water from the rock ceiling overhead and the splash of the tires through puddles below. I was glad for the light on my handlebars that provided my only visibility, the other bikers I could occasionally hear behind or in front of me, and the sweater I had brought (the tunnels were chilly, even in August).

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But the disorientation quickly turned to something like euphoria. The sensation of biking through the dank railroad tunnel was strangely peaceful, and a completely unique adventure like I had never experienced. Emerging after nearly two miles into light felt victorious. There were many places along the rest of the trail where I simply had to stop and marvel at the nature before and below me, or read the many historic markers along the route that explain the history of the Hiawatha route and the railroad.

The Hiawatha Trail is operated by the Lookout Pass Ski Area and open from late May through early October. You can rent bikes, helmets and bicycle racks at Lookout Pass, and when you complete the 15-mile trail a shuttle will pick you up at the bottom to return you to your vehicle at the trailhead. For the really hard-core, you can ride up the trail. All in all, this is a full day’s worth of adventure – don’t plan anything else afterward except a full dinner and perhaps a cold beer

The trail is projected to open for the 2015 season on May 23. Trail passes are $10 for adults and $6 for children 6-13 years old. You can also buy shuttle tickets to take you back to parking from the bottom of the trail, and picnic lunches.

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