I’m going to admit right now that I’d never heard of the Route of the Hiawatha before planning a trip to north Idaho. So if you’ve never heard about it either, don’t feel bad. But I suspect that if you’re much of a cyclist, you HAVE heard about this “rails to trails” route through a portion of the Bitterroot Mountains.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the Route of the Hiawatha — at least the cycling route. But the history goes back much further, when it was a railroad route from Seattle to Chicago. And you need to know some of the history to really appreciate how special it is.
Building the Route of the Hiawatha
In the early 1900’s, rail travel was popular and the Milwaukee Road was a prosperous railroad out of Chicago. It was decided to expand west to remain competitive and explorations began in earnest to find the best route. The exploration crews covered wild and uninhabited territory of over 2000 miles along the Bitterroot Mountains, and their suggested route was finally approved in 1905. They still needed to determine exactly where the rails would be laid down.
By early 1907, construction began. It was very difficult because of rough terrain and weather conditions, but the crews worked year-round. The estimated cost also rose, from $45 million to over $234 million. It took 9000 men, from many different nationalities to complete the railroad, working from 1906 to 1911.
Rail Service on the Route of the Hiawatha
Rail service began in 1909, but the ‘Big Burn’ of 1910 caused considerable damage, burning 2.5 – 3 million acres in northern Idaho and Montana. There were heroic tales of engineers racing through flames to get their cars (full of people and freight) into the long tunnels for safety. Over 600 people were saved this way.
After the fire, the Milwaukee Road decided to electrify the trains. The Olympian Hiawatha was a luxury train that could travel at 100 mph. By the way, the name “Hiawatha” came from an Indian legend about Hiawatha — an indian who could shoot an arrow, and then run so fast, he could catch his own arrow. It was a name that symbolized speed.
These were the glory days of the Route of the Hiawatha, but it didn’t last for long. The last passenger train passed through the Bitterroot Mountains in 1961, and by 1980, the line was completely abandoned.
What is the ‘Route of the Hiawatha’ Today?
The Route of the Hiawatha “Rails to Trails” cycling/hiking trail is 15 miles long with 10 train tunnels and 7 railroad trestles. The longest tunnel, known as the St. Paul Pass or Taft tunnel, is 1.66 miles long. The actual rails have been removed, and the trail is perfect for mountain bikes and hiking. The cost of maintaining the trail is covered by the purchase of Route of the Hiawatha trail passes, which are required for entrance. The trail is a tribute to the hard work of those who built and maintained the railroad through this stretch of mountains for nearly 71 miles.
Guess who owns the Hiawatha? You do! And so do I. The Hiawatha Bike Trail is owned by all of us. It is on U. S. National Forest land administered by the St. Joe Ranger District of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
You’ll find 47 interpretive signs along the route giving more information about the history of the railroad, the towns that sprung up as construction began, and the ins and outs of operating the railroad.
The trail has a 2% downhill grade so it’s an easy ride. We started at the East Portal just across the border in Montana, at Exit 5. But before we got started, we needed to get ourselves some bikes!
Get Outfitted at Lookout Pass
If you already have bikes, you’re ready to go. You’re going to want to use mountain bicycles with thicker tires than regular street bikes. It was easy to get everything we needed at the rental shop at Lookout Pass. There we rented mountain bikes (I chose the “comfort” edition with a larger seat), and the helmets and lights are included. They also attached a bike rack to our rental car for us so we could carry the bikes to the beginning of the trail. Check the prices here if you need to rent a bicycle. They have bike trailers, too, for very young children to ride in.
There are a few other things you’ll want to at least consider having with you on your bike ride: water to drink, sunscreen, a few snacks, and a light jacket or sweater to wear in the longest tunnel because it WILL be chilly. Like being inside a refrigerator! Lookout Pass has all of these items for sale in their shop if you didn’t bring them with you. You might want to wear sunglasses and definitely bring a camera. The views are spectacular! I also brought chapstick.
There’s one more thing that is a must — the Route of the Hiawatha trail pass. This is a sticker that you wrap around a brake cable on your bike. You can buy it here at Lookout Pass. An adult trail pass is only $11 (14 yrs+). Trail passes for children under 14 are only $7. You can also buy trail passes at the following locations:
- Any trailhead on the Route of the Hiawatha (off of Taft Exit 5)
- Trail Marshals while riding the Hiawatha
- Scheffy’s General Store in Avery (trail ticket only)
- Wallace Inn in Wallace, ID. (trail ticket only)
And if you don’t want to ride 15 miles back uphill to your car, you’ll want to get a shuttle pass ($9 adults/$6 children).
Let’s Do This!
Enough already! Let me just show you why you’ll want to ride the Route of the Hiawatha! And maybe take a look at this list of safety and etiquette rules for riding the trail.
Here’s the beginning of the trail just a few miles into Montana; there’s a parking lot here with portable bathrooms and a station that sells water and snacks.
The first thing you do is ride through the 1.66-mile St Paul Pass tunnel (or Taft tunnel). It was dark, and kind of crazy to ride into the darkness trusting that your tiny little beam of light will be enough to see by. The darkness encloses you, and you hear water dripping down the walls and pouring into ditches on the sides of the path. There are also numbers hand-painted in white on the walls. They mark every 50 feet along the wall, so you have a feel for how far you’ve gone. Also, by the time you’re finished with this tunnel, your hands will be really cold! (And don’t get too excited, because you are going to have to ride back through it at the end of your ride.)
Here’s a video we took in one of the tunnels we went through.
Right after you exit the first tunnel, there’s a beautiful little waterfall on your right. And that’s just the beginning of the incredible natural scenery you’re going to see.
Who rides the trail?
You’ll see lots of people on the trail with you, at least in the summer — families with teenagers, families with young children, young adults, couples, and even seniors. We also saw a large group of young adults from Italy while we were there. People come from all over the world to ride the unique and beautiful Hiawatha.
Because of the relative ease of this trail, you do not need to be an expert cyclist. I hadn’t been bicycling for nearly a year, and only at the end did I get a little “saddle sore.” You can always get off your bike and walk with it, if you need a break. We saw a few people walking their bikes through the tunnels.
What is the trail like?
The trail is well-maintained, mostly smooth with small gravel and dirt. Much of the trail is in the shade, which is really nice on a warm summer day. It’s also good to note that there are water stations placed in a few spots along the trail, where you can refill your water bottle. Just look for the orange water jugs.
Sometimes you’ll be riding on trails completely surrounded by pine trees.
And sometimes, you’ll be able to see for miles, with the most amazing views of the mountains in every direction. You can see railroad trestle bridges in the distance.
You can stop to read interpretive signs or to hike. There are lots of good places to stop and rest in the shade if needed. At Clear Creek, we hiked off the trail just a little and saw a deer. The little creek there is so beautiful.
Here was an interesting story and even a grave to go with it:
You’ll even see lots of pretty wildflowers along the way…
Nearly everywhere you look, you’ll see nature’s beautiful landscaping. I can only imagine what it must have been like to ride a luxury train through this area!
And look at this dizzying view as I looked over the edge of a trestle bridge!
What happens at the end of the trail?
When you get to the end of the Hiawatha, you’ll know it. There will be another large gate through which you’ll pass. You’ll see people getting off their bikes to buy snacks or to use the restrooms here. There are also picnic tables.
And you may see a line of people standing next to their bikes, waiting to load a shuttle (old retrofitted school buses). Bikes get loaded in the back, and about 15 people are seated in the front of the bus. As soon as one bus is full, it leaves to drive back to the end of the Taft Tunnel. That is as far as it can go on this particular road. You’ll then unload your bike and ride back through the tunnel to get to your car.
Our shuttle driver shared very interesting stories about the area and the railroad construction crews and their towns that sprung up overnight. I loved learning about the history of this route. This was more than just a bicycle ride. It was a nature outing/history lesson/gentle workout all in one! Plus it was just fun to see so many others out enjoying the same experience. Being able to say I’ve ridden the Hiawatha is a privilege — one that you can share in, too. It really is a cycling heaven!
As is common in the travel industry, I was invited to ride on the Route of the Hiawatha so I could share my experience with you. I am most grateful and would like to express my appreciation to Visit Idaho and Lookout Pass. As always, my opinions are my own, and my review is an honest depiction of my experience.