Cycling Idaho’s Hiawatha Trail

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By Chris Blinzinger — Several years ago, while at a conference in Maryland, I had one of those chance encounters with a fellow cyclist that resulted in a bike trip my wife and I recently completed. Paul and I met at the Pub on the first evening of the conference. We seemed to find each other and talk about bikes and other things for the next few days. He had taken his family on the Hiawatha Rail Trail (https://www.ridethehiawatha.com/) in Northern Idaho and recommended that my wife and I should check it out.

Chris and Kendra on the Hiawatha Trail. Photo courtesy Chris Blinzinger

We had previously spent two weeks in the Pacific Northwest on Adventure Cycling’s Pacific Coast Route. It was her first serious bike tour and we both learned a lot about touring together. It was different than touring with my friend, John, with whom I had toured around the west and Rocky Mountains. While different, it was a trip that I cherish just for the time we had to spend together. Two solid weeks of just the two of us — it was so much fun! Life and kids have occupied time and attention, so we had not done any touring together since.

The Hiawatha Trail is not a tour. It is a 16-mile one-way, 32-mile round trip ride. But this was a weekend away with my wife, in a beautiful part of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, that provided miles of riding through tunnels, over trestles, magnificent views, and quaint little mining towns. The ride begins five miles east of the Idaho border in Montana and ends in Idaho. We left town after work on Thursday and stayed in an Airbnb in Idaho Falls which broke up the drive on the way up from our home in Utah. The drive from Utah can be done completely on Interstates 15 and 90, but there are alternate routes on smaller by-ways that offer the same beautiful views.

We stayed in a quaint little town, Wallace, ID, where the entire village is on the National Historic Registry for its mining history. Wallace has museums, mine tours and a zip line available in town. It’s also in perfect proximity to the Hiawatha Trail and the 73-mile paved Trail of the Coeur D’Alene’s which runs right through Wallace between Mullah and Plummer Idaho. Wallace is 45-minutes east of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

We headed out for the Hiawatha Trailhead at 8:30 after a delightful breakfast from our Airbnb host. It was about a 30-minute drive back to the East. We had to stop at milepost 0, at the Lookout Pass Recreation Area (another site with rich history) to pick up our passes. We purchased our tickets and made reservations online about one month prior to our trip. The required passes must be picked up the day of the ride. We would normally bring a lunch but this time we opted for the “Package Deal” which includes lunch along with the pass. If you need them, Lookout Pass Recreation Area does rent bikes, helmets, and lights, which all riders are required to have.

We continued on to Mile post 5 on Montana’s Interstate 90. We exited and followed the signs for 2 miles to the parking area for Hiawatha Trail Adventurers. We attached our sticky passes to the brake cable and rode up to the check-in area. They verified our helmets, lights, and passes and we pedaled forward. The trail is hard packed dirt, but we had been advised that some of the tunnels were muddy, so we had bikes with wider tires. However, there were all kinds of bikes on the trail that day.

Short tunnel on the Hiawatha Trail. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

Within the first 50 yards we enter the first tunnel. This tunnel was the wettest and muddiest. It was 1.6 miles long and pitch black shortly after entering. This particular tunnel drips 1750 gallons of water per hour creating a wet dirt. Some cyclists who rode through fast earned the muddy stripe up their back, but my wife and I just pedaled normal and stayed clean. It was wet though. I wore a rain jacket and stayed dry. My wife was in her hoodie, and the water did not soak through. It was chilly in the tunnel, at about 45 degrees, with an outside temperature of about 65 degrees. We were mostly alone in that first tunnel, so we sang and hollered for the echo and felt like little kids, but it was entertaining.

The Hiawatha Trail's tallest trestle. Photo by Kendra Blinzinger

For the next 15 miles of the hard packed trail, we had spectacular views and there were many interpretive signs, tunnels, and trestles. The highest trestle is 230’ above the canyon floor below.

One of the interpretive signs on the Hiawatha trail. Photo by Chris Blinzinger

It is difficult to find the words to describe the ride. I find that the times I am out enjoying the beauty of this Planet, there are no words to describe the appreciation and enjoyment I feel for Mother Earth. My wife and I rode along, stopped to read the signs, and let our senses do the work. The history of the Hiawatha is strong and will remain with the opportunity to ride it into the future. We arrived at the end (Pearson) and opted to take the shuttle back up to the top, so we had time to drive into Coeur d’Alene for the rest of the day.

We rode for about 2 1/2 hours, taking the time to read as much as we could and shooting plenty of photos. This was a leisurely ride with a tremendous payoff along the way. It was a great weekend.

Notes:

  • The trail is 16 miles long from the East Portal at Montana milepost 5. 170,000 people ride the trail annually.
  • You can take the shuttle back or ride back. The Hiawatha is a 3% grade going down which turns into a 3% grade riding back up.
  • The shuttle drops you off at the west side of the first tunnel, so you’ll get the wet muddy ride twice whether you ride back or use the shuttle.
  • The East Portal is 30 minutes east of Wallace and 75 minutes east of Coeur d’Alene.
  • The trail pass is $14 per person. Shuttle, lunch, bike, helmet, and light rental are all extra.
  • E-Bikes are allowed
  • Coeur d’Alene is a beautiful town with a huge lake. Lots of outdoor activities and Spokane is just a quick drive further west.
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4 COMMENTS

  1. I think my wife would like all of this except the 1 1/2 miles muddy dark tunnel. Can you start on the other side of the tunnel? Maybe take the shuttle from the west side first and start at the end of the tunnel and then head back toward Coeur d’Alene on the Hiawatha?

  2. We rode the Trail of the Couer D’Alene last June and got interested the doing the Hiawatha this year, and the CdA trail again. We got our reservations as soon as possible when reservations opened up in February. It’s our understanding that you could drive to where shuttles would pick you up and simply ride it in reverse, turning around at the long tunnel to ride back down grade.
    There are some informative you tube videos on the Hiawatha and you can alway call reservations desk to ask questions.

  3. Kent Robertson,
    You can avoid this tunnel. We drove around on a curvy dirt road for about 25 minutes and bypassed the tunnel. You end in a parking area where the shuttle buses park. In fact, when you ride the shuttle back up, it stops in tis parking area and you would have to ride the big tunnel again back to your car. This was a plus for us as many people were dreading the return ride through the tunnel and we got in our car and probably made it back in about the same amount of time.

  4. I rode it a few years ago, on one of their rental bikes. Definitely worth it, lots of interesting signs to read along the way. If you can, bring your won bike; the ones they rent are not very good, and give a bone jarring ride. But, I survived and had a great time. The CdA trail is really nice too, paved, good for a road bike. And the brothel museum is actually worth it.

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