Riding the Hiawatha Trail

One of the best things about living in the Pacific Northwest is the outdoor activities, all year long. We have boating, hiking, biking, camping, swimming, climbing, skiing, everything. If there’s a sport and a season, we have it. The Hiawatha Trail is one of those exciting activities you just have to do if you’re up here.

The “Route of the Hiawatha” is part of the national “Rails to Trails” Conservancy project that takes out of service rail lines and converts them into biking trails; it is also 1 of only 15 that are in the “hall of fame”. The trail itself is only 15, easy, miles that will take you through 10 tunnels and across 7 tressells and its all downhill! Unless you decide to ride UP hill after you get to the bottom – in which case double all of those numbers.

I took my brother-in-law ( a fellow pilot, currently flying C-5 Galaxy’s for the USAF) and some family friends to ride the trail, something I hadn’t done since the turn of the millennium in 2001 or 2002 IIRC (that’s just fun to say). They’ve made considerable improvements over the nearly two decades since my return and folded it into the Lookout Pass Ski Area, which handles bike rentals, trail passes, and transportation.

Originally part of the Milwaukee Railroad line out of Chicago the exploration and development of the trail began in 1904. It cost nearly $257 million to develop (which includes the cost of switching to diesel-electric later in the lines existence) the route and involved over 9000 people laboring in the wild of North Idaho from 1906 to 1911, when the Pacific expansion was opened.

During the fires of 1910, which were some of the worst in recorded history and were host to many tales of heroism the railroad was no exception – its estimated that nearly 600 people were saved by the railroad who sheltered them in box cars in the tunnels along this, now, biking trail.

The trains continued to run on the trail through 1980, when the last train of the now bankrupt Hiawatha line completed its final crossing.

The scenery is spectacular, the ride is easy, the tunnels are exhilarating, the tressels exciting and all in the ride is easy, making it accessible for any level of rider, no mad skills needed. If you’re from here and haven’t done it yet than you’re crazy – and if you’re visiting here, well, add it to your list. Lookout Pass Ski Area handles rentals and trail passes, you can get everything from bikes to helmets to super powerful LED lights for the tunnels. I recommend going with their “comfort” option on the bike.

How easy is it to find from Idaho? Easy. Hop on I-90 and drive east to exit 0. The trail head begins on the Montana side of the border off of exit 5, but stop at lookout first for your trail passes (and if you don’t have bikes, lights, and helmets – those too)

Another 31 miles of trail are in the works on the Montana side of the border, which will make this one more than worthy of a return visit. I plan on going as much at least every year.

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