Rain or Shine: Route of the Hiawatha Trail Delivers Epic Ride

By John Rezell, Editor

Pausing for a photo of the Bear Creek Trestle and peeking over the edge to the tremendous views of the creek rippling 155 feet below, some movement to the left caught my eye.

Life on My Bike: Ride the Hiawatha Trail

Glancing upward, the forested ridges across the ravine suddenly transform into a scene from an old Western movie, sans the old steam locomotive puffing smoke as it chugs across the line of trestles sliced into the side of the mountain.  I was on The Route of the Hiawatha Trail in the Idaho Panhandle which offers some of the most scenic stretches of the former Milwaukee Railroad that traversed between Idaho and Montana in the Bitterroot Mountains in the late 1880s. For me, what began some five or six miles back as a quasi-interesting ride, has ratcheted up to epic proportions as the colorful string of cyclists descending from the top of the Hiawatha Trail offer a glimpse of what’s to come for those ascending. That being me. The Hiawatha Trail, designated as a Hall of Fame Trail by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with its seven trestles and 10 tunnels along its 15-mile stretch, was my challenge for the day.

Up, Then Down

In my humble opinion, for the serious cyclist, there’s only one way to really experience the Hiawatha Trail that rumbles through the Hiawatha National Forest wilderness 20 miles outside of Wallace, Idaho. Oh sure, you can enjoy a shuttle ride from nearby Lookout Pass and start the fun either at the bottom or top, perfect if you need to rent a bike and lights for the ride. For true adventure and to really appreciate this quintessential rails-to-trails adventure, you need to bounce along the gravel logging road up and down into the forest from Wallace to find the lower Pearson Trailhead at Prescott. Like-minded cyclists will find themselves in a vast minority, outnumbered by well more than 100-to-1 by those descending only. Which, of course, only enhances my decision to ride up. [caption id="attachment_92929" align="alignnone" width="750"]

Life on My Bike: Ride the Hiawatha Trail

Be prepared for crowds on this super popular summer adventure of cycling the Hiawatha Rail Trail. Photo courtesy Route of the Hiawatha[/caption]

No Easy Ride 

Erase any assumption that since it’s a railroad grade, the ride down will be nothing but an easy coast for 15 miles. Understand there is work involved on this 1-2 percent easy grade in both directions, an element, I discovered, that some parents do not fully understand — their children pushed beyond their expertise or fitness. In addition, remember that the trail cuts a twisting swath through the mountains and thus encounters unpredictable mountain weather. As was my experience last summer.  Luckily, I was prepared when I exited the dizzying 4,150-foot high,1.7-mile St. Paul Pass Tunnel after my ascent from the lower trailhead. No sooner did I emerge from the tunnel and its 40-degree mud bath than I heard a loud crack of thunder. There was really no place to hunker down and no telling which direction the mountain weather was raging that day. I quickly – and reluctantly – made the decision to turn back and re-enter the tunnel to begin my descent. By the time I came out the other side, once again frozen from the muddy ride through (many riders skip this long tunnel), the rain began.  I donned my rain jacket and continued down, occasionally hearing a clap of thunder rattle in the far distance and echo through the endless canyons. [caption id="attachment_92930" align="alignnone" width="750"]

Life on My Bike: Ride the Hiawatha Trail

Well groomed with gravel, the Hiawatha Trail doesn't have any super steep climbs or descents, but it isn't a simple downhill coast, either. Photo courtesy Route of the Hiawatha Trail[/caption] Then the deluge began, catching me between one of the 10 tunnels. The wind whipped up, and since I was already soaked from the mud and grime of the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, I hammered to get down as soon as possible, my hopes dashed of conquering the Trail uphill. As I raced down, the hail hit. Soon after, a bright flash of lightning with an almost immediate blast of thunder sent my heart rate off the charts. I opted to stay on my bike with rubber between me and the ground rather than dismount my bike with my metal cleats. Eventually the storm passed. With some five miles remaining to the bottom, I donated a pair of dry leg warmers to a shivering young cyclist and finished my trek down to sunny clearing skies at the end, which is probably the mid-summer norm in Idaho. Without question, the Hiawatha Trail can be an unforgettable experience. The key, of course, is to be prepared. Rain or shine.

If You Go

The Route of the Hiawatha is usually open from late May to late September. Trail passes, bike rentals, lights (which are required to go through the tunnels) and maps are available at nearby Lookout Pass.

Resources

Ride the Hiawatha: www.ridethehiawatha.com

Best Photo Op: The waterfall at the west portal of the St. Paul Pass Tunnel Best Nearby Trail: The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. This 72-mile paved path is located nearby, is open year-round with an easy/beginner skill level and features multiple trailheads. Best bet for families: The Enaville to Cataldo 5.5-mile, out-and-back ride featuring a flat, riverside trail with restaurants at both ends.

www.friendsofcdatrails.org/trail-of-the-coeur-dalenes

John Rezell is the editor of OutdoorsNW.

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