Located on the border of Northern Idaho and Montana, lies the spectacular Route of the Hiawatha. This popular bike trail covers 15 miles at a gentle downhill grade between 1.6% – 2%. From start to finish, the trail drops approximately 1,000 feet in elevation.
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Once known as the Milwaukee Railroad, passengers and goods were transported from Chicago to the West Coast in the early 1900’s. The most scenic and rugged section of railway spanned parts of Montana and Idaho through the Bitterroot Mountain Range.
The railroad went through many changes, but was eventually bankrupted in 1977 and abandoned. Through the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, it was converted into a bike or hike trail and opened in May of 1998. It has since expanded, and become a bucket list experience for visitors around the world.
The trail begins at the 1.66 mile St. Paul Pass Tunnel, the longest and coldest of the trail, where lights and jackets are essential. There are a total of 10 train tunnels. In addition, there are 7 sky-high trestles of varying length, which offer the best views of the area. Wildlife is abundant along the trail, and we were fortunate to see deer as well as a mama and baby moose!
PLANNING YOUR RIDE
I would allow at least 4 hours to retrieve tickets, bike, eat, and ride the shuttle back to the parking lot. The biking alone took us about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and another hour for bathroom breaks, snacks, and photo opportunities. Our wait for the shuttle was about 45 minutes. The trail does open at 8:30, so an earlier start would probably reduce the shuttle wait time.
Tickets can be purchased in advance online, at Lookout Pass in Mullan, ID, or at the trailhead by cash only. (When purchasing online, they must be picked up at Lookout Pass before heading to the trailhead several miles away). Tickets can also be purchased to ride the shuttle bus back to the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, which you will have to ride through once again to arrive at the parking lot. The bus cannot pass through this tunnel.
Much of the equipment necessary can be rented, including bikes, bike racks, helmets, and bike lights. They can be picked up at Lookout Pass, or delivered to the trailhead. Even picnic lunches can be ordered ahead. You are also welcome to bring your own bicycles, helmets, and bike lights.
ITEMS TO PACK
- Bike rack and bikes (if not renting).
- A helmet.
- A bike pump to keep in the car, just in case.
- A light that straps to your head or handlebars, with at least 300-400 lumen. (Our head lamps were bright enough, but awkward strapped around our helmets. Next time I’ll mount a flashlight to the handlebars instead.)
- Gym shoes.
- Comfortable seat pad.
- Backpack to store keys, shuttle passes, equipment, snacks, and water. (Restrooms and water refills are available sparingly on the trail.)
- A jacket or sweatshirt for the tunnels.
- Lunch or snacks.
- A change of clothes. We ended up a bit muddy and dusty after riding through the St. Pauls Pass Tunnel.
- Finally, a good camera to take pictures and videos is a necessity. I brought my GoPro Max 360, and was happy with how easy it was to use while mounted to my bike!
The Route of the Hiawatha is located near Wallace, Idaho. We stayed at the Wallace Inn, which was a really nice hotel with an indoor pool, and attached Cafe. (Passes for the Hiawatha trail can also be purchased at the hotel, allowing you to bypass Lookouts Pass, and head directly for the trailhead.)
Biking the Route of the Hiawatha was a very special experience. My teenager even conceded that he’d love to do it again!