About this Itinerary
The Route of the Hiawatha follows one of the most scenic former railroad passages in the West, winding its way through the Bitterroot Mountains. The old right-of-way now makes for a spectacular mountain bike ride, and features illustrated interpretive signs that relate the railroad’s history, including how the amazing trestles and tunnels were built. Feeling adventurous? Skip the shuttle and ride back up the mountain on the return journey!
Fly into Spokane, Washington, and drive 86 miles to Wallace, Idaho. History buffs will agree that Wallace has the most concentrated historical attractions in the area. Stay at the Wallace Inn, which offers optional services to pick you up at the airport in Spokane. They’ll also customize a trail biking trip. Consider extending your stay and check out Wallace’s historical attractions.
Alternatively, you can stay at Scheffy’s Motel in the isolated burg of Avery, Idaho, once a stop along the Milwaukee Road. It’s nine miles from the trail’s southern trailhead.
Including driving to and from the trailhead, plan to spend a full day at this trail. Just biking the 17 miles one way alone takes about 2.5 hours. Bring your own or rent mountain bikes near the trailhead at Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area. The trail lies entirely within the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Under a special-use permit, Lookout Pass Ski Area manages the trail, and they are also your one-stop shop for all trail information. Bike racks for your car are free of charge if you rent their bikes. You can also rent bikes in downtown Kellogg at Excelsior Cycle (21 Railroad Avenue).
All riders over the age of 5 must purchase a trail pass, available at Lookout Pass (check website for current fees; passes for children 6–13 years old are available at a reduced rate). You can also buy passes from a trail ranger along the route.
Important: Bring water because potable water is not available along the trail (pit toilets are). Helmets are required as are head lamps or bike lights for the tunnels. Lookout Pass rents both. Dogs are prohibited on the trail, so leave yours at home.
Begin your day with a short bike ride to the Red Light Garage for breakfast and order a stack of huckleberry pancakes, a Northwest specialty. On display at the funky restaurant is a Korean weather satellite that plunged to Earth nearby.
If you rent bikes at Lookout Pass, drive about 12 miles to Lookout and check in. From here, you can either ride your bike to the East Portal trailhead along the old railroad grade or drive (about 10 miles). If you drive, from Lookout Pass continue on I-90 into Montana; take Exit 5 at Taft. Follow the signs to the East Portal trailhead parking area.
If you’re bringing your own bikes, and already have your trail passes or want to buy them from the trail rangers, from Wallace drive 21 miles on I-90 to the East Portal trailhead parking area. From the East Portal, the 15-mile trail is down hill on a gentle grade of packed gravel.
The trail starts with a bang and just keeps delivering one gem after another. First, you plunge into one of the trail’s most dramatic features: the St. Paul tunnel. At more than 1.5 miles long, the dead-straight bore through the mountain was burrowed in 1907. Midway through a sign notes the state line and tells which crew—Idaho or Montana—reached the center first. At the other end of the tunnel, and once your eyes re-adjust to daylight, look for the waterfall tumbling down the rocks.
The Milwaukee Road’s Route of the Hiawatha ran from 1911 to 1961 on a 46-mile passage. An important main line to the West Coast, it was also the last transcontinental route to be completed. It’s touted as one of the best engineered, too, and you can witness the handiwork. Along the way you’ll venture through nine more tunnels and cross seven breathtaking trestles, with views to match. At mile marker 6, the Kelly Creek trestle is the longest and highest (850 ft. and 230 ft., respectively). To build it, a 25-man crew used a rolling crane called “the traveler,” doing so in record time: just 31 days.
When you reach the end point at Pearson trailhead, you can continue riding Forest Road 456 (picking up the old rail bed at Forest Road 300A) to Avery (nine miles one way). Stop by Chicken Joe (730 Old River Rd.) for a cold drink, roasted chicken, Jo Jo fries and more. Between 1909 and 1980, Avery was a dividing point along the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension and was also where steam and diesel locomotives were changed over or hooked up to electric ones.
Ride back to Pearson and take the shuttle bus back up the mountain to the Roland trailhead (fee applies; see the schedule at Lookout Pass). From Roland, you get one more treat before journey’s end: a second ride through the spectacular Taft tunnel.
Back in Wallace, there’s more to explore, including the Northern Pacific Depot Railroad Museum, the Wallace District Mining Museum and the Oasis Bordello, which allegedly operated until 1988! You can also take in a show at the Sixth Street Theater, featuring old-time melodrama.
While you’re in the area, don’t miss the sublime Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, which offers 72 paved miles through scenic mountains and valleys in Idaho’s Panhandle. Montana’s Route of the Olympian, a 31-mile gravel rail-trail between Taft and St. Regis, provides another biking option.