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The Pearson-to-Calder Trail, part of the Idaho Milwaukee Road Rail-Trail system, passes through the scenic St. Joe River Valley and connects the popular Route of the Hiawatha with the towns of Avery, Marble Creek and Calder in northern Idaho. The section from Pearson to Avery, which is actually a lightly used forest service road (National Forest Development Road 456/Moon Pass Road), follows the North Fork of the St. Joe River and offers striking views of the valley below. From Avery to Calder, the trail follows the main St. Joe River and provides a pleasant gradual grade for walking and biking.
The Pearson-to-Calder Trail runs adjacent to the corridor of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, commonly known as the Milwaukee Road. The Idaho portions of rail line were built between 1906 and 1909. Having more than 656 miles of electrified track, the Milwaukee Road was ground-breaking in terms of long-distance electrification. In addition, this line supported both freight and passenger trains, including high-speed intercity trains, such as the steam-powered Hiawatha. In 1980, more than 1,000 miles were abandoned between Miles City, Montana, and Maple Valley, Washington.
Other rail-trails on the Milwaukee Road include Idaho's Route of the Hiawatha, Montana's Route of the Olympian, Kim Williams Nature Trail and part of the Riverfront Trail, and Washington's Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail.
To access the trail, you can park your vehicle in Pearson, Avery, Marble Creek or Calder (running east to west). Much of the segment from Avery to Calder runs parallel to Forest Road 50, so it's also possible at certain points to park on the side of the road and cross the St. Joe River (where there are bridges) to access the trail.
The Milwaukee picks up in Pearson immediately at the end of the Hiawatha. A rider going onto Avery (10 miles south) has two immediate choices, stay on the Milwaukee RR grade with more tunnels and trestles or switch the Scenic Alternate path. Both go downgrade and straddle either side of the St. Joe River. I don't get the sense many Hiawatha cyclists head onto Avery.
About 5 miles down, the two paths cross and one can switch up which is what I did. Leaving Pearson, I stayed on the RR grade which functions as a dirt road. It's more exposed and a bit rocky. After 5 miles or so, just past the trestle, they cross. Here, I switched over to the alternate which has some uphill and downhill but has shady areas. The RR grade has no climbs, all downgrade. The alternate in particular felt more remote. In terms of trail branding/signage, there was none.
In Avery, there are several lodging options. I stayed at Avery Store & Hotel. Super comfy bed and ate at the new TFP Pizza joint. Quite tasty! Make sure to check out the Rail Car and Depot Museum.
We only rode sections of this part of the Milwaukee Road rail trail. When we finished riding the Hiawatha at Pearson, we were the only people continuing on bikes. Everyone else was shuttling back to their cars. We were on the rail trail for about half the nine miles to Avery. We continued across the St Joe's North Fork, crossing the bridge and staying on Moon Pass Rd. This is basically a continuation of the Hiawatha; Avery was a major stop on the line. There are several more tunnels along this section. The surface is rocky, so even though we were descending to the river we weren't able to really enjoy it as much as we should have. Wider tires might have helped. We rode 700x32.
From Avery to Calder, we opted to stay on the pave St Joe River Rd, so I can't speak to the condition of the railroad grade. In speaking with those who did ride it, it's decent until Calder, though somewhat washboarded and sandy in spots. Again, wider tires would help. I can speak to its beauty; the views are the same from either road, only opposite sides of the river. Spectacular vistas, with the river and the hills and the pines. Stop 12 miles west of Avery at the Forest Service interpretive center.
It was sad to us that that most end the journey in the Bitterroots at the Hiawatha and shuttle back. We loved this segment of the Bitterroot loop. I will say though, you need the tires for it. We have a tandem trike with 1.75 stock tires and it handled it well, including the rough Old Milwaukee Alternate route after leaving the road on the way to Avery. We have a more thorough explanation on http://tandemriding.blogspot.com plus a video of our Terratrike Rover tandem going down the Old Milwaukee Alternate route. Avery and it's inhabitants were a highlight of the trip, don't miss this section of the trail!
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