"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Biking the Route of the Hiawatha

At the suggestion of our friends Lynn and Glenn, we are in St. Regis, Montana for a week, primarily to ride this well known and loved 15 mile bike trail through the forests and hills of Idaho and Montana.  We are staying at a great campground, the Nugget RV Park, which I highly recommend.  Aside from very nice facilities it has acres and acres of wooded and well groomed hiking trails perfect for pet walking and wildlife viewing (many deer, turkeys and a fox so far).

Me at the start of the trail

The Route of the Hiawatha was originally the Pacific extension of the Milwaukee Railroad. It took almost 9,000 men (mostly immigrants), $234 million and three years to build this challenging section of the railroad. It is now named after its last train, the Hiawatha Olympian, which ran for only only a short time before the railroad line went bankrupt.

Map from Official Route of the Hiawatha website

The trial is now jointly owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Lookout Pass Ski Area, which is located on the state line between Montana and Idaho right off I-90 Exit 0.  

Lookout Pass Ski Lodge
The line for tickets

Parking lot at Lookout Pass and view into Idaho

The Trail can be accessed in several ways at multiple locations, but the easiest and most popular is to purchase trail and shuttle passes at Lookout Pass, rent bikes there if needed, and then drive to I-90 Exit 5 (Montana) and a few more miles on a dirt road, park, and enter the trail there at the East Portal. That's what Rick, our friend Kate and I opted to do.

Parking and unloading at East Portal

East Portal, where trail-masters check your passes and ensure you are safely equipped
for the ride with helmets, water and strong head or handlebar lights.

The very first feature that we encountered, after the trail-master's tent, is a 1.7 mile dark tunnel, with water running down the walls, dripping from the ceiling and into gutters on each side.  It was one of eeriest multi-sensory experiences I have ever had. There is no sound but the distance distorted echoes of other riders and running water. There is no wind, and the air is thick with moisture to the point of being like fog reflecting light from your head lamp, which is the only thing you see except for an occasional reflector and glimpses of the stone walls. It smells rich, deep, wet and earthy. And it's a chilling 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  The road surface is graded toward the edges so that the water runs into the gutters, but that also means its a little tricky to stay straight on course. The dark doesn't help one's sense of balance either. And it seems to go on forever. I got the strong feeling I had been transported to someplace in Middle Earth. 

But eventually we did see the light at the end of the tunnel and broke out into the heat of the day and fresh air. We were greeted by a sweet water fall right next to the trail. It's important to stop and turn off all your lights so that you still have enough battery power for the ride back. 

There are more tunnels, but none as long as the first... 

...and seven trestles of various lengths and heights. 

View from one of the trestles

The surface of the trail starts smooth, but it gets increasingly rocky and bumpy. We were all feeling it through our bike seats by the end of the trail. My super duper Specialized bike with full suspension (front and back shocks) was a real bottom saver. 

Smoke from fires in Idaho made the views a little less spectacular than they might have been on a clear day, but it was still beautiful and completely undisturbed by anything but the trail, trestles and tunnels. There are informational plaques interspersed along the trail that gave us an excuse to stop and stretch our legs.

It took us over three hours and it would have been good to have more snacks with us. After the fifteen miles, a shuttle picks everyone and their bikes up at the Pearson stop and returns to the end of the long tunnel for the last stretch.  The chill of the tunnel felt great at that point.

By the time we got to the truck we were hungry. It turned out to be a longer day than we expected. We returned Kate's rented bike to the lodge and hoped to get a meal there, but were sorely disappointed by the service (one woman to cook, serve and run the register, with many people waiting), so we headed home. 

Things to know if you want to ride the Route of the Hiawatha:

1. This is a great adventure for almost anyone who can ride a bike. We saw families with children, folks riding recumbent bikes, and rough and ready mountain bikers. It's downhill all the way so no hard peddling is required. It just takes people different amounts of time to do the trail, and the last shuttle is often at 4:15, with no other option for return but to ride the whole trail back again.

2. No pets are allowed on the trail.

3. Rentals of helmets, lights and various styles of bikes are available at the Lookout Pass Lodge.

4. Bring plenty of food and water, and don't expect much in the way of food service back at the Lookout Pass lodge.  There are a couple of thermos jugs placed along the trail to fill your water bottle, but they could be empty or you could easily miss them. There are also a couple of bathrooms on the trail. Study the map and keep your eye on the mileage markers and tunnel numbers to know how far you've got to go.

5. Those with poor night vision, serious fear of enclosed spaces or heights might want to think twice about riding the trail.

6. The website has plenty of good information, but it's hard to really imagine until you do it. Check it out


  1. Looks like a great trail, especially the tunnel:) We have to do a tunnel on our bike trail at home. I usually have my prescription sunglasses on so it is very dark and I just aim so the spot of light and hope I don't hit too many puddles or anything else. A little scary. Thanks for all the information. Just what we would need if we get in the area:)

    1. I think you guys would really enjoy this, and because of your tunnel experience probably wouldn't have any trouble navigating through.

  2. We have heard about this many times but have yet to do it...thank you so much for taking me there! I think we will have to give it a go the next time we are in the area. It's too bad about the smoke but it sure is a beautiful area isn't it?!

    1. This ride would feel like a day off holiday for you two. Effortless compared to your usual activity!

  3. You've given great info on this ride. The 1.7 mile tunnel at the beginning gives me GREAT pause -- not sure I could manage that much blinding dark, but all the rest looks stunning! Kudos to you guys for getting through it!

    Bobbie & Rich Hostetler

    1. I bet you could do it. You just have to be sure you've got one or two really strong lights with good batteries. And a backup perhaps. It's easier the second time through too.


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