Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Road Trip to Bike the Route of the Hiawatha in Northern Idaho

Not exactly the "Canadian Rockies," but we are a family who LOVES biking, so we travelled to Northern Idaho this past summer to ride one of the best family trails in North America. The Route of the Hiawatha is also one of the most popular rail trails in the United States which further intrigued us.

Biking on the Route of the Hiawatha, Idaho

The Nuts and Bolts for the Route of the Hiawatha Trail 

Distance to the trailhead from Calgary, Alberta 

Roughly 7.5 hours (~ 700 km)

Nearest City to the trailhead 

Coeur D'Alene, Idaho

Riding out of a tunnel that was almost 3 kilometres long!

Why you want to bike this trail 

The Route of the Hiawatha Trail is a 14 mile long rail trail (22.5 km) that you ride one-way with a shuttle back to your vehicle at the end. The trail is relatively flat or downhill the entire time and you get to bike through 9 tunnels! There are also 7 trestle bridges that you'll ride over.

Also, the longest tunnel is 1.7 miles long (2.7 km!) And you get to ride it both ways on the way out, and back.

And cool fact: The trail actually starts in Montana, crossing into Idaho as you ride through the first tunnel.

It should be noted too that you don't have to set up your own return shuttle! (Always a struggle when on vacation with just one vehicle.) Most people pay to ride one of the shuttle busses that leaves every 15 minutes or so from the final parking lot.

Recommended Camping near the trail 

We camped at Farragut State Park (just over an hour and a half away and conveniently located near Silverwood Amusement Park.

- and a tip for those planning to visit Silverwood, buy tickets in advance. I bought tickets months early at early bird pricing.

West Portal Trailhead of the Hiawatha Trail

Cost to ride the trail 

The trail is operated by the Lookout Pass Ski Area

One of the many tunnels on the Hiawatha Trail
There is a trail fee required to ride this trail. This does not include the shuttle fee, and you must pay it even if you have your own bike. 

Adult Trail Passes - $11

Children's Trail Passes - $7 (ages 6-13)

Adult Shuttle Tickets - $9

Children's Shuttle Tickets - $6 (ages 6-13)

You can also rent bikes and lights for the tunnels if you need. 

All information on fees and rentals can be found here. 

We stopped in at the ski area first to purchase our trail fees and return shuttle tickets. Then we drove to the nearby trailhead, 7 miles away (11 km.) 

One of the many steel trestle bridges on the Hiawatha Trail

Our Experience on the Route of the Hiawatha 

After purchasing our tickets at the Lookout Pass Ski Area, we drove the 7 miles to the trailhead which was already packed! We discovered quickly that you want to arrive early for this one if you want to find parking. 

Fortunately, once we started, the other bikers all spread out and the trail never felt crowded. It was very hot though (30+ degrees) so an early start is good for that reason alone. (though the tunnels do cool you off quite quickly.)

The trail never felt busy as the crowds spread out along the route

Riding from the East Portal to the West Portal through the Taft Tunnel 

You immediately start your journey by biking through the 1.7 mile long St. Paul Pass (Taft) Tunnel which was the highlight of the trip for us. It never felt crowded in the tunnel and once inside, our world turned pitch black! There are no lights in the tunnels and the only thing keeping you on the path through the middle is whatever light shines down from your headlamp or bike light.

We only had headlamps and they felt a bit dim at times. I'd recommend going with the strongest/brightest headlamps you have (or renting lights from the ski area.) It was a tad scary riding through the tunnel without good visibility, but it was also a LOT of fun! My husband and son had a blast making zombie sounds the entire time (yes, for over 2 straight kilometres!!)

Starting off through the Taft Tunnel 

West Portal to the official Route of the Hiawatha 

When you get out of the tunnel, you'll be on a shared road with shuttle bus traffic for the next 2.3 miles (3.7 km.)

Fortunately the road is wide and the busses drive very slowly. You're also riding downhill. 

On the way back, the bus will drop you off at the end of this road, right at the entrance to the Taft Tunnel for one final ride through and back to the parking lot. (adding an extra 2 miles to your total bike distance.)

There is also one tunnel on this stretch of road (that again is shared with bus traffic) but the busses will honk their horns before driving through the tunnel so you have time to get over to the side, or to get out quickly.

The tunnels were a big highlight of this bike ride!

Riding the Route of the Hiawatha

Now that we were on the actual trail, we got to enjoy wide easy riding, mostly downhill or flat at a nice gentle rail grade, as we passed through numerous tunnels and rode over beautiful steel trestle bridges.

The longest tunnel on this stretch was 1516 feet long (0.4 km) and it was the first one (so keep your headlamps handy.) Most of the others were short enough that we didn't really need our lights.

From the first tunnel to tunnel #28 we rode 5.8 miles (9.3 km.) And this was definitely the "fun" part. In this stretch, we rode through 6 tunnels and across 7 bridges.

Endless tunnels on the Hiawatha Trail

The Final Part of the Hiawatha Trail to the Parking Lot 

After tunnel #28 we still had 4.5 miles (7 km) to ride before we reached the final parking lot (and there was only one tunnel on this stretch, right at the very end.) 

This section was quite boring to be honest and my son was far from a happy camper here. The trail was very bumpy with a washboard surface and lacked views or anything of real interest.

Bring candy and snacks for this part and try to think of fun ways to help the kilometres go by quickly.

We would have turned around at tunnel 28, but then we would have been riding back uphill to the West Portal and that didn't seem terribly appealing at the time.

We really enjoyed all of the tunnels and bridges on the Route of the Hiawatha

The Shuttle Ride Back

Make sure you get your bikes in the lineup as soon as you arrive in the parking lot as you may have to wait for a few busses before you can get on one. 

When you do get on a bus, they will load all of the bikes in the back, and then the passengers up front for the ride back to the West Portal (And Taft Tunnel entrance.) 

And yes, they will take Chariots or bike trailers on the bus.

The shuttle ride back to the start of the Hiawatha

Additional Tips for Riding the Route of the Hiawatha

I've included suggestions throughout this guide, but here are a few extra that come to mind.

  • A light pair of mittens or gloves would be beneficial for the Taft Tunnel. My hands were frozen by the time we got out.

  • Bring a light sweater or long sleeve shirt for the Taft Tunnel. It's very chilly inside.

  • As already mentioned, you want bright lights for the Taft Tunnel! Rent lights from the ski hill if your headlamps aren't very powerful (or if you don't have good headlamps.)

  • Keep your lights handy throughout the ride. We needed them several times for the various tunnels

  • As already mentioned, you'll want motivation of some sort for the final push back to the parking lot.

  • Start early in the day to get parking, to have a more peaceful experience on the trail, and to reduce wait times for the shuttle bus at the end.

  • Dogs are NOT allowed on the trail (even in a Chariot or bike trailer.) Sorry, not my rule.

  • Bicycle helmets must be worn at all times on the trail.

  • Adult supervision is required for all children under the age of 14.

  • You can buy trail passes at the trailhead if you don't want to stop in at the ski area. You must have cash though if buying trail passes on the trail. Credit cards are only accepted for payment at the ski area.

  • Do not stop in the middle of the tunnels (common sense, right?)

  • Use restrooms at the trailheads! (They are fairly strict about not turning the trail into a giant toilet.) - and there are a few trailheads along the way.

  • Pack out your garbage! There are no garbage cans on the trail.

  • Bring cash to buy cold beverages at the end if you want something while waiting for the next bus.
And another tunnel on the Route of the Hiawatha

Season for the Route of the Hiawatha 

The trail opens late May (May 25th for 2019) for weekend use with shuttles.

Shuttles start to run weekdays starting the second weekend in June (June 8th for 2019.)

Hours are reduced in September with the trail closing after the third weekend of September (the 22nd would be the last day for 2019.)

For full information on schedules, visit the Route of the Hiawatha website. 

Classic Rail Trail through Northern Idaho and Montana

Disclaimer: This story was not sponsored and we did not partner with the Lookout Ski Area. We visited Idaho like normal tourists and I am simply writing about our adventures to inspire other families to enjoy this trail.

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