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Ring that bell, switch on your headlamp, and start pedaling. We’re about to take you on one of the USA’s most famous rail to trail bike paths through stunning mountains of Northern Idaho.
Our family is always saying yes to outdoor activities that help us unplug to reconnect and create lifelong stories to tell like…
“Remember that time, when we cycled through the almost two-mile, pitch-black tunnel and Savannah came out the other side covered in mud?”
And that was right at the beginning before we even hit the sky-high trestle bridges with stunning views of the Bitterroot Mountains.
The Route of the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho was one of our favorite and unforgettable family adventure so far in the USA. And as far as adventures go, this one was cruisy – focused more on fun than exhausting physical exertion.
What is the Route of the Hiawatha?
The Route of the Hiawatha is a 15-mile rail-trail that follows a former railroad route. Now don’t freak out at the 15-mile part. This bike ride is all downhill.
It runs through the Bitterroot Mountains at a gradual 1.6% average downhill grade and drops 1,000 ft over the 15 miles. Too easy!
Between 1906 – 1909 the Milwaukee Railway Company constructed this stretch of travel through this rugged mountainous terrain to expand its West Coast offerings. It cost $234 million dollars and took 9,000 men from nationalities over the world to build. At its time, it was a true engineering marvel.
After decades of financial struggles, the last train ran through in 1980 and one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country was abandoned.
Soon after it opened to bikers and hikers. The train track is no longer, but the route you’ll follow on your bike is just as it was in the 1900s when trains chugged through.
The Route of the Hiawatha Experience
The Route of the Hiawatha is located on the Montana Idaho border. You’ll begin your ride along the former railroad route at the East Portal/Taft Parking Lot.
If you’re hiring bikes, you’ll pick them up at the start of the trail and will go through your safety checks.
Be sure to check your flashlight properly. I didn’t and ended up cycling through those tunnels tailing Kalyra to use her light. It was waaay darker than I thought it would be and quite scary using only her light.
The ride begins at St Paul Pass or Taft Tunnel, the only tunnel everyone remembers by name as it is almost 1.7 miles long, cold and pitch black. Quite the exciting way to start (and finish) this adventure.
This is where Savannah came out caked in mud. She was on a tag-along bike behind Craig who cycled quickly through the tunnel not realizing she was catching all the mud splash.
Kalyra did not want to get her new Vans muddy, so she and I cycled reaaaallly (painfully) slowly through it. I was grateful at the end as our clothes did not need extra soaking in the tub.
The trail goes through another 9 tunnels, none as long as the first. Although most still quite dark to cycle through so remember to flip the light switch.
The journey the entire way is picturesque and ambling.
You cycle across 7 trestle bridges spanning 230-feet above the steepest parts of the valley floor. These are fun to stop at for your photos and views down into the valley.
There are several places along the trail where you can stop to take photos overlooking the trestle bridges further ahead as the trail winds down to the valley floor.
Savannah had the most fun of all! There were no complaints of “are we there yet?” from her.
As she was 8, we put her on a tag-along with Craig, thinking the 15 miles might be too much for her to cycle on her own. She cruised and sang almost the entire way. I do think she could have done it on her own bike. But sometimes it’s best to go for the “just in case” option.
Keep an eye out for wildlife as you ride along the Route of Hiawatha. There is a good chance you may see deer. We rounded a corner and saw one quietly munching on the leaves by the side of the road.
You’ll be sad once it finishes. It’s probably the only 15-mile bike ride you’ll do where you barely break a sweat and don’t get a sore bum!
Wait a minute. How do you get back?
You have two choices. It depends on how you feel, how much time you have, and who you are with.
Those with endless time, energy, and fewer little people, may want to cycle the 15 miles back uphill.
You may be shuddering at that thought, as I was. I was surprised at how many people I saw turn around and start riding back.
It inspired me to perhaps give it a go on our next ride on the Route of the Hiawatha. Perhaps on an electric bike?
Thankfully, for the weary, there is a shuttle waiting for you at the end which takes you back to the first tunnel. Save your energy as you will have to cycle back through the 1.7-mile Taft Tunnel at the end though.
Be warned, there can be quite the line for the shuttle. We waited an hour once we finished our ride. All worth it though as it was one of our favorite things to do in Idaho!
How to prepare and things to know!
A good level of fitness would always be preferable, but as it’s downhill, you won’t have to worry too much about it.
There are a few things you want to ensure you’ve packed for your Route of the Hiawatha adventure.
- Jacket: Temperatures in the first tunnel average 47 degrees year-round. If it were a much shorter tunnel, you could probably zip through it without zipping up, but as it will take about 15 minutes, you’ll be grateful for the extra warmth.
- Flashlight: A flashlight is an absolute MUST. When they say the first tunnel is dark, they mean it.
- Pack plenty of snacks and water
- All trail users must purchase a ticket and display that ticket on your bicycle, while on the trail. You can pre-purchase online.
- Be sure to remove sunglasses and turn on lights before entering the tunnels.
- Move to the side if stopping to gawk at the views.
- Go early to avoid extra long lines at the end of the day. You also don’t want to miss the last shuttle!
- Plan for at least half a day so you can amble and enjoy those views.
- You can take your own bikes or hire them from the Lookout Pass ski area. Check current prices there.
- Heavier bikes incl Fat-tire, E-Bikes are charged extra fees.
- The trail is open from approximately Mid-May through Mid-September. The trail, trailheads, and facilities are open from 8:30 AM to 5 PM PDT.
Video: Route of the Hiawatha
Where is the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho?
The Lookout Pass Ski Area is where you can organize passes, return shuttle services, and mountain bike rentals, including helmets and lights.
Lookout Pass Ski Area is located right alongside Interstate 90. Take Exit 0, at the Idaho-Montana state line. It is:
- 12 miles from Wallace, Idaho
- 56 miles from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
- 33 miles from St. Regis in Montana
The start of the Hiawatha is a short 7-mile drive from Lookout Pass. Drive down I-90 East to Exit 5 in MT and then follow the Hiawatha signs on a dirt/gravel road two miles to the East Portal/Taft Parking Lot.
There is no Shuttle Service to the Hiawatha from the Ski Area. You will need to drive there!
Where to stay:
There are numerous campsites (primitive and paid) in the Wallace area and closer to the trailhead. Self-contained RVs may park overnight in the Lookout Pass Ski.
You’ll find several lodging options in Wallace. We stayed at the cozy Wallace Inn.
Points of interest nearby
The nearby historic town of Wallace, Idaho is the ideal base camp for you to explore the beauty and wonder of the Silver Valley and surrounding Bitterroot Mountains.
For the past 100 years, Wallace has been the world’s largest silver producer and the richest mining town still in existence. It’s a quaint town with historic buildings, interesting museums and great breweries and restaurants.
Wallace is also surrounded towering mountains and thick forest offering world-class recreation trails for mountain bikes, ATV, and snowmobile trails.
Fun Fact – Wallace is one of only four cities in the United States that is entirely listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Coeur d’Alene was one of our favorite places to visit in Idaho. It’s a beautiful lakeside town in the Northern panhandle region.
It has a vibrantly, young college town feel with plenty of restaurants and bars with live music spilling out onto the pavement. We loved the access to the lake for swimming, paddle boarding and sunset cruises.
More Idaho Posts
- You can read more in-depth things to do in Coeur d’Alene in our post on 20 amazing things to do in Idaho.
- 3 educational places to visit in Idaho
- 12 Top Outdoor Idaho Adventures in the Summer
Comment: Have you experienced a rail trail like this before? Do you love these kind of adventures with your family? Leave any questions you may have!