“I wish we could ride through a 30 mile long tunnel!” said my nine-year-old daughter before we embarked on riding the Route of the Hiawatha.
The dappled sunlight warmed our shoulders as we zipped our jackets, stowed our sunglasses and switched on our headlamps. A hundred yards later and we cycled into the Stygian darkness of the St. Paul Pass/Taft Tunnel, 1.66 miles of darkness unrelieved by nothing but our own puny lights. As we coasted slowly ahead, the family behind us “woooo-ed” in their most ghostly manner. Finally, 20 minutes later we began to see a hint of light in the distance ahead. Slowly, the light grew and our pedaling became more confident as we emerged into the sunlight. My daughter, despite looking forward to the trails’ many tunnels, wished to never see another.
Once one of the most scenic stretches of the Milwaukee Railroad, the Route of the Hiawatha is an old railroad bed repurposed as a gravel multi-purpose trail. It crosses the Montana-Idaho border in the middle of the Taft Tunnel and winds its way through the beautiful Bitterroot Mountains near Wallace, Idaho. Views of the deep valleys and distant hills accompanied us along the way, with the St. Regis River keeping time.
We started our ride at the East Portal parking area and rode 15 miles down the 1.7% grade to the end of the trail at the Pearson Trailhead. After riding through the Taft Tunnel, the longest of the nine tunnels on the trail, we continued to coast downhill, travelling slowly and stopping to read the many interpretive signs along the trail. The signs informed us of the full history of the area, from the dicey construction of the railroad to the styles of trains used (mostly electric because it was too cold for the steam engines to maintain enough heat in the winter). We learned about the men who built the railroad and the women who entertained them. We were grateful to not have to suffer the cold, snow and forest fires that beset them, but we regretted being too late to travel in style in the old passenger cars.
While the Taft Tunnel was the longest, almost all of the other eight tunnels required use of our lights as we cycled through them. I definitely wished I’d spent the money on a new headlamp when mine went out midway through one of the longer tunnels. I wasn’t too worried until the cyclist I was following exited the tunnel well ahead of me, leaving me unable to see the trail in front of me or the tunnel walls beside me. I didn’t dare let my course wobble as I slowly pedaled toward the light at the end of the tunnel!
In addition to the excitement of the tunnels, we enjoyed cycling over seven high trestles. The unobstructed views from these bridges were worth stopping for. As several were curved, it was easy to get photos of our companions riding across.
While the trail is in good repair, it is entirely gravel and very rough in some areas. Sections of loose gravel would make riding on skinny road tires iffy at best. While it’s not necessary to have a mountain bike, wider tires are a must. Shops in several of the local towns offer daily bicycle rentals. If you prefer to ride the trail in just one direction (we only rode down it, leaving the uphill climb to those with more time and stamina), shuttles are available at East Portal (top of the trail) and Pearson Trailhead (bottom of the trail). A day pass for the trail costs $8 for adults and $4 for children 3 – 13 years old. Children under 3 are free. All children must be accompanied by an adult. The shuttle will cost an additional $9 for adults and $6 for children (3 – 13).
More information on this fabulous trail can be found at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailLink website (www.traillink.com). This website is a wonderful resource for information on a wide variety of trails across the United States.