Get your headlamps on because you’re about to ride through the 1.66 mile long, pitch black, St. Paul Pass Tunnel! The Route of the Hiawatha is, hands down, the best ride in Northern Idaho! It’s a mountain bike path on an old railroad bed through the remote and deeply forested Bitterroot Mountains.
You will ride for 15 miles, through 10 tunnels, and 7 sky-high train trestles! It’s very exciting! Plus, the views from the mountain tops are stunning! There is even a small waterfall to stop and enjoy.
The trail is run by the Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation staff, exit 0 on Interstate 90 in Idaho. At the ski lodge, you can rent your gear (bikes, trailers, helmets and headlamps), get your tickets and shuttle passes, plus get your maps, info, swag, snacks, etc.. The lodge opens at 8:00 a.m. and the trail is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with shuttles beginning at 11:00 a.m. If you have your own gear and want to skip Lookout Pass Lodge, you can buy trail tickets and shuttle passes from either trailhead or a Trail Marshall. Trail Marshall’s will be riding up and down the trail all day, if you have any questions or need help.
When you’re all ready to hit the trail, head east toward Montana on Interstate 90. Take exit 5 in Montana and travel two miles down a gravel road to the East Portal and Taft Parking Lot. This is where we get on our bikes and ride!
As an alternative, you can also access the Pearson South Trailhead, from Avery, Idaho. It’s not a particularly easy way to access the trial, but we like to park our car at the bottom of the mountain and be on the very first bus ride up the mountain. Then we can just ride right past the lines at the end of the day to load our things into the car and head home.
From the East portal, the top of the mountains, you’ll go first thing into the long St. Paul Pass Tunnel. It’s quite a sensation riding into the dark like that and really gets your adrenaline pumping! It’s so fun!
There are troughs along the sides for water to run through, so I suggest riding in the middle as often as you can. Watch out for water dripping on your head! Oh, and it’s cold in there, so bring a light jacket. Don’t mess around with a low lumen headlamp, you really need a BRIGHT light, and don’t forget your helmets! Helmets are required for the whole trail.
The trail is mostly a fine gravel, but there are sections that are bumpy and areas with large rocks. You definitely need to have a mountain bike. Aside from that, it’s a pretty gentle ride going slightly downhill all the way! There are some areas with steep drop offs on the sides, so be careful on the trestles. I would feel comfortable letting my now three-year-old toodle around on his little balance bike for a lot of the trail though – but definitely don’t bring any training wheels. Be sure to watch out for deer and other wildlife!
There are two bathrooms along the trail and bathrooms at both trail heads. There is no potable water, although occasionally, I have been there and found a 20 gallon jug placed by staff for emergency refills. Don’t rely on this though. It can really get hot in the summer, so make sure to bring plenty of water! We also like to pack lunch and snacks, and we take lots of breaks to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife.
When you reach the southern trailhead, you can either turn around and ride back up to the top or you can ride the shuttle (school) bus back up the hill. I have ridden back up while pulling my son and a trailer. I found it tough, but very doable. If you want to ride your bike back up, but you’re worried about the distance and climb, you might consider shortening your ride a bit. In the past, we have ridden down eleven miles and then turned around after the last tunnel. The trail gets low in the mountains at that point and is a little less scenic, so it’s a good turnaround spot.
If you want to do the whole fifteen miles, the shuttle ride is pretty fun! My two year old thought it was the best part of the whole day! The road back up the hill is single lane with some steep drop offs, it’s a little daunting! The shuttle drivers are very experienced though and they do a great job driving and entertaining.
The drivers will load and unload your bikes and trailers into the back of the bus. The lines for the shuttle can get pretty long later in the day, so I suggest hitting the trail early in the morning to beat the traffic.
The Hiawatha is a very popular ride and can be crowded, but it’s so worth joining the masses! You will love the tunnels and trestles and you’ll learn all about the area history from the many interpretive signs along the trail. They’ll tell you all about the 1910 fire, the construction of the railroad and it’s engines, and the communities that surrounded the railroad. It’s truly a one of a kind experience! It’s a real gem in the gem state!
So, if you should find yourself in Northern Idaho… don’t forget your camera! Or your headlamp!
Ride the Hiawatha!
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