Biking the Hiawatha Trail is a trip in history, adventure
Story and photos by David Reese/Montana Living
The wet concrete walls seeped with water and filled the ruts in the dirt road as we rode our bicycles quietly through the old railroad tunnel.Our headlamps shot narrow beams of light through the long, dark tunnel, through a blackness so intense that by shutting off your light you were immediately engulfed in utter darkness.
We rode on and on, drawn toward a small distant spot of light, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Reaching it, we were thrust back into the world of light and life, having just emerged from the first of several tunnels on the Hiawatha Trail.
The Hiawatha bicycle trail is a former Milwaukee Railroad line that winds up, through and over Lookout Pass on the border of Montana and Idaho. Nearly a century ago, this railway pass was built to haul cargo through some of Montana's toughest country: steep mountains and rocky gorges that tumble toward narrow, flat-bottomed valleys where creeks meander.
Inside a tunnel on the Hiawatha Trail. Photo by David Reese, Montana Living
Inside one of the long tunnels. the sounds of gigantic diesel engines have been replaced by something much quieter: bicycle tires crunching in the gravel as they course along the gentle six-percent slope of the trail. You can ride one way down the trail, starting at the top, and take a bus ride back up. Or, do as we did, and double your pleasure by riding back up the trail, which elicits some strange looks by those riders you encounter coming down. You can go as far or as short as you like, but we chose to ride about 12 miles down before turning around.
The problem with doing this, for us, was not having enough juice in our headlights, a key tool in your arsenal when riding the Hiawatha Trail. You encounter half a dozen tunnels on this ride, each requiring a headlight. They vary in length from three minutes to 20 minutes to ride through, and without a headlamp, you simply will be grasping in the dark, with only the sounds of trickling water as your guide.
Riding the Hiawatha Trail, you get a strong dose of railroad history. You learn what building a railroad through these mountains required of men. You see places like The Loop, a long elbow in the trail where a small town sprang up, complete with its own saloon.
The longest tunnel, the first one you encounter at the top of the trail, was built in 1909. Here, you can see where a railroad camp was built into the mountain. The substation here lasted up until 1980, when Milwaukee Railroad finally closed down.
These places are gone now, but good interpretive displays along the trail provide you a window on some colorful history.
The trail is popular with families and even avid cyclists. Riding across tall trestles you can peer down down at the tiny creeks below. Standing on one trestle we spotted a moose munching on the heavy browse.Pausing on a trestle you can take in the wide, expansive views of the mountain ranges that stretch into the distance.For a weekend family excursion, the Hiawatha Trail is a must-do for your summer or fall vacation.
GETTING to the Hiawatha Trail
A short drive from Missoula or Spokane, most visitors to the Hiawatha Trail start at the top, accessing the trail off I-90 at Taft at Exit 5. You can ride down the gentle grade of the 15-mile trail and take the shuttle back to the parking lot. The nearest bike rentals are at Lookout Pass (I-90, Exit 0).
Mountain bikes, comfort bikes, tag-a-longs, child trailers, children's bikes, helmets and lights are available at the Lookout Pass Rental Shop.
You won't find any accommodations nearby, but there are plenty of places to camp on nearby U.S. Forest Service land along the road leading to the trailhead. It's about a two-hour drive west of Missoula, making it a convenient stop on your trip to Coeur d'Alene, Spokane or Seattle.
The trail is open late May through early October; trail fees are $4 for children ages 3 to 13 (children under 3 are free) and $8 for adults
— Editor's note: this article appeared in a 2009 issue of Montana Living
On the Web: www.skilookout.com