Route of the Hiawatha bike and hike trail opens May 26
Starting May 26, machines will once again chug uphill and glide downhill on the old Milwaukee Road rail line across the rugged Bitterroot Mountains between the long-lost ghost towns of Taft, Montana, and Pearson, Idaho.
The Route of the Hiawatha Scenic Bike Trail is a 15 mile bike ride downhill through 10 train tunnels over 7 high trestles with views of the Mo…
Except these days the machines are bicycles, rather than the legendary Hiawatha passenger trains that for decades coursed over what is now the Route of the Hiawatha bike and hike trail near Lookout Pass. Often called simply the Hiawatha Trail, the 15-mile route opens for its 25th season on May 26, following an annual winter closure. The trail will be open every day through Sept. 17. The trail is on National Forest System land but managed by Lookout Pass Ski Area, which offers rental bikes and gear, and operates a shuttle for riders and hikers who want a ride back to Lookout from the far end of the trail. A trail pass, also purchased from the ski area, is required to access the path.
Steam locomotives first pulled trains along the path's 10 tunnels and seven high trestles on July 4, 1909. About 13 months later, many nearby towns and parts of the rail line's infrastructure were destroyed in 1910's "Big Blowup," also known as The Great Burn — a wildfire that consumed as much as 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana. According to a history of the route compiled by Lookout Pass Ski Area, rail workers saved 600 lives by filling trains with people and moving them into tunnels as the inferno consumed the landscape. After the fire, the route was rebuilt as an electrified line between Avery, Idaho, near the modern path's Idaho end, and Harlowton, Montana. That 440-mile stretch was the first long-distance use of electric locomotives and proved that electrified rail could be efficient and reliable.
The final passenger train on the route — the Milwaukie Road's "Olympian Hiawatha" between Chicago and Seattle — crossed the route in 1961. By the early '70s modern diesel-electric locomotives, which don't rely on electrified rail lines, had supplanted their once-groundbreaking electric predecessors. The last freight train traveled the line in 1980, beginning more than a decade of inactivity and abandonment before the railbed was rehabbed into a bike path.
For the past quarter-century, cyclists have pedaled the scenic path over and through the mountains. The Montana end of the trail sits at a higher elevation than the Idaho end, offering riders a subtle downhill grade for much of the ride — and slight resistance on the ride back, for those who forego the shuttle. Riders can also start at the Idaho end to climb the trail first and then return downhill. Riders who start at the low end in Idaho must ride the trail up and back without a shuttle, and must still purchase a trail pass at Lookout Mountain Ski Area.
Lookout Pass Ski Area recommends that riders start their ride before 2:30 p.m. Mountain Time. Headlights are mandatory and jackets are advised for the route's cold and dark tunnels, the longest of which is the 1.66-mile Taft Tunnel underneath St. Paul Pass and state line near the Montana end of the path. The tunnel also crosses from the Mountain Time Zone in Montana to the Pacific Time Zone in Idaho's northern panhandle.
The ski area, also on the state line 7 miles from the Hiawatha Trail's Montana end, operates on Pacific Time. The bike rental and trail pass shop at Lookout is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific Time from May 26 through Sept. 17. Trail passes are $20 in person or $18 when reserved in advance for Monday through Thursday. Passes are $40 in person or $36 in advance for Friday through Sunday — but that price automatically includes a shuttle ride back. Kids' passes are less expensive. Lookout's rental fleet includes standard mountain bikes as well as tandem bikes for two riders, recumbent bikes — on which a rider sits reclined with their feet out in front of them — and adult tricycles. The ski area also rents Burley trailers to tow small children behind bikes, and handlebar-mounted headlights for use in the tunnels. Bag lunches are available as well.
The ski area strongly recommends helmets for all riders, in part because rockfall is possible within tunnels. Helmets are required by Idaho law for riders younger than 18. Dogs are not allowed on the trail, except for service dogs. But service dogs are not allowed in the Taft Tunnel, which can be bypassed via Roland Pass.
Some electric-assist bikes, known as e-bikes, are allowed on the trail. E-bikes have a battery and electric motor that magnify a rider's pedaling effort, a feature called pedal-assist. Some have a throttle but most do not. Class 1 e-bikes, which do not have a throttle and cut off pedal-assist at 18 mph, are allowed on the trail. Class 2 e-bikes, which have a throttle and pedal-assist both limited to 18 mph, are allowed on the trail only if ski area staff can confirm that the throttle is disabled. Class 3 e-bikes, which do not have a throttle but offer pedal-assist up to 28 mph, are not allowed on the trail.
More information, including pricing and pass reservations, is available at ridethehiawatha.com or by calling 208-744-1234.
Joshua Murdock covers the outdoors and natural resources for the Missoulian.