The trains don’t run there anymore, but Mineral County’s old railbeds open miles of backcountry to recreational riders.
The Taft exit on Interstate 90 just east of Lookout Pass leads to the starting point of two fascinating routes: the Hiawatha bike trail that leads deep into Idaho and the Route of the Olympian that sends motorized and nonmotorized riders down along the St. Regis River.
The Hiawatha starts at the mouth of the 8,771-foot-long St. Paul Pass tunnel, a pitch-dark passage illuminated by the headlamps of bicyclists beginning an all-day adventure. Eight more tunnels and seven soaring trestles fill out the route as it snakes through the mountains far from civilization.
Most riders make a 17-mile, almost-all-downhill journey followed by a shuttle bus trip back to their starting point. The more hearty recover the 1,000 feet of elevation change by making a 30-mile round-trip.
Some 30,000 people a year visit the Route of the Hiawatha, according to Forest Service figures. The nearby Trail of the Couer d’Alenes bike route has transformed the business communities of places like Harrison, Plummer and Cataldo.
The route is open May 25 through Sept. 29 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Day-use passes cost $10 for riders over 13, and $6 for those 6-13. Children under age 14 must be accompanied by an adult.
The Route of the Olympian currently rests in two segments. From Taft, a four-mile jaunt passes through the Dominion Tunnel and then along a curving trestle far above Dominion Creek. It ends at private property in Saltese, where riders can dismount and return to I-90.
The Dominion Tunnel and trestle dominate the Montana side of the high-mountain route. They await about two miles east of the East Portal Trailhead, where Idaho-bound bikers begin their Route of the Hiawatha treks. At roughly 450 feet long, the Dominion Tunnel has just enough of a curve to make it darkly spooky. But it doesn’t require flashlights like the 1.25-mile St. Paul Tunnel does on the Hiawatha side.
The second portion starts at Haugen and rambles 14 miles along the St. Regis River, past secret fishing holes and funky rock outcrops. It ends at the Two Mile exit and fishing access site, a short hop west of St. Regis. There is no charge to ride the Route of the Olympian.
A visit to the Superior Ranger Station in Superior is a convenient stop for maps, directions and advice for these and other backcountry riding routes.