A new, narrow strip of asphalt spanning the Idaho panhandle is becoming a top draw for bicyclists.
In its inaugural season, the 73-mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes drew at least 78,000 riders, according to estimates from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.
“This is becoming a real bicycle destination,” said Bill Scudder, the state’s manager of the trail. “It’s going to get a little bigger all the time.”
The success is prompting a flurry of planning to connect the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes with other regional trails, including the Centennial and Hiawatha trails.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes was built atop a decommissioned railbed and runs from Mullan to Plummer. Below the trail’s asphalt are toxic remnants from the days when the route was used to haul heavy metals. But on either side of the pathway, eye candy is abundant: with everything from clear mountain streams and dark cedar forests to small towns straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The state based its ridership estimate using four laser counters. The number is a ballpark figure, Scudder said, because many cyclists rode only portions of the trail. The segment between Enaville and Bull Run Lake trailheads appears to be the most popular. The 14-mile stretch follows the Coeur d’Alene River and offers ample shade on summer afternoons.
Rider demographics have not been tracked, but Scudder said about half the visitors appear to be from out of the region.
Jon Ruggles, president of the Friends of the Coeur d’Alene Trails, thinks more than 100,000 riders pedaled the trail this summer. The state did not have a counter near Harrison, a small town on the south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene that has retooled its summertime economy around cyclists. The section between Harrison and Plummer crosses Lake Coeur d’Alene and trailhead parking lots in the area were often packed.
Ruggles has conducted an economic analysis of the trail and puts the first-year figure at $5 million for local economies. Cyclists don’t usually have much room to carry gear, but cash and credit cards don’t take up a lot of space, Ruggles said. Cyclists are also typically from higher income brackets.
The popularity of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, along with the success of other trails, is fueling hope that North Idaho could become a national cycling mecca, Ruggles said. Planning is under way for connecting trails between the region’s major trails, including a possible link between Centennial Trail and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.
“We’re developing into the next Moab,” Ruggles said, referring to the southern Utah cycling hotspot. “The potential is there, absolutely.”
By midsummer, a network is expected to connect the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes with the Route of the Hiawatha, along the Montana-Idaho border. The tunnels and trestles of the Hiawatha have developed a national reputation and many of the cyclists are now spilling over onto the other regional trails, Ruggles said.
Kellogg’s Silver Mountain Resort opened a series of mountain biking trails this summer that drew large crowds, said Greg Peak, manager of the resort’s retail shop. The mountainside trails range from beginner to double-black diamond and riders are able to conquer the elevation using the resort’s gondolas, he said. More trails are planned for next year, Peak said. “We pretty much just scratched the surface building trails.”
Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint has already made a name for itself among serious mountain bikers. About 1,400 riders converged on the mountain this summer for a national circuit race.
One of the biggest missing trail links in the region is a connection between the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes and the Centennial Trail, which runs from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane. Possible routes are being explored, including a path over Fourth of July Pass, said Gene O’Meara, board member of the North Idaho Centennial Trail group.
“It’s still in the dream stage. But I say if John Mullan can do it, we can follow his lead,” O’Meara said, referring to the famous 19th century trailblazer. “It’d be huge. You could ride a bike from far west of Spokane all the way to Montana.”
O’Meara said other connection possibilities also are being explored, including a boat shuttle from Coeur d’Alene to the Harrison trailhead, or equipping Coeur d’Alene Casino shuttle buses with bicycle racks.
“A lot of people call from all over the country and they want to know a good way to get from one trail to the other,” O’Meara said. “I really don’t have a good answer for them now.”
More work is needed along the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, said Mike Domy, owner of Kellogg’s Excelsior Cycle. The trail itself is in prime condition, but many cyclists say there’s a lack of lodging, campgrounds, shuttle services and food stops along the route.
“We have a lot of the trails and places to go biking now but we don’t have a lot of tourist amenities yet,” Domy said, adding that he expects to see more investment soon. “I can’t tell you how much I think this is helping the Silver Valley.”
The Enaville Resort has already made some changes because of the bicyclists, said proprietor Joe Peak. The salad bar was expanded and healthier menu options were added. Bicycle racks were placed around the facility. On summer weekend afternoons more than half the clientele are now cyclists, Peak said.
“It’s just had a real positive economic boost for us,” Peak said. “The trail has had more of an impact than even Silver Mountain, and I’m not putting Silver Mountain down. It’s just been awesome. Just awesome.”