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Hiawatha Trail: Downhill day trip

Mon., July 7, 2008

Spend any time on a bike, for fun or commuting, and at some point when you’re facing that big old hill on your way home, you’re bound to wish for a ride that’s solely downhill.

The Route of the Hiawatha is exactly that, unless you decide to ride all the way back up after finishing the 15-mile descent from Taft, Mont., to Pearson, Idaho.

The abandoned railroad track – also known as the Hiawatha Trail – will take you from Montana to Idaho, through some of the most picturesque parts of the Bitterroot Divide, over tall trestles and through deep and dark tunnels.

“No matter how many times you do it, it’s quite an amazing ride,” said Brian Pearson, of Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area. “I was just out there this morning myself. Some of the oldest people who have done it are in their 90s and some of the youngest are around 5 or 6. I’d say most people can do it if they can ride a bike.”

This is not Olympic-level, bone-crushing mountain biking. There is absolutely nothing intimidating about the Route of the Hiawatha, except, perhaps, a few really dark spots in the middle of the tunnels.

The ride from East Portal – the Montana side of the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, also called the Taft Tunnel – to Pearson, Idaho, slopes gently down in a 2 percent grade.

A mountain bike with some suspension is the best way to go. The trail is mostly gravel and in some areas it gets a little bumpy – but the scenery is so stunning that the spine rattling becomes secondary to the experience.

Originally built by railroad company Milwaukee Road, the rail line began service in 1909.

It took two years and 9,000 men – mostly immigrants – working around the clock to construct the trail bed and lay the rails through the rugged and challenging terrain, according to Lookout Ski Resort’s Web site. The Taft Tunnel is just one engineering feat on the way: It’s 1.7 miles long, and when you enter at the East Portal, you can barely see the light on the Idaho side.

It’s dark, cold and clammy, and just the right amount of scary. You’ll see water from hidden mountain reservoirs running down the side of the walls and dripping from the ceiling.

Remember to take your sunglasses off when you enter the tunnels; it makes it a lot easier to find your way.

On the Idaho side of the Taft Tunnel awaits a stunning view of the Bitterroots, and far below you’ll soon be able to spot some of the trestles the Route of the Hiawatha is famous for.

The Kelly Creek Trestle will take you 230 feet in the air for 850 feet. It’s also a favorite place for bikers to stop and take pictures.

“You have got to check out the signs along the way,” Pearson said. “They give you a good idea as to how hard it was to build this rail line back then.” The interpretive signs explain the colorful history, shaped by rowdy rail crews and forest fires, and the ways in which tunnels and trestles were constructed.

There are restrooms along the way and many places to stop and have a picnic lunch.

Remember: This is not the Tour de France, so take your time.

You’ll probably make it down in about three hours, and that’s where you meet the shuttle that’ll take you back up to the west portal of the Taft Tunnel – yes, you get to go through it one more time.

The shuttle is a remodeled yellow school bus, with room for bikes and trailers of all kinds in the back, and tired bikers in the front. You must have a $9 ticket for the shuttle – you can get that at Lookout Pass – and then up the mountain it goes, on narrow switchbacks and steep mountain roads.

“On the way up, we often see moose in the lakes, and there’s almost always deer,” Pearson said. “About the wildlife on the trail, all we ask is that people leave the animals alone. If you come across a moose in the middle of the trail, just wait for him to leave. He will.”

At the end of the ride you will have gone through 10 tunnels and across seven trestles.

If you choose the shuttle, you’ll be back up at the parking area at the east end of the Taft Tunnel after three or four hours.

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