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Riding the rail

Sun., July 19, 2009

Popularity grows on the Route of the Hiawatha rail trail

Mountain bikes replace skis on car racks at Lookout Pass Ski area on summer days as a popular rail trail continues to set visitation records.

The 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha – which crosses the Bitterroot Mountains through eight tunnels and over seven high trestles – is attracting singles, couples, family groups, youth groups and other thrill seekers from across North America and dozens of foreign countries, said Phil Edholm, ski area owner and trail administrator.

“Last year we had 28,600 visitors, our best year since the trail opened (in 1998),” Edholm said.

“And we just finished June with record numbers – about 5,000. Our previous high was 4,200.”

The trail was clear of snow and opened on May 30 this year, a week earlier than in 2008. The route is scheduled to close on Oct. 4.

“I remember nine years ago, we had one person running the lodge and rental shop with just a few bikes,” Edholm said. “Now we have about 25 people working up there and more than 200 mountain bikes for rent plus trailers and tag-alongs.

“Some days, we rent them all out.”

Most riders stage at Lookout Pass, which opens at 8 a.m. Here they can get trail passes, maps, rental bikes, helmets and the all-important headlamps for the tunnels.

The St. Paul Pass (Taft) Tunnel is nearly 1.7 miles long across the Montana-Idaho border, a distance that prevents daylight penetration to the core of the tunnel from either entrance.

It’s 7 miles via Interstate 90 to the nearest trailhead off the Taft Exit east of Lookout Pass.

Most riders start at that East Portal Trailhead, ride one-way nearly 15 miles and catch a shuttle bus back to the start.

Riders pedal the entire route back and forth for a 30-mile round trip or bring their bikes aboard a shuttle bus at any of three trailheads to customize their experience.

While the Lookout Pass Web site provides details, here are a few tips and insights to survive and expedite the experience.

•Reservations for rental gear can be made online or by phone to speed up the process.

•Go directly to the trail if you don’t need rental gear. The East Portal entrance has the most convenient access from the Taft Exit off Interstate 90 just east of Lookout Pass.

•Buy tickets in advance at Wallace Inn in Wallace or Scheffy’s General Store in Avery, or have cash or checks to buy from a trail marshal on the route.

•Round-trip riders should start at the Pearson (lower) Trailhead on the St. Joe River side of the trail. (The fastest access usually is via Wallace and Moon Pass.) Pedal up the gentle 1.7 percent grade to the Taft Tunnel and/or the East Portal – before the crowds arrive. On the return leg you’ll be going “in the flow” with the larger number of riders heading downhill at midday.

•Want a shorter ride? Start at Moss Creek Trailhead and ride down to Pearson. This eliminates the Taft Tunnel, but it also eliminates the 2 miles of trail that bikers share with motor vehicles.

The stretch from Moss Creek to Pearson is the cream of the route, with seven tunnels and all seven trestles, including two that are more than 200 feet tall.

•Bring extra water. Trail marshals put out 5-gallon water jugs along the trail, but these can be depleted on a hot, busy day.

•Remove sunglasses before entering the big tunnels. Seriously. Many people forget.

•Bring a jacket or sweatshirt to survive the chill in the big tunnel, even on hot days.

•Bike light must be directed down just ahead of front wheel.

•Rental bikes have no fenders. Be prepared for a mud stripe on your back (the big tunnels are wet).

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