Fall adds perfect spice to Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes

SUNDAY, OCT. 2, 2011

Fall is my favorite time to ride the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.

The crowds of cyclists tend to drop off after Labor Day, and so do the swarms of gnats in the marsh country that follow the chain lakes along the lower Coeur d’Alene River. This rails-to-trails route provides miles and miles of carefree cycling through some of the most scenic parts of the watershed.

For the past couple of years, I’ve set aside a weekend to ride the entire length of the trail. I make it a two-day trip, leaving from the Plummer, Idaho, trail head and peddling to the Silver Valley, where I stay overnight. I ride back the next day.

Round trip, it’s about 144 miles. But the beauty of this relatively flat trail is that you don’t have to be in top shape, or own an expensive road bike, to cover the miles.

I make the trip on a 1975 Peugeot 10 speed – it was a hand-me-down from an older brother. And I’m not a fast rider. A relaxed pace of 10 to 12 mph keeps me moving steadily toward my goal while allowing me to enjoy the ride. Sometimes I stop to read the interpretive signs that explain where women from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe did their ice fishing, or provide the short-lived history of the town of Dudley, a former steamboat stop on the Coeur d’Alene River.

But more often, I put my mind in “free-spin,” the state of wandering thoughts that occurs when you’re away from the daily grind. It leaves you free to watch for wildlife.

Great blue herons are a staple along the trail, either as motionless silhouettes or prehistoric looking creatures flapping over the marshes. I’ve also seen browsing moose and a hunting falcon. On my most recent trip, I peddled into a territorial spat between dragonflies. Two whipped around me like miniature fighter jets until one crashed into my helmet.

I try to reach the shadowy stretches along the Coeur d’Alene River by early afternoon, where the shade is a nice respite if the weather is sunny and warm. Riding through piles of crunchy leaves in the grove of cottonwoods northeast of Enaville is a reminder that fall has arrived.

In the Silver Valley, the stretch through Osburn is one of my favorite parts of the trail. The railroad tracks once cut through neighborhoods, and you feel like a friendly eavesdropper as you cycle past backyard gardens and garages. Two social cats strolled up to the trail last month and meowed to be petted.

I stay overnight in Wallace, which has more lodging choices than Mullan at the trail’s end. But Mullan is definitely worth seeing if you appreciate historic mining towns. I drop off my gear at a motel before peddling the last 7 miles of the trail, which is a gradual climb. After exploring Mullan, I cycle back to Wallace, usually a race against dark by this time.

I’m tired and sore when I arrive, ready for dinner and an early bedtime. But I’ve found that a beer and an aspirin have restorative powers.

The next morning, I’m ready to hop on my bike again.

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