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Mountain bikers pedaling to Idaho


Bruce Brown, center, and his family and friends from Kalispell, Mont., prepare to enter the darkness of the Taft Tunnel on Saturday, the opening day of the Trail of the Hiawatha. Bruce Brown, center, and his family and friends from Kalispell, Mont., prepare to enter the darkness of the Taft Tunnel on Saturday, the opening day of the Trail of the Hiawatha. 
 (Jesse Tinsley/Jesse Tinsley/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Bruce Brown, center, and his family and friends from Kalispell, Mont., prepare to enter the darkness of the Taft Tunnel on Saturday, the opening day of the Trail of the Hiawatha. Bruce Brown, center, and his family and friends from Kalispell, Mont., prepare to enter the darkness of the Taft Tunnel on Saturday, the opening day of the Trail of the Hiawatha. (Jesse Tinsley/Jesse Tinsley/ / The Spokesman-Review)

Move over Moab.

North Idaho is on its way to becoming the bicycling Mecca of the United States.

Local mountain bikers long have known about the hundreds of miles of single-track trails crisscrossing the region’s national forests. Ski resorts are now developing competition-caliber downhill runs.

For families and pleasure cruisers, there’s fresh, relatively flat asphalt covering 72-miles of the cross-Panhandle Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.

But lots of other places have bike trails with pretty scenery or technical terrain. What sets Idaho apart is the Route of the Hiawatha, said Phil Edholm, president of Lookout Pass ski area, which administers the 13-mile-long trail.

“It’s the crown jewel of all rails to trails,” Edholm said.

The Route of the Hiawatha straddles the Idaho-Montana border and passes through 10 tunnels (one is 1.8 miles long) and over seven trestles. About 8,000 cyclists pedaled the trail when the first portion opened in 1998. Last year, 22,000 visited the trail.

“It just keeps getting incrementally more visits each season,” Edholm said.

The trail opened for the season Saturday. The day was cold and a steady rain fell. But more than a dozen cars filled the parking lot at the East Portal Trailhead, including a vehicle from Mississippi. Trail employee Brent Lister expected a quiet opener.

“I’m surprised, especially with the weather,” he said, speaking from the dry warmth of his pickup parked at the trailhead. “There’s a lot more people than last year.”

Bruce and Donna Brown drove three hours from Kalispell, Mont., to travel the trail. The couple and their three young children donned plastic ponchos – they weren’t going to let rain spoil their first visit to the trail.

“We’re from Montana,” Bruce Brown explained.

“We go with the flow,” his wife, Donna, said.

The trail has had visitors from every state and most countries in Europe and Asia, Edholm said. Many of the domestic visitors come from Seattle and Portland. Most stay only for a day or two before traveling on to Glacier or Yellowstone national parks. But their money has buoyed the local economy.

“In some regards, we’re more well-known outside the area than in the area because so many travel writers have written about the trail,” Edholm said.

Last summer, for instance, a story appeared in a Dallas newspaper. “All the sudden we had all these people from the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” Edholm said.

Edholm expects more cyclists to be drawn to North Idaho as word spreads about the region’s offerings.

“We’ve got trails all over the place,” he said.

Nearby Silver Mountain ski area in Kellogg is now working with the International Mountain Biking Association to develop competition-caliber downhill racing trails, said the resort’s marketing director, Stephen Lane. The resort hopes to have one of the new downhill trails ready for a race on Aug. 28.

“Working with the IMBA is a huge step for us to start getting the credibility behind what we’re doing,” Lane said. “They basically are the leaders as far as trail design.”

Silver Mountain’s summer season opens June 19 with a 4 p.m. public presentation from Joey Klein, a trail designer from the IMBA.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint has already made a name for itself among serious mountain bike-riders. The resort hosted a national championship race last summer. The event was a first for the state, but probably not the last.

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