As we got our bikes ready at the trailhead on a warm morning in late June, I briefly thought about packing my sweatshirt away. But memories of past rides told me that I should keep it on – at least through the first tunnel.
As we biked across the parking lot – swerving past other trail users preparing for the 15-mile ride ahead – and approached the east portal of Taft Tunnel, sure enough, a cool breeze from within blew into our faces.
Even during a heat wave, the 1.6-mile-long Taft Tunnel stays a chilly 47 degrees year-round. Built more than a century ago by laborers earning a few dollars a day, the Taft Tunnel was once a shortcut for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (better known as the “Milwaukee Road”) over the rugged Bitterroot Mountains along the Montana-Idaho border. Although the tunnel was built for trains, it has been 41 years since one has rumbled through these mountains. Today, this path in the woods of North Idaho – about halfway between Missoula and Spokane – is considered one of the “crown jewels” of the rails-to-trails movement. Dubbed the Route of the Hiawatha, it and the nearby Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes offer a preview of what a long-dreamed-of national system of interconnected recreational trails could look like, including one that would connect Washington, D.C., and Washington state.
The American rail network peaked in 1916 when it had more than 250,000 miles of track. As highways improved in the 20th century, thousands of miles of railway were abandoned. Old rail lines tend to be relatively flat, because trains can’t climb hills like automobiles can – thus making them great for pedestrian trails. In 1967, a 32-mile stretch of railroad in Wisconsin was turned into a bike path, making it the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion. As more rail lines were abandoned, more trails popped up. When the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was established in 1986, the country had about 250 miles of rail trail. Thirty-five years later, it has more than 24,000 miles.
In the early 1990s, trail advocates began to eye a pair of old railbeds in Idaho. The first was a 15-mile stretch of right of way over St. Paul Pass on the Montana-Idaho border. The Milwaukee Road was one of three transcontinental rail lines to cross the northern tier of the country, but it was constructed about 25 years after its competitors and struggled to attract freight. What it lacked in freight traffic, though, it gained in scenery, which it used to lure passengers aboard its trains, including the most famous, the Olympian Hiawatha. The passenger train stopped running in 1961, and the rail line was abandoned 20 years later. Parts of the railroad were acquired by the U.S. Forest Service, which opened the section between Taft Tunnel and Pearson as the Route of the Hiawatha in 1992.
The other abandoned rail line was a branch of the Union Pacific Railroad that crossed the northern panhandle to serve mines there. When the railroad stopped running in 1993, state and federal agencies discovered the right of way was contaminated because it had been built using hazardous mining tailings. A cleanup was ordered, but because the route was so long, only some of the most toxic materials were removed, and the rest was capped in place with asphalt – perfect for a trail. The 73-mile-long Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes was opened in 2004.
Both trails became instant favorites, and in 2010, they were inducted together into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.
“These are really some of the most epic trails in the country,” said Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for the conservancy.
Although most of the Route of the Hiawatha is in Idaho, it starts in Montana on the east side of Taft Tunnel. No lights are inside the tunnel, so a headlamp is necessary, especially because there are deep gutters on both sides. Before you enter the tunnel, signs recommend you pause just inside to let your eyes adjust (something I failed to do the first time I rode the trail 10 years ago, to regrettable results).
About 15 minutes and 8,771 feet later, you emerge from the west portal of the tunnel in Idaho in the long-abandoned town of Roland. Two little towns popped up on either side of the mountain a century ago. When laborers weren’t working on the tunnel, they entertained themselves in the dozens of saloons, pool halls and brothels that had emerged out of the wilderness during the two-year construction schedule. The town on the east side of the mountain, Taft, has been called the “last boomtown in the American West.” But a journalist who visited the area during construction had a different name for it: “the wickedest city in America.” More than 70 people died during construction, most in accidents, but some met their end at the hands of others.
Beyond Roland, the trail begins to descend the 2% grade down St. Paul Pass, crossing over seven tall trestles and through eight more tunnels. Along the way, it passes through a thick forest of evergreens. Although the forest is lush today, 110 years ago, you would have found the tragic scar of one of the worst wildfires in U.S. history.
The “Big Burn” scorched more than 4,700 square miles in Montana and Idaho over two days in August 1910, leveling towns and killing at least 86 people. Workers were still putting the finishing touches on the railroad that summer, and when the fire blew up, nearly 400 people piled onto a train that rushed into the Taft Tunnel for safety. Not long after, the train’s engineer decided to take a locomotive and boxcar to find more people. Partway down St. Paul Pass, they found another group that piled into the boxcar to return to the tunnel.
But by then, flames had blocked the path. The only way to safety was to hide out in a smaller tunnel on the other side of a burning trestle. The train roared over the bridge to safety, but not before one terrified worker jumped, fearful that the train was about to plunge into the ravine below. Today, the man’s grave is marked along the trail.
Although the trail is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, it is maintained during the summer by Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area, which sells trail passes and rents bicycles. The ski area also runs a shuttle from the bottom of the trail back up to the tunnel for those who do not want to bike uphill. Matt Sawyer, director of marketing and sales, said ticket sales help cover the cost of maintenance and crowd control on the trail. Four years ago, about 30,000 people rode the Route of the Hiawatha annually, but last year, it attracted more than 70,000 .
The Route of the Hiawatha is open only in the summer, but the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is open year-round. It’s also paved, making for an easier ride. Trail manager Kathleen Durfee said one of the best things about the trail is that it connects the little communities of the Idaho Panhandle, including Kellogg and Wallace.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is also a critical link in the proposed Great American Rail-Trail, a 3,700-mile path that would connect Washington, D.C., to Washington state. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy announced the initiative in 2019, and two years later, it is 53% complete.
“Whether you start in Washington, D.C., or Seattle, or even just ride a segment in between, you can experience every type of landscape in America, both rural and urban,” Horton said. “You’ll be able to experience everything this country has to offer.”
Kevin Belanger is the lead planner on the project. Although much of the trail is already in place in the east, there are major gaps in states such as Montana and Wyoming. Belanger said that’s because the West had fewer rail lines, and many are still in use. With the exception of a few miles in the western part of the state, the Great American Rail-Trail is mostly done in Idaho. Belanger said the Gem State offers a preview of what the trail could look like in the West.
The Route of the Hiawatha is not part of the proposed national path, but Belanger said the connectivity between trails is important to realizing the conservancy’s national vision for an interconnected system. Today, if you want to bike between the Coeur d’Alenes and Hiawatha trails, you would have to take the rugged NorPac Trail. Belanger added that those who do take the cross-country trip – and some people are already trying to – would be mistaken not to make a side trip on the Route of the Hiawatha.
When it will be possible for someone to bike from Washington, D.C., or Seattle to the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes exclusively on nonmotorized trails is unknown. Horton said there is no timeline for completing the Great American Rail-Trail, but there is a lot of excitement behind it. Much of the enthusiasm has been fueled by people seeking outdoor recreational opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Horton said she can’t think of a better way to see the country than from a bike.
“There is nothing more intimate than experiencing a place from a bike seat,” she said.
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