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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tunneling ahead: Maintenance planned for tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha

Bicyclists who ride the Route of the Hiawatha this summer will be pedaling their way through a construction zone, though they likely won’t see any workers.

Beginning later this month, crews will begin maintenance work on several of the tunnels along the 15-mile trail near the Montana-Idaho border.

All of the work will happen at night, which prompted the U.S. Forest Service to order a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. closure that will run from May 24 – opening day for the trail – to the end of the cycling season.

But the trail will still be open during the day, allowing cyclists to continue riding the old railroad grade and get an up-close look at the $5 million maintenance project.

Josh Jurgensen, the recreation staff officer for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, said the tunnels project is the second in a series of three major projects planned for the trail. A portion of the trail was resurfaced in 2022 and upgrades are expected on the trestles in a few years.

Funding for the work arrived through the Great American Outdoors Act, which created a special fund to help federal agencies address their deferred maintenance backlog.

“It’s kind of been a generational opportunity for us to do major improvement projects on sites such as the Route of the Hiawatha,” Jurgensen said.

The route sits on a stretch of the old Milwaukee Railroad that crosses the Bitterroot Mountains not far from Lookout Pass Ski Area. It became a bicycle trail in 1998, giving visitors the thrill of riding through the dark tunnels and over high wooden trestles originally constructed for train travel.

Perhaps its most prominent tunnel, known as the St. Paul or Taft tunnel, was opened in 2001. The tunnel sits at the beginning of the trail and burrows more than a mile-and-a-half through the Bitterroots.

In all, cyclists who complete the entire route make their way over seven trestles and through nine tunnels.

Jurgensen said the trail saw about 10,000 visitors annually in its early years but has welcomed between 58,000 and 70,000 in the past few years.

“It’s become kind of a multigenerational family activity,” Jurgensen said.

Still, the Forest Service hasn’t been able to complete major maintenance work until the past few years, beginning with the resurfacing project. That project covered about 7.5 miles of trail, from Adair to Pearson, and it cost about $700,000.

The tunnels are the next step. They vary in size and material – some are composed of rock and others are concrete.

Crews will wash the walls of the concrete tunnels and scale the surface to remove loose materials.

In the rock tunnels, they’ll take care of any loose rock and they’ll add 10-foot rock bolts to keep the rocks in place.

And it will be a lot of bolts.

“They will probably add over 14,000 feet of rock bolts,” Jurgensen said.

Later in the summer, crews will use shotcrete to shore up the tunnels. The hope is that they’ll be done before snow arrives in the fall.

Jurgensen said they planned the work to avoid impacting daytime trail use and the economic boost it brings to the area. That’s why the crews will work at night, and they’ll have the scene ready for riders by the next morning.

Lookout Pass Ski Area manages access to the trail, offering passes, shuttles and bike rentals. Matt Sawyer, a spokesman for Lookout, said he doesn’t expect any serious impacts to trail users who purchase passes and ride during the day, but the work will affect people who ride the trail after hours, since the tunnels will be impassable.

He added it might influence plans for organized night rides. Three were planned for this summer – one each in June, July and August – and Sawyer said Lookout hopes to work with the Forest Service to find a way to provide that opportunity.

Otherwise, he said the work is needed to keep the trail in good shape.

“It’s a good thing,” Sawyer said.

Jurgensen said the trail is considered the “crown jewel” of rail trails, and that it offers visitors a priceless experience.

Maintenance for such a trail is pricey, however. The trestle project, which is still being designed, will be the most expensive, estimated at more than $10 million.

But it’s worth it, Jurgensen said.

“Our goal is to do the deferred maintenance needed to keep that infrastructure in place for the next generation,” Jurgensen said.