Bicyclists on Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes
If you'd like to take a beautiful recreational ride, The Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes is for you. The 73-mile long trail is a unique experiment — a combination of both a recreational trail and an environmental cleanup. And there are no cars!
The trail was built on top of a formerly contaminated Union Pacific rail line. When UP built the line, it used tailings from nearby mines. Later, it was discovered that they were contaminated with heavy metals such as lead. In addition, wind blew contaminated ore from the rail cars onto the surrounding area.
"When we originally did this trail people said, "Oh, people are not going to come to this area and visit this trail. We estimate this year that over 100,000 people are visiting this trail."
When the railroad wanted to abandon the line, the EPA required that it be cleaned up. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe and the State of Idaho saw a unique possibility:
"We had never done an environmental cleanup with a recreational trail, and we decided to put them together for a win-win situation," says Leo Hennessy, the non-motorized trail coordinator for the Idaho Department of Parks.
To accomplish their task, they removed one foot of soil the length of the trail and replaced it with clean fill. The whole trail was capped with asphalt and gravel and vegetative barriers were constructed to keep visitors away from contaminated dirt that hadn't been capped. Signs encourage people to wash their hands if they've touched soil.
But the potential risks haven't deterred visitors. Today, an estimated 100,000 bicyclists, walkers and inline skaters enjoy what is thought to be the longest paved trail in the country. The trail begins in Mullan, an Idaho mining town near the Montana border, and ends in Plummer, on the Coeur d'Alene reservation. Bikers ride over old railroad bridges, through a chain of lakes, along Lake Coeur d'Alene and even over a 3,000 foot bridge spanning the lake.
Twenty developed trailheads provide easy access, and there are 17 waysides along the way for picnicking or scenic viewing. The railroad is required to fix all cracks as soon as they occur, and the trail will be completely re-surfaced every 20 years.
"This will probably be the smoothest trail in the country," says Hennessy.
"Anybody could do this trail," says Micheal Giesler of Bend, OR. My four-year old grandson could ride his own bike and do this. It's mellow; there's no danger; you don't have to worry about cars."
"People were really excited. Really, really excited," says Linda Roberts of the tour group Bicycle Idaho. "The idea of being able to ride on a bike trail that long was something that is very unique, so our ride was filled up by the first of February this year, which is much sooner than usual."
"This is the best trail I've been on in my life, and I've been around a while!" says Buzz Sawyer, of Ashland, OR.
Many bicyclists combine a ride on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes with a ride along the Hiawatha Trail. The 46-mile mountain bike trail winds through eleven railroad tunnels and over nine trestles, crossing the Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana.
Or, if you want to take a break from riding the trail, you can visit historic Wallace, a mining town, the Coeur d'Alene Reservation, Idaho oldest building, the Cataldo Mission, or tourist towns along Lake Coeur d'Alene, like Harrison, ID.
The trail has revitalized area businesses in one of the state's most economically depressed regions:
"There was no growth, no industry, no incentive for people to move here," says John Kolbe, owner of Pedal Pushers Bike Store in Harrison. "Now the bike trail is causing a whole changeover. Families are now looking about moving in here. This is one of the greatest things to ever happen to this town."
"It's been exactly what we hoped," says trail designer Hennessy. "People are coming and smiling and they're telling their friends and they're coming back."
"It's just been fantastic," says Joe Peak, the owner of the Enaville Snake Pit. "On any given Saturday or Sunday probably better than half our business is bicyclists off the trail."
The trail even provides a scenic backdrop for honeymooning bicyclists, like Bob and Jennifer Ritter of Boise.