For much of the twentieth century, if you wanted to travel from coast to coast, you took the train. And one of the most luxurious passenger lines was the Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha. From Chicago to Seattle, the Hiawatha carried passengers in comfort and style.
Going through northern Idaho, trains negotiated mile after mile of switchbacks and tunnels. It was by far the most expensive railroad ever built at the time. Original estimates put the cost of building the line at $2 million. When it was completed in 1910, the actual cost was $250 million. Idaho’s geology required the route to wind around valleys, through tunnels and over trestles -- the tallest more than two hundred feet high.
But today mountain bikes, not trains, cross the trestles.
Twenty years after the Milwaukee Road went bankrupt, the U.S. Forest Service reopened the route of the Hiawatha, for bike riders. Everything that made the route attractive for trains -- the gentle slope, the scenery, the history -- make it equally attractive for bicycles.
The two percent grade makes it enjoyable for even first time bikers.
The trestles and the tunnels make the route of the Hiawatha memorable. In thirteen miles, bikers ride over seven trestles and through nine tunnels. “It’s just quite an experience to be riding out there in the middle of nowhere,” says Hiawatha trail marshall Dave Leeds.
“You can have hawks circling right beside you. When you stop and look over the railing, it’s a couple hundred feet down to the ground.”
The Hiawatha Rail-Trail can be accessed via Wallace or St. Maries, Idaho or from Montana via the Taft exit off Interstate 90. Complete instructions can be found at Idaho Panhandle National Forests - Hiawatha Trail