Riding the Route of the Hiawatha

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A Good Companion

One of the things I’ll always remember fondly about my two year relationship with my ex was the way she always kept life interesting. I’ve spoken in the past about what makes a fantastic travel companion and one of those traits, to me, is the ability to find fun in a variety of things.

During the course of my time with my ex, we went on a whole bunch of random adventures. Some of them, such as rock and roll dancing lessons or taking surfing lessons in Manly weren’t for me. Others, such as running the City 2 Surf or learning to scuba dive are things I loved and still do to this day.

A couple on the route of the hiawatha
Posing at the Route of the Hiawatha in 2009.

We went on a Portland Brewery Tour, hung out in Vegas, camped on a miserable Korean island, discovered the brilliant Hart’s Pub, took a photography course in The Rocks, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, hiked in the Blue Mountains, did a whirlwind tour of New Zealand, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Fallon and I parted ways over a year ago now and she’s since been engaged and is set to tie the knot with the love of her life later this year. We maintain a good friendship and it’s random adventures like the one I’m about to share with you that I will always remember as the best part of our time together.

The Route of the Hiawatha

The Olympian Hiawatha train line between Chicago and Seattle hasn’t seen a train ride its tracks since 1980; but the stretch between St Paul’s Pass near Wallace, Idaho down to the western trail head has been resurrected as a 13 mile bicycle track that offers spectacular views of northern Idaho pine forest, a number of tunnels, and a relatively easy ride that families can also get out and enjoy.

A small fee of $9 for adults (and $6) for children gives you access to the trail and is used to maintain the park and ensure it will be available for future generations to use. While the train tracks have long since been lifted, the route is still just as it was when steam trains chugged across the country in the 1900s.

a tunnel route of the hiawatha
One of the smaller tunnels along the Route of the Hiawatha

The ride, starting with a nerve-rattling one mile ride through the near total darkness of St Paul’s Pass (Taft Tunnel) runs down a gentle slope that crossed several raised wooden trestles, snakes through quite a few tunnels, and eventually ends at the western trail head where a bus is available to shuttle people back to the car park at the head of the trail.

You follow the same route the trains once took and this affords a largely untouched view of the national park the trail moves through.

Alternatively, more hardcore individuals could spin their bikes around and tackle the uphill for a 26 mile day.

In addition to bringing your own bike (although bikes can be rented with all equipment for as little as $29) it’s also advisable to bring a head lamp, warm clothes, and glvoers.

St. Paul’s Pass is a freezing cold, lightless bitch.

You can find out more about the Route of the Hiawatha and its history on the Route of the Hiawatha website.

Riding the Route

We woke early for the big ride. Despite it still technically being fall in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho; the air was thick with the cool of the coming winter as myself, Fallon, and her parents loaded our bikes onto the truck.

A pit-stop at Subway was the first point on the agenda, and why on earth don’t we have flat bread as an option here in Australia!? It’s amazing!

A scenic drive up towards Wallace (where Dante’s Peak was filmed) was accompanied by the music of George Strait. I kind of fell in love with country music during my six weeks living in Idaho…

Our drive takes us across the border into Montana, and soon enough we were pull up in a crowded car park alongside a yellow school bus. I thought they only existed in cartoons!

yellow bus hiawatha
A yellow schoolbus at the Trail of the Hiawatha

We saddled up, paid our $9 entry fees, and then it was time to strap on our head lamps and pull on sweaters and gloves. It certainly felt an odd way to dress for what promised to be a fairly sweat-raising bike ride on a bright sunny day, but St. Paul’s Pass would soon loom up ahead of us and all doubts would vanish.

Through the Mountain

St. Paul’s Pass (or Taft Tunnel) cuts underneath the ominously named Bitterroot Mountain and gives riders a one mile ride through near total darkness before they emerge on the trail. During the bone-chilling one mile ride riders also cross over from Montana back into Idaho. Kind of cool.

st paul's pass
Abandon all hope ye who enter here

The passage through the tunnel is just a little bit harrowing. When I say near total darkness I mean that. The light filtering in from the tunnel doesn’t travel far and the dim light of your headlamp does little more than call up ominous shadows and make you feel just a little bit dizzy as you shakily follow its bumping dance across the damp floor.

Christ, I’m in Moria.

The cold is something else entirely. The inside of the tunnel sees no light at all, so you can imagine just how frigid it is in that dark place. Water drips from overhead and hands rapidly go numb despite thick gloves. The sound of water rushing through the gutters that hug the tunnel walls remind you that there’s a potentially ankle breaking tumble if you veer too close to the edge of the tunnel.

riders hiawatha

It’s with genuine relief that we emerged into the now blinding sun on the other side of the pass, and we paused to tug off jumpers and gloves before heading back out onto the trail.

We’re far from alone in our journey either. It’s a bright sunny day and families are out in force. We pass hardcore riders on expensive bikes and children being towed behind their parents in garishly colored carts.

Down the Hill

The ride after the harrowing tunnel journey is surprisingly pleasant. A gentle incline means pedaling is sparse and the sun overhead soon warms my cold bones. I’m a little shaky on the bike at first, especially when we pick up speed and need to round corners where crashing would involve a fatal fall to the pine forest below.

There ‘ain’t no fancy safety railings here, kids.

route of the hiawatha

The vistas that the ride provides are stunning. It’s hard to imagine a train chugging along the broad path that we ride, but periodic tunnels remind us that this leisurely ride was once part of the American lifeblood.

We pause from time to time along the way to hydrate or pose for photographs by particularly enchanting pieces of scenery. Trail mix becomes my new favorite snack as the sun rises high overhead and we near the halfway point.

hiawatha tunnel

We decided earlier in the day not to ride all the way to the bottom. Instead we’ll turn around and ride back up the hill. The sweat in my arm-pits and the pain in my calves after the downhill makes me sure that this wasn’t a good idea…

hiawatha trestles

Special mention must go to the spectacular views afforded by the trestles that lie along the route. Standing atop an old wooden bridge high above the forest below is a real treat. There are some great photo opportunities to be had as you stand there with nothing but the whistling wind and the creaking of timber to keep you company.

The Uphill

At the point I did the Route of the Hiawatha (September 2009) I had only just finished the Couch to 5k program, and runs such as the City 2 Surf were some way in the distance.

route of the hiawatha

I’m ashamed to say that the uphill portion of our ride really did me in. My calves ached and my poor lungs struggled to make use of the thin Idaho air. Fallon was kind enoguh to send her parents on ahead without us so that they didn’t see me struggling like a lifelong smoker, but I still felt pretty ashamed at just how much I struggled on a fairly gradual climb.

Soon enough we were back at St. Paul’s Pass and one mile of darkness separated me from a rest I felt in dire need of. We saddled up, gritted our teeth, and emerged triumphant from the other side. We’d managed to cover over 18 miles all told, and I was in ready for a Bud Lite and a good, long rest when we got home.

Worth It?

My legs ached for a day or so and I felt saddle sore for a week, but I look back on the Route of the Hiawatha experience as a real joy. It was by no means a casual Sunday stroll when you factor in the uphill, but the views and the mountain air were really a wonderful introduction to Idaho.

standing at the route of the hiawatha trail head
I survived!

There’s something very cool about traversing St. Paul’s Pass as well. Similar to the experience of black water rafting in Waitomo’s famous glow-worm caves.

Idaho might not be packed full of tourist sights, but you can do far worse than spending a day out in the sun exploring a little piece of history nestled at the heart of some stunning natural beauty.

route of the hiawatha route of the hiawatha tunnel route of the hiawatha

Have you ever done a particularly memorable or scenic bike ride? I’d love to hear about it.

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