North Idaho region / 30 miles / 1575 ft total climb
The Route of the Hiawatha is an old rail grade turned bike trail off of Lookout Pass on the border between Montana and Idaho. It’s a small section of the larger Bitterroot Loop bikepacking tour, but it’s worth a day trip all on its own. You’ll have to set aside some time because it is a bit of a drive from the Pullman area, but if you’re in the mood for a day trip and ride, or if you’re interested in camping out and riding the trail—there are many camp sites in the area—then the Hiawatha is a good option.
The Hiawatha is great for a wide range of fitness levels and abilities, as you can park at the top of the grade, ride to the bottom and shuttle back up. There’s a fee to use the trail ($12 as of the writing of this guide), and fee for the shuttle (another $10). You can also rent bikes at the Lookout Pass ski area off I-90 at Exit 0. We brought our own bikes and opted to drive to the bottom of the grade and ride to the top and back down.
The trail is what you would expect from an old rail line: the grade is steady and never very significant, and there are many long straight stretches. There are several old trestle bridges, many with great views out over forested hills and valleys. There are also several tunnels, including one that’s over a mile long, the Taft tunnel at top of the trail. Bring lights. Bring a wind breaker. That tunnel is long and dark and wet and cold. And if you start at the bottom, you’ll get to go through it twice.
For the ride up I feel like most folks would be comfortable on a pretty narrow tire (maybe 32 mm), the kind that come on your typical comfort and hybrid bikes. Most of the trail is pretty hard packed, and it’s not difficult to maintain control at slower speeds while climbing. However, even though the grade is slight, it’s easy to pick up a good head of steam on the descent. And there are enough bigger rocks, patches of loose gravel and potholes that with something like a 2.0 inch mountain bike tire there’s no need to slow down over the rougher stuff.
And the descent is fast. If you’re not in a hurry because you got an early start, were well prepared, and didn’t have to deal with Google routing issues, then take your time. Enjoy the trestles you didn’t stop for on the way up. But if you’re chasing daylight, like we were, then you can definitely boogie all the way down.
Warning: Do not blindly trust Google for driving directions to the bottom of the trail! Google sent us down some kind of 4×4 trail for which we were totally unprepared. We had to turn around and figure out or own route. Take Exit 5 from I-90. You’ll see a corrugated steel sided structure. You’ll take a left away from that structure unless you’re prepared for a four-wheelin’ adventure. Follow the signs for the Hiawatha and for the Pearson Trailhead (that’s the lower one). You’ll spend some time driving pretty narrow but well maintained gravel roads. And from Roland to Pearson you’ll be on the shuttle route, so be aware that you’re likely to pass a few buses coming the opposite way. There’s also a short section of road that you’ll be sharing with the trail riders, so heads up and be mindful of your speed.