If you have never heard of Rails to Trails, you are not alone. We first stumbled upon the association in rural St. Mary’s, Georgia where the town had made a public commitment to connecting with the Rails to Trails network.
Rails to Trails Conservancy is an inspired movement. The Rails to Trails mission statement does the best job of describing what they are about:
“Creating a nationwide network of trails from former
rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier
places for healthier people.”
Once we learned about these car-free bike/hike/equestrian pathways and the movement to connect them across America, we were hooked. We have since ridden segments of these wonderful natural and urban pathways around the nation. The goal is eventually to connect this network across the continent East to West, North to South.
While staying in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho we knew we had to do the “Route of the Hiawatha”. This historic converted railway bed is now gravel path. Currently 15 miles of the planned 42 mile route is open to enjoy between St. Regis, Montana and Pearson, Idaho. What is really fun is that the entire 15 miles is downhill over seven old train trestle bridges, rivers, old mining encampments and through ten train tunnels. At the bottom we could pay to load the bikes on their bus service and be driven back up to the top.
In preparation we hung the bikes on the rack on the back of our jeep. Our pannier saddlebag was packed with a variety of clothes, our water bottles filled and our headlights packed.
We knew we would be going through a series of black-out train tunnels, with the longest Taft Tunnel being 1.7 miles long. Lights were essential.
We headed out of a beautiful September morning for the hour and a half drive to Montana. The drive was gorgeous and easy going through the Bitterroot Mountains. The higher we climbed the more changes in the autumn color blazed.
Join us for a Cruise down The Route of the Hiawatha. It’s an amazing fun and beautiful piece of American nature and history.
The things we learned is that we lucked out, because the trail closes the end of September. We were there on the very last weekend. Although there were lots of people the route is so stretched out, that we never felt crowded. Riders of all ages and conditioning, families with small kids and people with handicaps were all enjoying the ride.
There is a cost of $10.00 to use the trail, which is unlike most of the Rails to Trails. There is a reason for the fee, not just the maintenance but they have bicycle monitors that ride the trail constantly assisting with tire repair, first aid and general support.
We entered the first and longest tunnel with our headlamps on and found them lacking, so we went back to the car and put in fresh batteries. We enter the tunnel again and it was if the light was sucked away by the intense blackness of the tunnel. Going back to the check in tent we were able to rent much stronger bike lights for $5.00 each. Huge Difference. Some people donned headlamps that seemed to work equally well. Either way, having adequate light for your ride is critical or not to be taken lightly…sorry I couldn’t resist a little pun. We didn’t realize just how cold the tunnels could be but came semi-prepared with light weight windbreakers. We sure were glad to have them. The temperature in the longer tunnels dropped instantly to 40 degrees F.
If you are really committed, you can ride down, turnaround and climb the 15 miles back, but for the paltry fee of $9.00 you can load your bike and yourself on a converted school bus and enjoy a narrated tour back a different route learning about the mining, logging, massive forest fires and the life and death of the rugged individuals that created the original “Milwaukee Road”. The mile markers are sort of humorous because they click of miles all the way to Chicago, Illinois where the train used to run
There are regular nicely maintained bathroom facilities along the length of the trail, but no refreshments opportunities, so bring your snacks and water. We had our water and protein bars but looked forward to a lunch midafternoon in the historic town of Wallace after we finished the ride.
This is absolutely pleasurable, interesting and gorgeous experience. To plan your ride on the Hiawatha, consult their website at www.RidetheHiawatha.com
To explore more of this amazing resource go to the official site of Rails to Trails at http://www.railstotrails.org
Share with all of us your favorite trails for biking or hiking, wherever they may be.
Happy Trails Itchy Nomads.