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From a historic train route to ‘spectacular’ cycling destination: You can visit the Hiawatha trail

Editor’s note: This fall, BoiseDev will feature some great destinations you can visit around Idaho. Sophia Doumani’s Hidden Gems of the Gem State airs on local TV twice per month – and now you will see some of her stories, along with video, here on BoiseDev.com, and in Idaho First!

Looking for a fun way to spend your weekend? Look no further! Nestled above the trees of the Bitterroot Mountains lies the Route of the Hiawatha, Idaho’s most scenic and unique bike path.

This phenomenal trail comes with train tunnels, sky bridges and spectacular views unlike anything available to outdoor enthusiasts. It’s the only path in the state where bikers can experience Idaho’s Panhandle National Forest from hundreds of feet above the ground.

It’s perfect for anyone seeking out an adventure, wanting to make life-long memories with their family, or just looking for an excuse to plan a trip up to Northern Idaho. Whatever your reason, expect to be amazed.

Hiawatha’s most famous sky bridge

Views like these don’t come cheap. The entirety of this breathtaking route cost more than $234 million to construct.

Why spend such an exorbitant amount of money on a bike path? Well, it wasn’t actually built to be a bike path. The Route of the Hiawatha is a short segment of a decommissioned transcontinental railroad.

The 15-mile stretch open to bikers is what was considered the most scenic of the Pacific Extension, devised as a way to link Chicago to the Seattle area via rail. It was completed in 1911, as a part of 6,000 miles of train tracks. In its heyday, it was the longest stretch of electrified railroad in the world.

It took 9,000 people five years to complete this historical landmark achievement. More than 100 years later, their work truly has stood the test of time.

Entrance to St. Paul Pass Tunnel

It is not practical for a train to travel uphill, so this entire trail follows a gradual downhill slope. If distance was a deterrent, don’t worry, you’ll barely have to do any peddling! If you’d like a challenge, you can opt-out of boarding the bus located at the bottom of the route and pedal back to the top.

The first of ten train tunnels bikers get to experience is St. Paul Pass. You’ll get to enjoy a similar experience to those aboard the former passenger train that traveled through here more than a century ago. The only difference, you won’t get the luxury of staying clean.

St. Paul Pass Tunnel is 1.6 miles long, pitch dark, muddy, and may be one of the few things that returns you to a child-like state of amazement and wonder.

Inside of St. Paul Pass Tunnel

It is hard not to be awe-struck by the magnitude of this tunnel, and the sacrifice that went into its construction. There’s something eerie yet inspiring about biking through what was once a great milestone of American commerce and ingenuity.

Bikers that take on this tunnel are greeted with cold, wet air that permeates the senses. When I went, it was 90 degrees outside, but that didn’t keep a chill from running up my spine as I entered what seemed to be a never-ending stretch of darkness.

Fellow bikers whistled, hollered, and bellowed “echo!” as I made my way through. Groundwater keeps the tunnel constantly moist, but being covered in mud is a small price to pay for such a surreal experience. I still have dreams about it.

1 of 10 train tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha

No two tunnels you’ll pass through are alike. Each one comes equipped with its own hand-made design. Looking around, it’s hard to believe this was constructed before the invention of tunnel boring machines, GPS, and modern surveying equipment. You don’t see craftsmanship like that today.

Bikers are required to have lights as well as helmets to make it through these tunnels. Hiawatha is on U.S. National Forest land and there is a fee to use the trail. Tickets can be purchased here.

Beginning of St. Paul Pass Tunnel

On top of 10 unique tunnels, there are seven sky bridges you’ll get to enjoy, each more beautiful than the last.

The last passenger train came through here in 1961. The railroad later filed for bankruptcy and was abandoned in 1980. The entirety of the 15-mile stretch was opened to the public in 2001. It operates May through September and takes about 2.5 hours to complete.

Hiawatha is a must on your Idaho bucket list, although it isn’t entirely in Idaho. The path actually starts in Montana and then crosses you back over into Idaho after the first mile. You will cross state lines while going through St. Paul Pass Tunnel.

If you’d like to experience Hiawatha, I’d recommend booking a trip up to Coeur d’Alene. The bike path is only an hour away from the downtown area.

Want to know more? This video will walk you through what to expect, how to book, and how to plan! Happy travels!

Hiawatha Do’s

  • Plan ahead
  • Buy tickets before you make the drive
  • Pick up your bike rentals/tickets at the Lookout Pass Ski Area
  • Have a way to transport your rental bikes
  • Check the shuttle schedule before you pick a time to start
  • Expect to get dirty

Hiawatha Don’ts

  • Arrive too late in the day (you’ll miss the shuttle and have to bike back)
  • Bring your own bike (unless you’re okay with it getting covered in mud)
  • Show up without a light or helmet
  • Bring children too small to make the 15 mile trek
  • Forget to have fun!
Courtesy Ride The Hiwatha

Inside Idaho