Gather nature enthusiasts, outdoor adventurers, history buffs or anyone seeking a day of beauty and exploration for a ride on The Route of the Hiawatha. Running along the old Milwaukee Railroad bed, this 15-mile journey has been called “the most scenic stretch of railroad in the country.” It’s always a great time to ride the Hiawatha, but 2018 is a particularly special year as June marked the celebration of its 20th anniversary!
Visitors are welcomed seven days a week from late May through late September. Don’t miss your chance to ride through this year’s closing day of September 23. From start to finish, planning a trip is easy. Operations are based out of Lookout Pass, located just off Interstate 90 at the Idaho-Montana state line about halfway between Spokane, Washington, and Missoula, Montana. The easy access and central proximity brings in groups from all over the Northwest—and even all over the country.
This convenient location is where you can purchase tickets, rent your gear and pick up maps and information about the trail. You can also stock up on food and drinks (a necessity for the several hour experience) and souvenirs to commemorate your day. Lookout employees are happy to assist with getting your bikes securely attached to your vehicle. No bike rack? No problem! Racks are also available to rent and include installation service from the helpful staff. Riders are welcome to bring their own set of two wheels, but helmets with a headlamp are an absolute must! For reference, the rental lamps use a bright 300 lumen light. Whether you’re renting or not, your first stop will be this main Lookout Pass hub to get your tickets and map. Once you’re all ready to go, an easy to follow 7-mile drive will take you to where your adventure officially begins.
A special aspect of the Hiawatha is that it’s almost entirely downhill, making it a realistic ride for a variety of ages and abilities. Children as young as 5 have completed the trail riding a fixed-speed bicycle. Because of this, it’s an ideal spot to gather for an activity during a family reunion, a pre-wedding journey with out-of-town loved ones or just a great excuse to bring everyone together for a day of fun. To sweeten the deal, groups over 10 can take advantage of the 10-percent off ticket discount. The beautiful backdrop is also ideal for a romantic trip for two! Most find that at the end of the 15-mile downhill trek, they’re left feeling accomplished yet not exhausted.
Countless locals enjoy riding the Hiawatha Trail year after year, but the sentiment seems to be mutual with all visitors. It’s been widely described as “The Crown Jewel of the Rail-to-Trail Conservation,” was inducted into the Rail-to-Trail Hall of Fame and was chosen as a USA Today Top Ten Pick. It’s no wonder such effort has been put into preserving this trail for many rides to come.
Your first venture on what can truly be described as an experience is down the fully enclosed 1.66-mile tunnel known both as both the St. Paul Pass Tunnel and the Taft Tunnel. Be prepared for the temperatures to drop and the light to be completely eliminated. From start to finish through this tunnel you’ll descend about 1,000 feet in elevation at a 1.7-percent downhill grade. This is the longest tunnel on the Hiawatha and a very fun way to kick off your day.
Keep an eye out for a historical marker on the wall about halfway through Taft Tunnel. It will detail which side bored through the fastest and the work’s accuracy in joining up the middle. Remember that during construction engineers didn’t have the luxury of modern technology, so the quality of the work is quite impressive! At the end of your journey you’ll have a second go through this tunnel on your way back to your vehicle—the only part of the Hiawatha you’ll experience twice if you choose to take the bus back at the end, like most do.
As soon as you emerge from the Taft Tunnel, you’ll notice a gorgeous waterfall that makes the perfect backdrop for a photo op. Hiawatha Trail hashtags and check-ins online bring up numerous fantastic photos of the experience and you’ll notice that this famous waterfall makes numerous appearances! It’s definitely a must-do family photo.
In addition to the Taft Tunnel, throughout the trail you’ll traverse through nine more exciting train tunnels and seven breathtaking high trestles. Another fun fact about this rail-to-tail that’s regarded as one of the most unique of its kind is that it goes through Idaho and Montana, so you’ll ride two states in one day! There is truly no dull part of The Route of the Hiawatha experience. With each stretching mile you cycle, nature at its finest surrounds you everywhere you look. Throughout the trip you’ll take in awe-inspiring rock formations, gaze down at mountain valleys that take your breath away and cross towering bridges that make you feel on top of the world.
Plus, don’t forget the wildlife! You’re likely to meet friendly humans along the way, but there are also other creatures to get acquainted with from afar! You’ll encounter a wide variety of Northwest wildlife that calls the surrounding areas of the Hiawatha home. This is an ideal opportunity for the kids to experience magnificent animals in their natural habitat.
The Hiawatha is also a literal ride through history! Athletics and the outdoors meets education during this day trip. Make sure to plan for enough time to stop and read each of the 47 interpretive historical signs along the way. Not just children, but adults, too, will enjoy learning about the significance of each stop and viewing old photographs of what once was.
With so much scenery and education to absorb, your first trip to this remarkable place is unlikely to be your last. Each time you visit a certain landscape or story may stand out. There will be many opportunities for beautiful frame-worthy photos, but don’t forget to pause throughout your journey down The Route of the Hiawatha and truly take in all that surrounds you. As you pedal mile by mile down the trail, remember that this backdrop of natural beauty isn’t just a part of your day but has also been enjoyed during the days, months and years of so many before you.
As you hop on the bus that takes you back to that final journey through the St. Paul Pass Tunnel and back to civilization, be thankful for all that you have—including the luxury of not having to ride the Hiawatha back uphill! Here’s a whistle blow to the next 20 years of folks gathering together to experience this beautiful ride.