Biking the Hiawatha Trail – Rail Tunnels and Trestles

Biking the Hiawatha Trail Trestles
Jake stands on one of the Hiawatha Trail trestles overlooking the Bitterroot mountains.

I found myself surrounded in complete darkness with only the stranger’s headlamp in front of me to light the way. All I could see was his silhouette so I followed it through the darkness. I tried to keep a safe distance while pedaling through the dark as to not alarm the rider with my lack of light predicament. The first time through hours earlier, the 1.66-mile long tunnel had seemed shorter with my headlamp blazing. But upon my return, my headlamp extinguished just after entering the tunnel. It was my fault. I had forgotten to recharge it after the last few backpacking trips. As I cycled along through the cool, damp tunnel listening to the water drops that had condensed to the ceiling fall onto the rocky floor all I could think was, “what a way to end a beautiful 29-mile journey biking the Hiawatha Trail.”

Stats for Biking the Hiawatha Trail

Route of the Hiawatha
This Route of the Hiawatha Trail arch is located on the Pearson, Idaho side of the trail.
  • Type: Out-n-Back or thru via bus
  • Rating: Easy
  • Distance: 14.4 miles (one-way)
  • Highest Elevation: 4,160′ (West Portal of the Taft Tunnel)
  • Lowest Elevation: 3,175′ (Pearson)
  • Season: Memorial Day thru Mid-September
  • Hours of Operation: 8:30AM – 5PM (PDT)
  • Riding Time: 1.5 – 2 hours each way depending on skill level and pace.
  • Tickets: Purchased at Lookout Pass Ski Resort
  • Shuttle Tickets: Purchased at Lookout Pass Ski Resort or at Pearson (end of the trail).

Biking the Hiawatha Trail

History

Hiawatha Trestles
The Hiawatha Trail trestles made it possible for the train rail to cut across the mountains without exceeding a 1.6 degree incline.

The Route of the Hiawatha Trail is a rail-to-trail path. The trail is built on top of the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway line which was originally constructed in 1905. The name Hiawatha was given to the powerful passenger train that started traversing the line starting in 1947. However, the name Hiawatha harkens back to a poem written by Henry Longfellow in 1855. In the story Hiawatha, a native American, could shoot an arrow and then proceed to outrun it.

Location

Bitterroot Mountains
Overlooking one of the Hiawatha Trail trestles bridges in the Bitterroot Mountains.

While the Hiawatha Trail is technically a mountain bike ride in that it is located deep in the Bitterroot Mountains, a cruiser bike could easily make the journey along the well-manicured path. I would recommend against taking a road bike.

The ride is a very easy journey through the beautiful northern Idaho mountains. The trail actually starts out in Montana but quickly enters the dark 1.66-mile Taft Tunnel passing through the mountain and under the Saint Paul Pass crossing into Idaho. As of 2020, there are plans to extend the trail more than 30 miles to the west through Montana.

Getting to the East Portal trailhead and parking lot can be difficult as it is located on a dirt road south of interstate 90. The cell service in the mountains is very spotty even with Verizon. Make your way to the Lookout Pass Ski Resort where you will pick up tickets for biking the Hiawatha Trail. The resort will provide you with a detailed map for locating the East Portal parking area, which is 7 miles away. Take a look at the Google Map we have here but make sure your directions are set in your GPS app before you lose cell service.

Distance

Pearson Station
This small picnic station area of Pearson is the end of the line on the Hiawatha bike trail.

The Hiawatha Trail is 14.4 miles (one way) and maintains a fairly consistent slope of no more than 1.6 degrees. At times it feels as if you could just coast from the top of the trail to the bottom. Biking the Hiawatha Trail takes very little effort and could be accomplished by almost anyone of any age that is able to ride. We rode past young children riding alongside their elderly grandparents, all enjoying the trail on a nearly perfect summer day. The journey ends at a little area known as Pearson, Idaho. There is little to this remote outpost. A few toilets, picnic tables, and a snack stand.

Highlights of Biking the Hiawatha Trail

Kelly Creek Trestle
The Kelly Creek Trestle is the longest of the bridges on the Hiawatha bike trail.

Along with the stunning scenery of the Bitterroot Mountains, riders on the trail will pass through nine old train tunnels including the 8,771′ long (1.66-mile) Taft Tunnel. Most of the other tunnels are much shorter but several are long enough that you will lose the daylight as you pass through them. Equally impressive are the seven trestles that you will ride over while biking the Hiawatha trail. The longest is the Kelly Creek Trestle which spans an 850′ long area, 230′ above the valley below.

The Taft Tunnel

The Taft Tunnel
The west portal of the Taft Tunnel (#20).

The Taft Tunnel alone is worth the journey to the Hiawatha Trail. Upon entering the tunnel riders are quickly introduced to a pitch-black environment with a steady cool temperature that on a hot day is very refreshing. Long sleeves and/or a jacket are highly recommended. Your breath as you pedal through will condensate and hang in the air creating a perpetual fog in the light of your dim headlamp. Be careful to stay in the center of the tunnel as the edges have small drainage channels shuttling water out of the cavern. Water pours from the walls and ceiling in a few areas, which at the time is rather concerning, but the tunnel is inspected daily for safety.

Info Signs

Hiawatha Trail Tunnel
One of the tunnels on the Hiawatha bike trail.

There are numerous signs posted along the way to stop and read that have great historical information about the area. These signs cover the biodiversity of the area as well as the 1910 wildfire that overtook the newly built railroad. Many people survived the blaze by taking refuge in the tunnels. Other signs talk about the railroad development and adaptations as technology changed and the people that worked the rails. The Hiawatha Trail section was at one time traversed by electric trains. It is all very interesting and worth stopping at each of the signs.

How Far is it to Chicago?

Hiawatha to Chicago
1759 miles to Chicago from Tunnel #27 on the Hiawatha Trail.

One constant companion along the journey are mile markers. Interstate mile markers of today list the distance from each state border. These old railroad mile markers harken back to a time when they crossed areas of the country that were still territories of the United States and not part of an individual state. For this reason, the mile markers on the Hiawatha trail list the distance from the start of the line in Chicago, Illinois.

Don’t Miss the Turn

I found the trail easy to follow but there is one section that can lead you down the wrong path if you aren’t paying attention. Once you emerge from the Taft Tunnel, near a beautiful waterfall, the path will quickly intersect with the dirt road (NF-506). It’s the road the shuttle busses traverse the mountain on. You will cycle on the road south for nearly 2 miles (including the #21 tunnel) before leaving the road at the Moss Creek parking area located on the outside of a sharp turn. The Hiawatha Trail heads east from Moss Creek on a narrower pathway. Most riders easily make this connection but a few do miss the turn and continue the descent on the road missing the majority of the tunnels and trestles.

Tunnels & Trestles

The Hiawatha Rail Trestles
One of the seven Hiawatha rail-to-trail bridge trestles.

Along with the mountainous scenery, the tunnels and trestles are what make biking the Hiawatha Trail so unique. These structures date back to the early days of the railroad and have been resurfaced and maintained for cycling. Here is a list in the order that you will arrive at each while biking the Hiawatha Trail.

  • Taft Tunnel (AKA: #20) – 8,771′ Long
  • #21 Tunnel – 790′ Long (Only tunnel with vehicle traffic)
  • #22 Tunnel – 1516′ Long
  • $23 Tunnel – Permanently closed with a bypass in place.
  • #24 Tunnel – 377′ Long
  • Small Creek Trestle – 515′ Long, 120′ High
  • Barnes Creek Trestle – 507′ Long, 117′ High
  • Kelly Creek Trestle – 850′ Long, 230′ High
  • #25 Tunnel – 966′ Long
  • #26 Tunnel – 683′ Long
  • Turkey Creek Trestle – 494′ Long, 146′ High
  • Russell Creek Trestle – 281′ Long, 96′ High
  • Bear Creek Trestle – 570′ Long, 155′ High
  • Clear Creek Trestle – 760′ Long, 220′ High
  • #27 Tunnel – 470′ Long
  • #28 Tunnel – 178′ Long
  • #29 Tunnel – 217′ Long

Shuttle or Cycle?

Lookout Pass Ski Resort Shuttle Bus
This “cool bus” is one of the Lookout Pass Ski Resort shuttles.

Upon arriving at the end of the trail in Pearson, you can choose to cycle back up the trail or grab a seat on the shuttle bus. Tickets can be purchased with cash when arriving in Pearson or at the Lookout Pass Ski Area before your journey begins. Once you have a ticket you will need to wait in line for a seat on one of the shuttle buses. The bus will transport you back up the mountain to the western portal of the Taft Tunnel. Even if you shuttle back you will have to remount your bike and cycle back through the 1.66-mile long Taft Tunnel.

I chose to cycle back while Jennifer road the shuttle. I cycled hard and got back shortly after she did. The line for the bus can be quite long. I figured, the trail was so nice why not save a buck and do it twice? However, 30-miles in the saddle even on nearly flat terrain could be a bit much for many novice riders.

Reservations/Tickets

There is a short summer season for biking the Hiawatha Trail and it can be crowded. It is recommended to reserve your ticket online prior to your visit, especially if you intend to ride on a weekend. We chose to ride on a Sunday and waited until about five days before the trip to reserve our tickets. This allowed us to check to ensure the weather forecast was good before committing to the date.

Rentals

Rental bikes and helmets are available to rent through the Lookout Pass Ski Resort for those who don’t have a bike or do not want to travel with it. We always have our mountain bikes. The resort also rents bike lamps as some kind of light is needed and required when biking the Hiawatha Trail.

Biking the Hiawatha Trail Mountains
As full-time travelers our mountain bikes are always with us.

Ticket and Parking

The Hiawatha Trail ticket gives you access to the Hiawatha Trail as well as the parking lot on the east side of the Taft Tunnel. However, the tickets must be picked up at the Lookout Pass Ski Area 7 miles away. This facility opens at 8:00 AM and we recommend arriving a few minutes early. The line gets long very quickly and the parking lot at the Hiawatha Trailhead fills up fast as well. Even though the parking lot fills up fast the trail itself never felt overly crowded to us.

What to Bring when Biking the Hiawatha Trail

Mountain Biking the Hiawatha Trail
Jennifer overlooks the Bitterroot Mountains while biking the Hiawatha Trail.
  • Mountain Bike or Cruiser (rentals available)
  • Headlamp or bike lamp (rentals available)
  • Bike Helmet (rentals available)
  • Athletic clothing that wicks sweat
  • Rain jacket or a lightweight down jacket for Taft Tunnel.
  • Water (about 1.5L each/each way), snacks, and a lunch (if you ride back).
  • Sunscreen
  • Cash for the Shuttle. ($12/Adult in 2021)

After the Ride

After biking the Hiawatha Trail stop by Huck’s Grill to grab one of the best shakes in Montana—the Montana Wild Huckleberry Milkshake—and a burger. If you want more adventure head west towards Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and ride the bike trail along Chatcolet Lake. This is also a section of the rail-to-trail path that crosses over the lake on a dedicated bridge.

Biking the Hiawatha Trail

Biking the Hiawatha Trail
Pin this post to your Pinterest board to easily return to it later.

Biking the Hiawatha Trail takes riders through some remote and stunningly beautiful terrain while revealing the golden age of rail travel in this area of the country. Along the way, riders pass through nine tunnels and over seven trestles making it a very memorable experience. This is a journey for nearly all ages and skill levels to enjoy. Just make sure your headlamp has some good batteries in it before start your ride.

Invite your friends to share in this journey of biking the Hiawatha Trail.

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