Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cycling the Idaho Mountains; The Hiawatha and Coeur d'Alene Trails

This Journal recounts a three day fall trip to the Idaho Panhandle to peddle two magnificent though very different bike trails.

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The Route of the Hiawatha Trail. Both of these Idaho bike trails had been beckoning us for many years. Finally, in September of 2009, we loaded our bikes on the van, picked up our cycle friends, the Behses, and headed east to Wallace Idaho, five and a half hours away. We arrived at the Wallace Inn after dark and were pleased to find large, well appointed rooms waiting for us. It is clearly the best place to stay in Wallace.

Wallace, tucked in a narrow I-90 canyon surrounded by the rugged Bitterroot Mountains on the Montana border, would seem an unlikely place for “civilized cycling.” But in the 1800’s the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road railroads chose this area for their transcontinental rail routes and, when they later abandoned them, left behind two paths through the mountains that are ideal for cycling.

The two trails offer very different cycling experiences. The Hiawatha Trail is the less refined of the two. Unpaved, it clings to steep slopes, passes through ten tunnels and over seven high trestles as it descends 1000 feet over the most popular 15 mile portion of the trip.

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is very civilized. Beginning on Lake Coeur d’Alene, about 20 miles south of the city of the same name, the paved 73 mile trail heads east eventually joining I-90 in a narrow canyon that takes it through Wallace to it’s terminus beyond the small mining town of Mullan.

Day One: The Hiawatha Trail
For our first day of travel we chose the Hiawatha trail. Due to its elevation and remote location the trail is only open during the warmer months. Before venturing there it is a good idea to check the web site. There are a few things to know about the trail:
· Lights and helmets are required. The longest tunnel is over one mile in length. Lights are a must.
· You must pay a trail use fee ($9 in 2009.) It is worth it as the trail is well maintained with informative historical markers along the way.
· Fat tires are recommended. It is a good recommendation. Narrow road tires would be trouble for the rider and those around them on many portions of the unpaved roadway.
· Warm clothes are a good idea. The day we cycled it was 75 degrees outside and 42 degrees in the long tunnel. Brrrrrrrrrrr.

Mountain bikes can be rented at Lookout Pass ski area on I-90, just five miles from the turn off to the trailhead. The bikes come with helmets and lights. You can also purchase your trail pass at this location. For those who prefer to ride just one way, a shuttle service is available to pick you up at the west trail head and bring you and your bike back to the starting point. On busy weekends bike and shuttle reservations are recommended.

We rented bikes, purchased our passes and then headed to the east trail head at about 10:00 am on a Sunday, one week before the end of the season. There was a steady stream of riders entering the first tunnel but it didn’t have a “crowded” feel. We were greeted by a trail volunteer who provided a safety briefing and, we suspect, was insuring we had out passes.

The trail begins at the 1.7 mile long St Paul Pass tunnel. It is quite an experience. After riding about 50 yards the trail bends slightly and begins a straight run to the west portal which appears as a small dot of light in the far distance. It is a long, dark, damp tunnel. Water drips from the roof and walls and is picked up by a narrow gutter on each side of the trail. We were warned not to bike into the gutter! The surface is compact gravel and dirt with an occasional puddle. There is no way to avoid getting a little wet and a little muddy.

The tunnel seems to go on forever but, eventually, the light at the end of the tunnel grows larger and you emerge from the darkness into the bright sunshine. Continuing on, the trail passes through nine more tunnels of varying length. You soon find that your required headlight not only lets you see where you are going but helps you see on coming cycle traffic. In addition to my handlebar light I wore my headlamp over my helmet and found that additional light helpful.
After a few tunnels you encounter the first of seven major trestles, each of which seems to span a major chasm in the rugged mountains. Handrails make them quite safe but you can still get an eerie feeling looking over the edge to the rock strewn streams below.

Reaching tunnel 28, at about the ten mile mark, we called a halt. Our plan was to go out and back and we’d been advised that the last third of the trail, though still in beautiful country, was free of tunnels and trestles and, in portions, was shared with cars.

It seemed as if we were riding a different trail on the way back. The views were all different and we knew what to anticipate as we entered each tunnel. We paused on one trestle to enjoy the sun and have lunch before concluding the trip back to the east trailhead.

We had cycled the Hiawatha trail and can recommend the experience. The trail was well maintained, the grades were moderate and you get a sense of adventure without too much adventure thrown in. It is suitable for the entire family.

We returned our rented bikes and headed back to Wallace.

Wallace is not a big town and, since it was an off season Sunday evening. our dinner choices were limited. But we found the Historic Smokehouse BBQ and Saloon just right and had a good dinner surrounded by memorabilia evoking the spirit of this former silver mining town.

Day Two: Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes
Wallace sits at mile 64 of the 73 mile trail. The paved portion of the trail ends beyond Mullan, nine miles to the east. We were told that the Wallace to Mullan portion of the trail offers some of the best riding and scenery but we elected to instead head west reserving the last portion of the trail for those who still had energy left at the end of the day.

While the trail shares the canyon with I-90 much of the tree lined trail still offers a semi-tranquil experience. Miles 55 to 48 pass by relics of the industrial and mining past of Kellogg and Smelterville. But the entire ride is pleasant and old Kellogg, just south of the trail, is worth a stop. The Kellogg Chamber of Commerce is housed in the old train station next to the trail. They offer information on the area and, perhaps most importantly, a restroom.

A Word About Facilities on the Trail: Planners of both the Hiawatha Trail and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes considered rider comfort and spotted well maintained restrooms along both routes. Picnic tables are also available. Both are well marked on trail maps available at motels, restaurants and the web.

At mile 48 the trail and I-90 part ways and the trail meanders beside a lazy river on a very scenic stretch.

We chose to stop at mile 42, the Cataldo trail head. But before we turned around for the trip home we headed down a country road to see the historic Cataldo Mission at the Old Mission State Park. We were told it was “about two miles down the road” by a local who either didn’t know or was out to josh a tourist. In any case, after riding four miles down a road past a gravel pit, sawmill and superfund cleanup site we arrived at the park. It is a nice park with a new in 2009 visitors center but I would suggest you take exit 39 while driving I-90 and see the park that way. It wasn’t worth the ride.

We returned to the trail at Cataldo and began our trip back to Wallace with no incidents and a pleasant stop at the Silver Mountain Ski Area base in Kellogg for some refreshment. While the grades were gentle we were still glad to make it back to Wallace. With our side trip to the mission and some wandering around Kellogg our planned 44 mile trail ride (22 miles each way) had grown to about 55 miles total. The weather had been great and the entire day met everyone’s best expectations.

No one showed any interest in peddling the last eight miles to Mullan.

That evening we dined at the 1313 Club, Historic Saloon and Grill in downtown Wallace. It can be recommended for food and atmosphere. A perfect ending to a good day of riding.

Day Three: Cataldo to Harrison on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene.
Our plan for the day was to drive to Cataldo, the Day Two stopping point, and then continue west to cover more of the trail. But first, on the advice of a local, we headed for the Silverspoon Restaurant, just off exit 49 in Kellogg. The advice included:
· They have great breakfasts
· Their cinnamon rolls are fantastic; plan to share one. Don’t try to eat one alone.
The advice was sound, though incomplete. The breakfasts were great. But we assumed each cinnamon roll was enough for two so each couple ordered one; big mistake. Four could have lived on a single roll for several days. And, while sometimes quality is sacrificed for size, in this case the rolls were both giant sized and delicious. (They were also good when we ate the second half of them the following day.) If you like a good breakfast and/or cinnamon rolls the Silverspoon is not to be missed.

We lumbered out of breakfast and drove the last distance to the Cataldo trailhead, Mile 42. I dropped off three riders and then drove nearly an hour to their destination at Mile 15 in Harrison. The weather was cloudy, a little windy and rain was threatening so driving the car seemed like a sensible thing to do.

The rain never came so I unloaded my bike in Harrison and headed out on the trail to meet the others. About ten miles out we met and I was placed in the front of our small peloton to lead them in through a moderate headwind.

The Cataldo to Harrison segment turned out to be a flat wander along the banks of the meandering Coeur d’Alene river as it headed down a wide valley spotted with farms and pastures. The river enters the lake of the same name at Harrison.

The last 15 miles of the trail, down to Plummer, will have to await another trip. We had covered the middle 50 miles of the 73 mile trail. It is a wonderful place to cycle. The pavement is in “new” condition, there are multiple trail heads for start and finish legs and it is suitable for cyclists of all ages and skill levels. It is truly a gem of a trail in one of the most scenic areas of the country.

It is to be recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment