About the Route of the Hiawatha
The Route of the Hiawatha was once known as one of the most scenic railways in the country. It has now been converted to rails to trails. USA Today ranks the Route of the Hiawatha in the top ten rails to trails and it is on the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame list.
The trail begins on the western edge of Montana and crosses the border into Idaho. There is a sign which marks the state lines inside the first tunnel, for which it is famous. The 1.66 mile Taft Tunnel is dark, cold, and wet! The Route of the Hiawatha also travels along 7 trestles and through an additional 8 tunnels while featuring views of the Bitterroots.
While the trail passes through the National Forest, it is not free to ride, as it is operated by a private company. Tickets may be purchased at Lookout Pass Ski Area, online, or at the recommended starting trailhead a few miles up the road at the East Portal. National Parks passes do not apply.
Map of the Route of the Hiawatha
Recommended Way to Ride the Route of the Hiawatha
While the company’s website for the Route of the Hiawatha is comprehensive, it basically recommends riding the trail that is most lucrative to them. In a nutshell, that would be to purchase a trail ticket, to purchase a shuttle ticket (which is required on the weekends), and to rent mountain bikes which come with a helmet and a 300 lumens light. This adds up to almost $80/person. Not a cheap family outing on a bike!
They recommend a reservation (which provides a $2 discount) at least 24 hours in advance, especially for bike rentals and shuttle space. The shuttles run once they are full, so if you start early or take less time than the requisite 3 hours to go 15 miles, you will be waiting for the shuttle. If you go with all the other tourists, you will likely be waiting for the shuttle unless you got to the end in time for your reserved slot.
If you use your own bikes and don’t have a light, they recommend renting one. They also recommend mountain bike tires and helmets. Further, if you have your own e-bike or fat tire bike and want to ride the shuttle back, which they suggest, it is an extra $10.
Finally, they recommend beginning at the East Portal (or the West Port trailhead if you are afraid of the dark tunnel). According to the website, thereafter the road winds and narrows to less than a two-way street. That said, keep in mind that the shuttles they operate are school buses, so it can’t be that bad.
Riding the Route of the Hiawatha with Your Own E-bike
For me, I just wanted to experience a portion of the trail without a huge and uncontrolled time commitment because I was leaving Annie in VANgo. While the van has many windows and a MaxxAir fan, in full sun, it can get hot by midday.
As a result of my shuttle explanation above, I was unwilling to rely on such transportation, so I did some intensive googling. It turns out, with your own e-bike and headlamp, you can likely ride this trail for as little as $16 with a reservation, if you are being honest. And probably free, if you are willing to cheat the system. Just know that the tickets go around the brake cable, so if someone at one of the trailheads sees you without one, you’ll have to buy a ticket there.
Riding from Pearson Trailhead Alternative
What I really wanted to do was ride my e-bike uphill from the bottom trailhead, Pearson, to the East Portal. That way, if my battery died, I would at least be riding back downhill. I ended up scrapping this idea because I got nervous about the road in VANgo since it is a high-roof Mercedes Sprinter.
Looking back and learning that they drove school buses, I wouldn’t have had a problem with the van. But this alternative has a couple of drawbacks, so I’m glad I started from the East Portal anyway.
First, for a short period of time, the road to the Pearson trailhead shares the road with the cyclists. YIKES! It would take a while to part the sea of bicyclists when leaving the area, which brings me to my second point.
While I likely would have had the trail to myself going uphill, upon my return, I would have been stuck behind HUNDREDS of tourists. Trying to maneuver around the riders when they can’t see you would prove highly difficult. I can say this with certainty because it proved hard to maneuver around them going upstream like a salmon when they could see me (more on this later).
Riding E-bikes from the East Portal
I decided on riding my e-bike downhill from the East Portal first and then returning back uphill after I found a very useful blogger website. I would have liked to include their link, but upon writing this post, I cannot find it. Anyway, they rented e-bikes from town, rode down the trail slowly, and then booked it back because they had a dog in the van too.
They rented level 2 e-bikes with a throttle and they say they are legal (because the law changed in 2019), but the Route of Hiawatha page says they aren’t. I will leave that up to you to decide. I had a level 1 e-bike, with only pedal assist, so my bike was definitely legal. The difference is, level 2 e-bikes with a throttle will go without you pedaling like a moped. Level 1 e-bikes still have to be pedaled. You just get powered assistance.
Regardless, that solved my e-bike question and after watching a few videos, I knew my hybrid bike tires would be fine on the crushed gravel. In my experience, there was only one section at the very end that was slightly bumpy, and it was not difficult. So I got that question confirmed, as the Route of the Hiawatha website says they are “OK.”
I also learned, by doing the whole thing, that top half is much more interesting than the bottom half, so anyone looking to save some time by shaving off some of the trail and then riding back, definitely should start at the top!
Downhill on the Hiawatha Trail
On the way down, I did not utilize my battery, so I was a little slow on the 2% grade, but in all I took about 1.5 hours to go down, not the requisite 3 hours. As a result, I had most of the trail to myself after beginning at 9am mountain time.
It is important to note the times because Lookout Pass Ski Area is in Idaho (Pacific Time), and there is a long line to pick up your reservations and tickets. Fortunately, I had stopped by a previous afternoon, and knew the gift shop guy could help me, so I bypassed this line.
OK, back to the ride. One reason why it only took me 1.5 hours instead of 3 is I didn’t stop at any of the 40 interpretive signs. I scanned through most of them online the previous day and knew they did not mark a historical event that took place in that exact location. Seeing as how I had already been to all the museums and the Sierra Silver Mine Tour earlier in the week, I knew most of the history too. So I just went a steady speed while I took in the views.
The views are nice, but not as nice as on the Pear Lake Trail, an amazing hike near Wallace. The trestles are cool to ride. I have a fear of edges, and they did not bother me because I could stay toward the middle and there were railings.
There is a waterfall next to the Taft Tunnel, so be sure to stop and take a look after the exit. As I mentioned above, the Taft Tunnel is very dark, wet and cold (45 degrees), so I recommend at least a wind breaker and a 300 lumens light. My e-bike light was only 150 lumens, but I added my headlamp to my helmet and was fine. I didn’t need to rent a light.
There is only one other tunnel that is very dark for a few seconds, but the rest are short and straight and not a big issue. To me, the tunnels got a little tedious, as I had to keep turning my light off and on (wasn’t sure how old the batteries were and needed to save them for my return).
Uphill on the Hiawatha Trail
Yes, my return! After all my deliberation of only doing part of the trail, I rode all the way down and back! But I knew this would take me a controlled 3 hours rather than an unknown 3+ hours. I might add, when I got down to Pearson, I was the only rider, so the shuttle wasn’t leaving anytime soon.
With my pedal assist on, I actually went faster uphill than downhill. But I also stopped to snap a few photos and had to weave through several riders the closer I got to the East Portal. As a result, it took me about 1.5 hours uphill as well.
I had the same experience as the other blog writers with my uphill return. Their advice was to “move over.” Yep, good advice!! It was a little like playing Frogger if you didn’t stay far right and still occasionally yell at people that they were on the wrong side of the two-way path!
Summary of the Route of the Hiawatha
Overall, I can see how riding the Route to the Hiawatha would be fun with a group of girl friends on vacation. I can see how a family would enjoy it if they had an all-day outing planned. In fact, you may order a lunch from them for another fee and have a picnic, but Fido cannot join the family.
For me, just trying to get out and see the view, the Route of the Hiawatha wasn’t the greatest. I think you can get those views from riding or driving backroads or from taking a hike…all for free! At least I can say I rode my bike through a long ass tunnel (it takes 10+ minutes) and on a train trestle.
In summary, while the best route for the Hiawatha Trail is likely from the East Portal, know that you can use hybrid tires and if you have an e-bike you can totally ride uphill no problem and bypass the shuttle. Of course, as a reminder, you may only bypass the shuttle Monday-Thursday (or perhaps outside of operating hours). The Route of the Hiawatha is a MAJOR tourist attraction, so if you can go on a weekday, it will be less crowded.
Finally a less crowded, less expensive though not as pretty alternative is to ride the Friends of the Coeur d’Alene Trail. ETB