When we use the phrase "destination trail," the Route of the Hiawatha in Idaho is exactly what we have in mind. The trail itself is the draw; people come from across the country, and sometimes the world, to ride this 15-mile rail-trail through the spectacular Bitterroot Mountains and wilderness area, including a 1.6-mile tunnel.
The Route of the Hiawatha is famed far and wide by bicyclists, hikers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts as one of those "bucket list" adventures. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) named the Hiawatha to its Rail-Trail Hall of Fame earlier this year, and the trail's managers now use that designation to promote and draw new visitors to this stunning region on the Idaho/Montana border.
And Hiawatha business is booming. Both word of mouth and organized promotion have resulted in an ever-increasing number of trail users in recent years. A record-setting year in 2010, when some 32,000 people traversed the Hiawatha in its open season between May and October, will be smashed this year. This growth is particularly impressive when you consider the relative remoteness of the trail and towns along its route. The closest city—Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, population around 44,000—is about 50 miles from the nearest trailhead on the Hiawatha.
Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area, which manages the Route of the Hiawatha under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, reported 12,844 visitors in August 2011, most of whom paid $9 to use the trail, in addition to fees for bike and equipment rental, and in some cases a shuttle service. That represents a 4.4 percent increase over the total for August 2010, which had previously held the monthly record.
And the visitors kept flocking to the Hiawatha in September, too, with more than 3,000 people choosing the rail-trail for their Labor Day weekend. Estimates are that by the time the snow returns to close the 2011 trail season (and open the ski season), 40,000 people will have passed along the Route of the Hiawatha—all despite an abbreviated season due to a winter that stretched into June.
"Activity on the trail has just exploded," says Bill Jennings, director of marketing for Lookout Pass. He says that summer use, traditionally on off-season of sorts around the popular winter use of the ski area, has now become a significant part of the Lookout operation. "The more people that ride it, the more people that know about it," Jennings says, crediting a strong mountain bike and hiker network with generating buzz around the trail. "We have also featured the Hiawatha in a strong regional marketing campaign. People are coming from as far away as Australia and Europe."
This area in the Idaho panhandle is known as the Silver Valley, reference to the industry that sustained the towns here, and at one time made nearby Wallace the third-largest city in Idaho. But the population of Wallace, now below 1,000, has declined each year since its peak in 1940s—a story familiar to the thousands of towns and small cities around America whose economic fortunes have faded along with regional railroad and other major industries.
Just as rich veins of silver running through the Bitterroot Mountains once bought people and commerce to the area, now the Route of the Hiawatha runs through the landscape, carrying a burgeoning tourist industry which, though a less lucrative economy than silver, could prove more sustainable.
Every strong community has a leader like Rick Shaffer. He's the marketing chairman of the local chamber of commerce, proprietor of the Wallace Inn, key member of the Friends of the Coeur d'Alene Trails, and self-described "Prime Minister of Wallace." Shaffer is as well-placed as anyone to assess what the growing popularity of the Hiawatha, and the nearby Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, North Idaho Centennial Trail and Old Milwaukee Road corridor, has meant to local populations.
"The impact is giant, to say the least," Shaffer says, estimating that in July and August trail users account for between 15 and 20 percent of the 106 beds he operates in Wallace. The 72-mile Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes passes directly by Wallace, a geographical key to transferring trail-user numbers into actual commerce.
The Route of the Hiawatha presents more of a challenge. Both the Pearson and East Portal trailheads are about 20 miles from Wallace. The Pearson trailhead is connected to Wallace by a forest development road, and Lookout Pass operates a regular shuttle bus ($9) from the East Portal trailhead back to the Pearson trailhead, for those who want to leave their cars there.
Local businesspeople recognize the huge value of linking these two remarkable trails to provide a seamless, and safe, off-road connection from the Hiawatha to the eastern trailhead of the Coeur d'Alenes. Some work has been done blazing a trail from Mullan, running parallel to Interstate 90, to the Hiawatha for that purpose.
Shaffer says that whenever the owner of Excelsior Cycle in nearby Kellogg can spare his trailer, they will take a load of riders from Wallace to the Hiawatha. But that's hardly the regular service that many tourists will demand. There is no cell service in much of the area, so pickups have to be pre-arranged.
Aware of the potential of trails tourism to help their communities prosper, the region's businesspeople and residents are working proactively to build on the gift of their natural setting. Shaffer says the Friends of the Coeur d'Alene Trails is almost entirely made up of businesspeople. They meet once every two months to discuss new ideas to bring trail users to their main streets. At present they are considering how to extend the Hiawatha south down to Avery, then west to St Maries. The vision for this extension is a 190-mile loop ride around St Joes Mountain, hooking up with the western trailhead of the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, and back around to Wallace. Such a ride would draw coverage in trails and biking magazines the world over.
According to Dean Cooper, owner of the 1313 Club restaurant in Wallace, the strong outdoor recreation communities in Portland and Seattle to the west represent enormous trails tourism potential for the old Silver Valley. "There is a lot more we could do to bring visitors to the area," he says. "As far as the trail infrastructure goes, everything is in good shape. This is such a beautiful place, there is so much history."
This past summer, in fact, the Wallace Chamber of Commerce organized a bike festival around a downtown criterium, the Silver Spokes Bicycle Jam, the reinvention of a bike event that had been held in years past. "We're really hoping to grow that, to be positioned out there in that visitor market," says Cooper.
Earlier this year, Silver Bike Tours, based in nearby Coeur d'Alene, started offering self-guided bike tours designed specifically for the Hiawatha and Coeur d'Alene trails.
The good news is that for communities like Wallace there is support for towns and cities hoping to make the most of their position next to trails. The Trail Town Program is an economic development initiative working in towns along the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Originally designed by the Allegheny Trail Alliance, with funding from Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and The Progress Fund, the mission of the Trail Town Program is to ensure that trail communities and businesses maximize the economic potential of the trail.
Similarly, RTC has authored groundbreaking trail-user economic impact data in the Northeast and Midwest, which are providing concrete—and awfully encouraging—numbers on the sort of impact trail users have on the communities they visit. Using RTC's methods and data, Friends of the Coeur d'Alene Trails conducted their own economic impact research, concluding that the regional trail system is worth, conservatively, about $19 million dollars to the Silver Valley each year.
Though the relationship between Lookout Ski Pass Ski & Recreation Area and local businesses has not always been perfectly symbiotic in the past, cooperation has greatly improved these days.
"The whole town piggybacks with Lookout Pass as the outfitter for the Hiawatha," says Shaffer, and Lookout's Hiawatha website includes links to lodging and amenities in Wallace and other communities.
Of course, it isn't all about revenue and commerce. Behind the civic leaders of Wallace's strong belief in the potential of the Hiawatha and Coeur d'Alene is the understanding that trail adventures like these offer American families a uniquely affecting experience. "You watch the cars go by on I-90, and you see that about 1 in 6 has a bike on the back," Shaffer says. "Holidays like this are getting more popular, and it is easy to see why. They're family-oriented, and they're good value, because once you've bought your bike or your boots, you don't have to buy any more gear. I love that families can come to an area like this and have an experience they will never forget."