Idaho's Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes and Route of the Hiawatha

Posted 10/01/10 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Route of the Hiawatha | Photo by Milt Hull

Trail of the Month: October 2010

For trail lovers around the country, these two Idaho rail-trails hardly need an introduction: the 73-mile Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes and the 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha. They've been featured multiple times inRails to Trails magazine, and in countless "Tell Us" responses, letters and summer remembrances. We receive gorgeous trail photos from family trips—some capturing the high-wire trestles of the Hiawatha, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains; others catching moose and expansive lake views along the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes.

No matter how we promote or hear about this pair of trails, the verdict is the same: they offer two of the most distinct and memorable rail-trail experiences in the country. It's no wonder that both have just been named to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

Sweetening the pot is that recent trail developments are making it possible to ride between and beyond these two pathways, setting up the potential for an unprecedented trail loop across northern Idaho and parts of Montana.

The paved Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes begins in Plummer, a few miles shy of the Washington border, and heads northeast along Coeur d'Alene Lake and the Coeur d'Alene River until Mullan, scratching at the Montana state line. The first 15 miles are managed by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe; the rest by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.

Mullan used to be the end of the road, so to speak. But the nonprofit Friends of the Coeur d'Alene Trails has helped extend the pathway from Mullan roughly 11 miles to Lookout Pass on the Idaho-Montana border, says Leo Hennessy, non-motorized trails coordinator for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. This extension, known as the NorPac Trail, uses a Northern Pacific right-of-way that has become an open Forest Service road. It is marked and signed as a trail, with a packed-gravel surface. Yet people can still drive on it, often to access other nearby hiking trails in the Bitterroots, and you may pass an ATV or vehicle every couple hours.

To reach the NorPac Trail from the eastern end of the Coeur d'Alenes, users can follow signs to take a paved, low-traffic road for about three miles to detour around the Lucky Friday mine, which still operates in Mullan along the rail corridor. At the three-mile mark, you'll reacquire the railroad grade and begin climbing nearly 1,500 feet up to Lookout Pass, elevation 4,680, at the Montana state line. "It's a major grade," says Hennessy. "You'll be crankin' in low gear at times."

The trail doesn't end at the Montana line, but the signage does. You can continue on the Forest Service road—still on the railroad right-of-way—another ten miles down to Taft, Mont., and the turn-off to reach the 1.6-mile St. Paul Pass tunnel at the eastern end of the Route of the Hiawatha. Again, this last 2.5-mile stretch south of Interstate 90 to the Hiawatha shares a corridor with motorized traffic on Rainy Creek Road; it also involves a fairly steep climb. So the connection isn't without challenges in surface and shared use, but riders can now move continuously from one Hall of Fame trail to the other.

At that same trailhead at St. Paul Pass, you'll soon have a couple options. A proposed rail-trail is in the works to extend 30 miles into Montana to the town of Regis, all still along the Milwaukee Road corridor. Known as the Route of the Olympian for a train that once serviced the route, this pathway would cut through Lolo National Forest and feature its own dizzying trestles to rival those on the Hiawatha.

Until that offshoot trail opens, you can begin making the return trip on the loop by taking the well-traveled Route of the Hiawatha, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. First, you'll duck through 1.6 miles of cool, impossibly dark tunnel. Proper lighting is absolutely required to make this plunge! Once you emerge into the light, you'll be treated to a series of high trestles and shorter tunnels as you weave through the Bitterroots.

At the western end of the Hiawatha, you can now continue west on the loop with the 53-mile Pearson-to-St. Maries grade. With a less-finished surface of crushed stone, gravel and grass, this unofficial rail-trail now cuts more than halfway back across Idaho. From St Maries, it would only be another 18 miles on an active line to Plummer, Idaho, which is the starting point of the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, and thus the potential completion point of the loop.

The railroad bed for that final stretch is still mostly intact, though not acquired yet for trail development, says Hennessy. But the vision of creating a 190-mile rail-trail loop through northern Idaho and Montana is becoming a whole lot clearer. Some of the remaining obstacles include negotiating routes with motorized use and piecing together the missing links in the overall chain. But the basic roadmap is in place.

"The corridors are generally there and haven't been lost yet," he says. "There are groups of people working toward it. I have [the idea] in my head, and it's in a lot of other heads right now, and we gotta keep it that way."

In the meantime, visitors to these iconic rail-trails no longer have to consider them completely separate entities. It may take a little extra effort to pump your legs over Lookout Pass, and there isn't a single official, non-motorized trail connecting the two corridors. Yet the potential to head from Plummer all the way through and past the end of the Hiawatha is now on the table. How far these Hall of Fame rail-trails grow from there is a feeding frenzy for any trail lover's imagination.


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