Destination: Mountain Biking the Tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha

Destination: Mountain Biking the Tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | March 20, 2013 9:13 AM ET

It's called the "Route of The Hiawatha," after the legendary luxury train that rolled from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest in the first half of the 20th Century.

The last train on this stretch of railroad left the station in 1961. But the tracks are still here--46 miles of them, running through the 8,000-foot peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border.

The first third of that stretch has been turned into a mountain-bike route through the old, abandoned railroad tunnels, some as long as two miles. All of them are pitch-black, with big potholes and large puddles that you can't see.

The trail starts with the longest tunnel called, appropriately called, "The Big Tunnel." In front of you lies a crumbling entrance to a hundred-year-old tunnel in a huge mountain. And the blackest and deepest hole you've ever seen.
As you push off, you realize that the headlamp on your helmet doesn't shed much light. And that staying balanced - even staying upright! - can be tricky. For one thing, there's water seeping into the old railroad bed. There are potholes the size of...well, Montana. There are chunks of rock you can't see. And there are the steely remnants of the tracks, disappearing in and out of the gravel and black mud and water and potholes.

When you finally see a glint of light at the end of the tunnel, your eyes start playing tricks on you... because you can pedal for minutes, and the light still doesn't get any closer. Midway through The Big Tunnel, you'll pass a small sign marking the Idaho-Montana border, which means - for a split-second, anyway - that you're mountain-biking in two states at the same time!
You'll pass through nine tunnels blasted through mountain and rock, created at great cost in human life. You'll cross 1,000-foot-high, creaky wooden trestles (seven of them), offering extraordinary vistas of forest and snow-capped mountains around you, and rushing streams and elk below you. Your world seems to alternate between brilliant sunshine and pitch-blackness.

You'll pass - even in summer - patches of snow. And you'll breathe perhaps the freshest air you've ever breathed. You may see a bear. You may see elk or moose. You may see deer. And you may even see a mountain lion (called a cougar in these parts).

No one knows exactly how many men died digging this railroad. There were horrific accidents and natural disasters. There was acrid smoke in the tunnels. There was virulent disease. And there are poignant stories. 
Perhaps the most touching took place during August 19-21, 1910, when the largest forest fire in American history engulfed 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana. Hundreds of workers and their families were evacuated by train, through flames and hurricane-force winds that sucked the oxygen out of the air and turned everything into a giant furnace.

One of the workers on the train panicked, and jumped off. Everyone else on that train somehow survived the fire. But the worker who jumped didn't. And the spot where he died is marked by a wooden cross.

The people who can outfit you and guide you through the Route of the Hiawatha - and who have a hundred fascinating stories about the history, geology and wildlife of the area - are at Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area. (And they're also the folks who can put you on skis and ski runs, in Lookout Pass in winter.)

The jump-off point for The Route of the Hiawatha is the Idaho panhandle town of Coeur D'Alene. It's an authentic far-Northwestern town, with gas-lit street lamp and old red-brick buildings housing interesting bistros, bars and galleries. And it sits on Lake Coeur D'Alene, an ice-blue alpine lake surrounded by 125 miles of mountainous shoreline.

Lake Coeur D'Alene is one of America's great kayaking spots. It's dotted with isolated, beautiful coves, and bald eagles soar overhead, in search of the evening meal for their nesting families.

The Coeur D'Alene Resort, at the foot of the lake, has 340 luxurious rooms (many with incredible views), three excellent restaurants, a golf course accessed by boat (with the world's only floating green), its own lake-cruise boat and its own float-plane.

Whether you're a mountain-biker or not, The Route of the Hiawatha is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Be prepared to hit the tunnel walls a few times. And be prepared to love every minute of it!

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