Located near Avery, ID, the Route of the Hiawatha is a 15-mile mountain biking and hiking trail operated by the Lookout Pass Ski Area, traversing the historic Milwaukee Road, widely considered to be one of the most picturesque stretches of railroad route in the American West.
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By the end of the 19th century, the Chicago-based Milwaukee Road railroad operated more than 6,000 miles of railroad track throughout the American Midwest. As a result of industry competition, the company proposed a new line through the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana, a territory previously uninhabited and uncharted by Americans. Exploration and surveying of the area began in 1904, with sites for a line chosen by the end of 1906. Nearly 9,000 international immigrant workers participated in the construction of the line, which took five years to complete at a cost of $234 million. Difficult working conditions, including extreme weather, plagued the railroad’s construction, and a and a devastating fire in August 1910 prompted the railroad company’s decision to use electric locomotives across a 440-mile stretch of the route, the first company in the United States to do so.
Despite its recognition for technological innovations, the railroad was plagued with financial difficulties throughout its operation, including two bankruptcies and a number of service reductions. Operation of high-speed Olympian Hiawatha trains from 1947-1961 century provided some rebounding, but in 1977, the company declared bankruptcy for a third and final time, resulting in the line’s abandonment by 1980. The route was purchased by the Lookout Pass Ski Area in the 1990s and reopened as a passenger hiking and biking trail, named after its famous Hiawatha trains, with the first stretch of trail opened to the public in 1998.
Today, the 15-mile trail encompasses the abandoned track and features of the original Milwaukee Road train route, stretching from St. Regis, Montana to the area between Pearson and Avery, Idaho. The route traverses 10 tunnels and seven trestles of the train’s route, beginning with its most notable landmark, the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, which runs 1.66 miles underneath the Bitterroot Mountain range. Briefly closed for repairs in 2001, the tunnel is now fully wheelchair-accessible and can be entered via the route’s East Portal, which offers a parking area near Interstate 90. A sign inside the tunnel marks the location of the Montana-Idaho state line, and a scenic waterfall is located near the tunnel’s West Portal. For riders wishing to skip the tunnel, Forest Service Road 506 provides a bypass to the Roland trailhead.
After the tunnel, a 13-mile Idaho Trail stretches from Roland to Pearson at the North Fork of the St. Joe River, containing eight tunnels and all of the route’s high trestles. An easy grade gravel road follows Loop Creek downhill from an elevation of 4,160 at the entrance to the West Portal to Pearson’s 3,175-foot elevation, with the section between Moss Creek and Pearson only available to foot and bike traffic. At the end of the route, shuttle buses are provided to take riders back to the trail’s beginning.
Trail passes and shuttle bus tickets may be purchased at Lookout Pass Ski Area, which is located near Wallace, Idaho off of Interstate 90. A mountain bike rental shop is also available, offering lighted bikes for travel through the dark tunnel. Campground spaces are available at the start and end of the trail for riders and hikers seeking overnight experiences. The trail is closed during the winter months due to weather conditions, although several other area trails offer year-round service.
Lookout Pass Ski Area
As the second-oldest skiing lodge in the American Northwest, Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area operates Thursday through Monday throughout the winter skiing season, offering recreational slope use along the 5,650-foot Runt Mountain. Opened in 1935, the ski area operates as part of a special-use permit agreement with the United States Forest Service within the boundaries of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, offering easy, intermediate, and expert runs along the Montana and Idaho sides of the mountain. The park is divided into two terrain areas, the Huckleberry Jam beginner progression park and the natural Rolling Thunder park, which features a 1,1111-foot quarter pipe.
Inside the historic lodge, a cafeteria-style grill and deli offers American and international fare, including the resort’s famous Lookout Chili. A loft lounge serves bar fare and a selection of draft beers, with big-screen televisions broadcasting sporting events. A gift shop sells ski and riding apparel and amenities, and bag lunches are offered as to-go service for trail riders. The lodge serves as an official visitor center for the Idaho and Montana areas, providing maps and tourist information, and RV parking for trail riders and other visitors is provided. Several area hiking and adventure trails embark from the lodge, including excursions to Stephens Peak, and a number of free family events and holiday celebrations are presented throughout the year.
P.O. Box 108, Wallace, ID 83873, Phone: 208-744-1301