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Riding the Hiawatha Mountain Bike Trail

Imagine mountain biking a 15-mile historic railbed trail through cavernous train tunnels, across sky high train trestles, past sparkling mountain creeks with deer, elk, moose and endless views of the towering Bitterroots. The best part is—it’s all downhill!

Located just off I-90 on the Idaho / Montana border, The Route of the Hiawatha is a scenic section of abandoned rail-bed from the “Milwaukee Road” that the Taft Tunnel Preservation Society, Silver Country, and the U.S. Forest Service have turned into a world class non-motorized trail in the area around the Montana and Idaho Border. In fact, this stretch has been called one of the most breathtaking scenic stretches of railroad in the country. This adventurous 13 mile trail takes mountain bikers (and hikers) through 10 cavernous tunnels and over 7 sky high trestles. The first tunnel you pass through is the 1.8 mile long Taft Tunnel reopened in 2001. This tunnel burrows 1.66 miles under the Idaho-Montana border The trail is operated and maintained by the Taft Tunnel Preservation Society with fees collected from all users. A shuttle bus can transport you and your bike between trail heads.

Trail Fees - Adults; Children (3-13)
Day Use: $7.00; $3.00
Season Pass: $25.00; $20.00
Shuttle Bus: $9.00; $6.00 (one way)
Helmets: (required) $6.00
Lights: $4.00
Helmet & Lights: $9.00
Bike Rentals: $22 & $26 (comfort suspension)
$16 for child’s bikes & trailers

Rentals are located at Lookout Pass Ski Area.

Shuttle Service
Weekday shuttle service: 11 A.M. to 4:15 P.M.
Weekend shuttle service: 11 A.M. to 5:45 P.M.
Weekends only after Sept 4: 12:00 P.M. to 5:15 P.M.
Children under 14 years of age require adult supervision. Helmets & lights required. No dogs or pets allowed.

The Hiawatha shuttle will run between the top and bottom of the trail throughout the days scheduled. Tickets, rentals and guided tours: Call 208-744-1301.

Getting There: Take the Taft Exit (5) and turn south. Following the signs to the parking area. Representatives will meet you there to sell you permit and shuttle service.

The Route of the Hiawatha
In 1905, The Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway began looking for a route for their western extension over the Bitterroot Mountains. After five and a half months, exploring 930 miles, the railroad chose a route over St. Paul Pass. In laying out the route from the St. Paul Pass Tunnel the surveyors planned a line descending at a 1.7% gradient along the mountain slope. A big consideration in choosing this route was the potential for future traffic. This route down the St. Joe River offered exclusive access to huge quantities of old growth white pine and cedar timber. Interpretive sign on trail.

The Last Transcontinental Railroad
The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway’s Pacific Extension survived for 71 colorful years. Racing silk trains sped along the route, and long, rumbling troop trains carried men and materiel through four wars. The Milwaukee’s famed electric locomotives hosted presidents and celebrities and showcased the streamlined Olympian Hiawatha passenger train. The Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail, traces the most costly and difficult to build section of the railroad from Chicago to Tacoma. Today, thousands enjoy traveling over this scenic, historic trail helping keep alive the spirit of the Milwaukee Road.

The trail follows the trains and historians trace the history along the trail. When the Milwaukee Road abandoned its route over the Bitterroot Mountains, salvage companies striped the line of all the rails, ties, signals posts and everything else of value. The small fragments left behind are the remains of one of America’s proudest railroads. From 1907 to 1911 thousands of people lived, worked and played in this secluded part of the Bitterroot Mountains. They constructed a railroad while leaving faint signs of their own passing. Today you may see archaeologists digging and sifting along the Route of the Hiawatha Trail looking for clues about people and places not found in written documents. Historical research and archaeological field work helps breate life into the history of the Milwaukee Road years. Interpretive sign on trail.

The St. Paul Pass Tunnel
The Milwaukee Road faced the daunting task of drilling a tunnel 23 feet high, 16 feet wide and 1.7 miles long into Idaho. It was a damp, dark, dirty dig. After the approaches were prepared in 1906, and a faltering start in 1907, work began in earnest in 1908. East and west crews toiled around the clock in wet, miserable conditions, and at their best could tunnel 20 feet a day. A company official remembered that: “Men were hard to keep as the work was disagreeable and hard. Several large veins of water were encountered and at times the working conditions were almost unbearable.”

It took 750 men—400 tunneling inside, 200 outside removing the dirt and rock, and 150 running the dig’s power plant yards—two and a half years to complete. The steam-driven electric power plant set up four miles away in Taft, Montana powered both ends of the dig. Compressed air provided safe, smokeless power to the giant steam shovels that loaded the blasted, broken rock into electric rail cars for removal. Interpretive sign on trail.

Reprinted from The Ultimate Montana Atlas & Travel Encylopedia

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