Route of the Hiawatha: Biking High in the Bitterroots

Bikers enjoy the Hiawatha Trail in northern Idaho.

by Dan Shryock

Trains once sped along this railbed high in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. Nearly a century later, bicyclists moving at a much slower pace now follow the same path with time to stop and gaze across stunning panoramas from dizzying heights.

The Route of the Hiawatha, a 15-mile bike ride along the one-time Milwaukee Railroad line, straddles the Montana-Idaho state line. The route traveled by the Olympian Hiawatha passenger train and other rail lines includes 10 train tunnels, seven towering trestles, captivating views and more than a century of local history. A stop on any of these bridges likely produces landscape photos and audible expressions of awe. The non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, in fact, calls this one of the “most distinct and memorable rail-trail experiences in the country.” It’s even in the conservancy’s trail hall of fame.

Is it difficult to ride a bike here? Not at all. Most of the one-way ride from Montana to Idaho is a gentle downhill roll, and a shuttle bus is available to transport riders who don’t want to pedal back up the hill. Anyone interested in riding from the bottom up can expect trail grades that tilt up only two percent.

The Route of the Hiawatha immediately begins with the 1.6-mile St. Paul Pass Tunnel, sometimes called the Taft Tunnel. A bicycle headlight is a must for this chilly ride in complete darkness. Once there’s light at the other end of the tunnel, the Bitterroot’s canyons and hillsides await.

Historical markers along the way tell a rich, colorful story dating back to the construction of the railroad line, the train’s historic role in transcontinental transportation from 1909 to 1961, and The Great Fire of 1910—often called The Big Burn—that devastated nearly 3 million acres of virgin forests across eastern Idaho and western Montana and claimed 86 lives.

This ride should be savored and enjoyed. It’s safe to stop and take in the many views, and if heights are unsettling rest assured that all trestles have guard rails and the surface is wide enough to stand away from bridges’ edge and still enjoy the moment.

The shuttle returns riders to the Roland Trailhead near the St. Paul Pass Tunnel for one last waterfall view and a gentle, easy albeit uphill ride back through the darkness to waiting parked vehicles. 

Lookout Pass Ski Area operates trail activities from late May to early September under a special use permit with the U.S. Forest Service. Riders may bring their own bikes—mountain or hybrid tires work best on crushed gravel—as well as required helmets and headlights; Class 1 e-bikes are permitted. Class 2 e-bikes are allowed if throttles are disabled.

“This is a historic treasure, it’s a ride through history,” says Lookout Pass spokesperson Matthew Sawyer. “There is no section of railroad anywhere in the country that has so many trestles, dark tunnels and so much scenery. And, I think a 10-year-old cyclist said it best when she said, ‘I want to come back every year.’”

Reservations, tickets and bike and equipment rentals are available through Lookout Pass Ski Area. Visit for reservations, day-use rates, rentals and more. To plan travels in North Idaho, visit