The first fifteen miles of one of the country's most scenic stretches of railroad right-of-way was opened in 1998 as a bike/hike trail. Formerly the Milwaukee Road route over the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana, its flagship passenger train, The Hiawatha, sped enchanted passengers through 46 miles of magnificent scenery. The route was originally constructed between 1906 and 1911 at an unheard of total cost of $267,000,000 and required ten thousand workers. Bankruptcy stopped the trains in 1977, and now, thanks to hundreds of volunteers and the cooperation of numerous organizations and government agencies, the former rail is a marvelous trail through magnificent wilderness scenery.
Spearheaded by the Taft Tunnel Preservation Society, 15 miles of trail, including ten tunnels (the longest, the 'Taft" or St. Paul Pass Tunnel, being 1.66 miles in length) and seven high steel trestles (one of which is 850 feet long and 230 feet above Kelly Creek), are open to the public. Since 2000, over 2.5 million dollars have been spent in developing this trail, and the tourism generated has showed the money was well spent. 31 additional miles are planned on the Montana side of Taft Tunnel, including another tunnel and two trestles, taking the trail to St. Regis, Montana. The new section will be open to hikers, bikers, ATVs, horses, and (?) automobiles.
The elevation ranges from 3180 feet at the low end to 4150 feet at the top and climbs at a modest 2% or less grade. Both times I was here, I exited I-90 at Exit 5 in Montana and drove to the top where I parked. I then biked down and biked back up to my vehicle. Since then, they have extended the tunnel a bit farther and Lookout Pass Ski Area (seven mikes from the trail) has taken over operation of the trail. They offer convenient bike rentals and shuttle to and from the trail.
In the photo below, you see one of the trestles with a tunnel awaiting at the far end. It felt a bit strange at first being up so high on the longer trestles, but quickly became fun. A powerful flashlight is required for the longest tunnels which curve once you are inside, making it difficult to not ride into the side of the wall. If you suffer from acrophobia or claustrophobia, this is probably not a bike ride for you.
Coming out of a tunnel provides a cathedral-like effect as you gaze upon the spectacular scenery. Tunnel interior walls were concrete-covered in places and bare rock in others. The biking surface inside was mostly flat and level, though some places had gravel accumulations or other impediments, which necessitated carrying a good flashlight. I took a backpacking Petzel headlamp which was worthless in the deep darkness of the longer tunnels. I also carried a long three "D" battery car flashlight which barely provided enough illumination to navigate the darker tunnels. I walked my bike through much of the first long tunnel and still had trouble navigating its curve without walking into the side wall. After I got the hang of it, I was able to bike through all the tunnels on the return trip back to my starting point at the top.
The famous Taft Tunnel (Number 20) is in fact 8771 feet in length as the sign says, and no, it doesn't go straight.
There is no lighting in any tunnel including the Taft Tunnel, whose entrance you see below. The flash has illuminated the entry in the photo below, and you can see how the entrance has concrete walls but rock surface begins just beyond that. And with rock, there is seepage of water into the tunnel, so drain channels are placed along each wall. That means you must take care not to have your front wheel go into the channel if you drift over to the side as the tunnel turns. On my way back out of the tunnel, a young pre-teen girl had been injured doing that and first responders were there treating and evacuating her.
46 information signs are erected along the trail providing interesting facts, local history and culture, the history of building the route, later electrifying it, operating the railroad, the role of the railroad during World Wars I and II, train wrecks over the years on the route, the huge 1910 three million acre forest fire here, the section gangs who patrolled the tracks for rock slides, fallen trees, etc.,
The name "Hiawatha" originated with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic 1855 poem "Song of Hiawatha." The Milwaukee Road Railroad chose that name because of these lines:
"Swift of foot was Hiawatha;
He could shoot an arrow from him,
and run forward with such fleetness,
That the arrow fell behind him."
Below you see the luxurious and futuristic train with its sweeping cab-style diesel locomotive followed by a mail car, baggage dormitory car, three coaches, a dining car serving gourmet food, a tap-lounge-grill, a "Touralux" sleeping car, a roomette car, and the Sky Top Lounge car. In 1952, lounge cars were replaced with Super Dome cars featuring two-story cars with 68 seats in the upper domed section and 28 seats in the beverage-lunch-lounge below.
Look who ignored me as I approached this tunnel on my return trip up the easy grade. You can also make out two riders in the tunnel.
From the trestle I'm on, you can see two other trestles farther down the trail crossing side canyons.
There is a safety fence on each side when there are drop-offs, but it's best to stop when you want to gawk at the majestic scenery or take photos.
Work is underway to refurbish the remaining 31 miles of trail on the Montana side including 2 trestles. However, the Montana section, when opened, will be a multi-use trail.
RULES: All riders need lights for the tunnels and all must wear helmets; no pets allowed; children under 14 must be supervised
- COST: (in 2000) Day use -- adults $6; children $3; Season pass -- adults $20; children $6