This 15 miler (mostly a gradual downhill ride) through old train tunnels, on top of trestles, in the heart of the Bitteroot mountains is a must do for young and old alike.
Okay, so here are the fast facts:
Distance: 15 miles (technically closer to 17 if you park at the East Portal parking area and take the shuttle... I will explain more later)
Elevation gain: No gain, a gradual downhill ride
Rating: Easy/Moderate (Moderate only because of the distance)
Parking: East Portal Parking Lot (2 miles off I-90 Taft/Exit 5 in Montana), OR if you don't want to bike 1.66 miles through the Taft tunnel TWICE, park at the Roland Trailhead.
Toilets: Pit toilets at various points on the trail
Fees: Trail Pass $12/Adult; $8 Child (6-13); Shuttle Passes: $10/Adult $7/Child (Obtained at the Lookout Pass Ski Area on the stateline) Bike Rentals also available here.
Features: Tunnels! Trestles! Bitteroot Mountains! Waterfall!
What makes this exciting: This is a long but very doable ride, and the history surrounding this area is amazing. The views are gorgeous, and crew is friendly and knowledgeable!
(Information from https://www.ridethehiawatha.com)
The Route of the Hiawatha mountain bike or hike trail is 15 miles long with 10 train tunnels and 7 sky-high trestles, with a gradual downhill grade most of the way. The ride technically starts at the East Portal trailhead with a trip through the 1.661 mile long Taft Tunnel. It follows the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains near Lookout Pass Ski Area, and shuttle buses are available to transport you and your bike back to the top (to the Roland trailhead). If you park at the East Portal parking area, you must ride the 1.66 miles back through the Taft tunnel to your vehicle.
Trail passes, shuttle tickets and mountain bike rentals with lights (yes, you definitely need lights) are available at Lookout Pass Ski Area located right alongside Interstate 90, take Exit 0, at the Idaho-Montana state line. The start of the Hiawatha is a short 7 mile drive from Lookout Pass.
The Lookout Pass Lodge and bike rental shop opens at 8 AM (PDT.. this is Spokane and north Idaho time!! I point this out because as soon as you technically cross into Montana, you are an hour ahead. But the trail, ski shop, and shuttle all work in Spokane time). The trail is open from 8:30 AM to 5 PM (PDT) daily starting May 25 through September 22, 2019.
Driving Directions: Take I-90 east until you hit the top of Lookout pass on the Idaho/Montana border. Take the lookout pass exit and follow the signs to the ski shop to get your tickets/rentals. Then follow I-90 east until you hit exit 5, then follow the signs for the Hiawatha trail to whichever trailhead you want to start from (either East Portal which is the most common, or Roland if you want to skip the Taft Tunnel).
Monica’s Real Talk: This is a popular destination.. more popular than I anticipated. While there were several larger groups/families there, we were still able to figure out a nice pace where we spaced ourselves out and didn't feel like the trail was crowded. These are my main tips:
1. Make sure you have headlamps/lights of some kind. Remember to take your sunglasses off before you hit the tunnels. There are a lot of them.
2. The Taft tunnel had just been resurfaced, so we got muddy. Very muddy. We were definitely not anticipating this, nor were the parents with their babies in the ride along carts behind them. haha. Luckily at the end of the tunnel, a waterfall appears with a beautiful (but very cold) stream where you can rinse off a bit. I also suspect these muddy conditions were not normal and should be better as the season continues on, and it has a chance to dry up a bit.
3. If I did it again, I would honestly skip the Taft Tunnel. While it is a cool experience (literally haha), it wasn't cool enough for us to have to return back through it once we got off the shuttle at the end of our ride. I would park at the Roland trailhead, bike far enough up to see the waterfall, and then turn back around to continue back down the trail. Also, the East Portal parking lot was packed whereas the Roland trailhead only had a few vehicles.
4. Pack a lunch. There are several really nice places to stop and have lunch. We stopped in the middle of one of the trestles so we could enjoy lunch (Subway sandwiches from Kellogg) with a gorgeous view.
5. Totally my guesstimate, but the tunnels are almost 20 degrees cooler than outside temperature. None are long enough for this to really be an issue, except for the Taft tunnel. For the majority of them it's a welcome air conditioned experience, especially if it's hot out!
6. Two shuttles run back and forth between the pick up and drop off locations. If you JUST miss the shuttle, the longest you should have to wait is about an hour. The shuttle ride back to the Roland trailhead is about 40 minutes. If you get to the last stretch and know a larger group is ahead of you, PEDAL FAST and get in front of them to ensure your spot. Seriously though, if we hadn't done this, we would have just missed the shuttle and would have had to wait an hour for the next one (don't worry, the large group managed to squeeze on too luckily). The first shuttle leaves at 11:45am.... the last shuttle at 4:15 pm.
Okay, I think that is all for my adventure advice... overall, this was an awesome day trip... the ride taking us right around 3 hours, which includes our 20 minute lunch break and my photo op stops. Of course, remember the sunscreen and bug spray (just in case)! Enjoy this gorgeous adventure in an otherwise very secluded backcountry area with deep history!