by Kristin Wognild – My headlamp shone like a beacon on the five children who pedaled bicycles furiously through the 1.6-mile Taft Tunnel buried deep beneath the Bitterroot Mountains of Lolo Pass, the designation point of the Idaho-Montana state line. The Hiawatha Trail air was cool and the sound of water dripping from stalactites was magnified by our limited senses.
Enveloped in darkness, it seemed almost impossible that just moments before we had stood at the East Portal trail head on a bright summer day preparing our crew of adults and children, ages six to ten, to cycle the mostly- downhill, 15-mile trail-to-rail Route of the Hiawatha.
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But now, with numb fingers and no light at the end of the tunnel, I began to wonder what we had gotten ourselves in for. This was either going to be a thrilling adventure or an unfortunate disaster, and with no way to know, all I could do was keep pedaling until we reached the other side.
The Hiawatha Trail History
Lolo Pass has seen its share of adventure. The Nez Perce used it as a trade route for centuries and had a notorious crossing in 1877 when fleeing the United States Army to avoid forced relocation. Lewis and Clark passed through in
September of 1805, struggling against snowstorms and food shortages during their westward journey, and in 1907, the Milwaukee Railroad began a six-year, 234-million dollar construction project through the area’s wild terrain. Due to the labor of some 9000 men, the result was a stretch of track with 10 tunnels and seven canyon-spanning steel trestles that connected Chicago to the Pacific Northwest for nearly 70 years.
Today, the Hiawatha Trail is home to a new kind of adventure. Through the help of private donations, the route became revitalized for public recreation. The 13-mile Idaho portion of the trail opened first on May 29, 1998 and the connection into Montana opened in May of 2001.
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Operated under a United States Forest Service Special-Use Permit it has transformed into a popular bike route for people of all ages and abilities and offers shuttle service and trail sweeps to ensure the safety of its riders. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with a mission to transform unused rail corridors into rail trails around the country, has named it a Hall of Fame Trail for its beauty, geography, and unique features- including the notorious Taft Tunnel we were currently passing through.
Biking The Hiawatha Trail With Kids
With my attention focused on the faint light before me, I almost didn’t notice how silent the children had become.
Are you okay back there? I called.
And as if in answer to my call, a pin-prick of light in the distance increased ever so slowly until I could make out an expansive forest of ponderosa pines. We had reached the tunnel’s exit.
The children came alive. Woo-hoo! We did it! Yeeessss!
The revelry continued as we passed through nine additional tunnels, across trestles, alongside mule deer and black bear, until we reached the end. The look of pride on each child’s face confirmed that this route was not only a thrilling adventure, it was a true accomplishment.
What To Know Before Biking The Hiawatha Trail
Hiawatha Trail Tickets and Bike Rentals
Go to Lookout Ski Pass. Exit 0 along I-90 at the Idaho/Montana state line for trail tickets, sack lunches, shuttle passes, bikes, tagalongs, helmets, and bike lights required by each rider. If you brought personal gear, you can proceed to the trail head and purchase a ticket from a Hiawatha Trail Marshall with cash only.
Hiawatha Trail pass costs run $10 for adults and $6 for children ages six to 13. Shuttle tickets are $9 per adult and $6 per child. Service comes at least four times a day, usually two hours apart, but make sure to check the most up-to-date schedule.
Alternate Hiawatha Trail head Options
While beginning at East Portal trail is by far the most popular route, riders do have options. East Portal is seven miles east of Lookout Ski Pass and designates the official start of the Hiawatha Trail through the Taft tunnel.
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Families wishing to bypass this tunnel can access the Roland Trail head, situated a mile down the trail from the Taft Tunnel exit. Drivers will need to pass the East Portal parking area and follow the Road 506 signs for five miles to reach Roland.
The last trail head, Pearson, is the bottom of the route. The shuttle service will pick-up here on schedule and transport riders back to the Roland Trail head. Bikers have a short ride back to the East Portal parking area, including a return trip through the Taft Tunnel.
3 Tips for Biking The Hiawatha Trail with Kids
- Give yourself plenty of time. The official Hiawatha Trail website states that usual completion time is 2.5 hours, but families should factor in a slower pace for younger riders, stopping for snacks and water breaks. Rest assured, no riders will be left on the trail; a sweep comes through before the departure of the last shuttle.
- Don’t forget to prepare for the elements. In the tunnels of the Hiawatha Trail you will need a light jacket and mittens if your hands chill easily. On the rest of the Hiawatha Trail, you may encounter warm weather, so dress accordingly in layers and bring plenty of water.
- Finally, prepare children for what’s to come. Talk to them about possible wildlife sighting behavior. Discuss safe riding procedures, especially in regard to passing through the Hiawatha Trail tunnels and crossing trestles. This includes staying to the center of the trail and keeping headlamps or lights on through tunnels. And don’t forget to tell them a bit about the history of the Hiawatha Trail. Their accomplishment will be that much more meaningful when they take the time to appreciate those that crossed before them.
Kristin Wognild is an educator, freelance writer, and mother of two young adventure seekers. She spent the last 17 years living in Alaska, working as a tour guide and public school teacher. She and her family have recently relocated to Central Oregon where she continues to teach, write,and explore.