In the heyday of rail travel the Route of the Hiawatha represented the pinnacle of rail trips. Following the rail line established by the Milwaukee Road in the early 1900’s this converted rail line could possibly be the most expensive bike path in the United States. When the route was initially established in the early 1900’s the final price tag for cutting the route, building the trestles, and digging the tunnels came to a whopping total price tag of $234 million. The line operated for the next several decades moving passengers and freight through the Bitterroot Mountains finally ceasing operations in 1980. (Source)
Fast forward to 1998 and Idaho completed the first 13 miles of the new multi-use trail. The Rail to Trail network is famous for converting scenic and useful stretches of abandoned railroad lines into useable bike paths for both commuting and recreation. The Route of the Hiawatha is strictly a recreational ride but is well worth the effort. Noted for scenic beauty and the excitement of a 1.5 mile long tunnel the trail has become a feather in the Rail to Trail crown.
Several options are available to riders seeking to complete the ride. The trail is managed by permit via a private concessionaire. The concessionaire operates shuttle buses running from the end of the trail back up to the top allowing novice riders to enjoy an all downhill ride without the hassle of pedaling back up the grade (1ooo ft of elevation over 16 miles). The shuttle buses are converted school buses with ample room in the back for tandem bikes.
For tandem teams seeking a more strenuous challenge parking at the lower trailhead and then riding up the trail first is an excellent option. The slower pace of the climb allows riders to take in more of the scenery of the surrounding hillsides and off the multiple trestle crossing, some as high as 230 ft above the ground. The surface of the trail is comprised of loose gravel worn into a double-track by late into the season. Tandems seeking to challenge the Hiawatha should mount tires suitable for softer gravel and loose soils, avoid skinny road tires. Trail passes are necessary and can be purchased at the major trail-heads or along the route via the marshals strategically stationed throughout the route (the are per person so 2 passes are required for a tandem team).