The Ultimate Guide to Riding the Route of the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho

Sep 23, 2020

Want to bike along one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country? In this Route of the Hiawatha trail guide we’re sharing everything you need to know before you go, including where to rent bikes, trail and shuttle options, costs, and more!

It’s no secret that we love Idaho. After spending a week road tripping around Southern Idaho and the Sawtooth Mountains, we fell madly in love with the state. And after a trip back to our former home of Washington, we found ourselves driving through Idaho again, but this time to the Northern part of the state.

When we started researching things to do in the Idaho panhandle, we saw a photo of someone riding a bike over old railroad trestles, which we later learned was called the Route of the Hiawatha, and we instantly knew we had to do it. We are not big bikers, although I am trying hard to get Kathryn into it, but after reading about the tunnels you ride through and the trestles you get to ride on how can you not get excited to go?!

After figuring out lots of logistics, such as where to rent bikes (and what type to rent), how to get bikes to the trailhead in our van, our options with the shuttle, timezone quirks, and more, we headed off on the trail and had the BEST time zipping over trestles, going through tunnels, and seeing the beautiful scenery.

In this guide to the Route of the Hiawatha trail we are sharing everything we’ve learned about accessing the trail, your riding options, important things to know, where to eat and stay nearby and more. 

Strap on your helmet and click on your bike light because it’s going to be an awesome ride!

Looking for more things to do in Idaho? Check out our other Idaho guides:

Reminder: Leave No Trace

Before starting your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave the places you explore even better than you found them.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare: Know the regulations, prepare for different weather conditions, and pack the 10 essentials.
     
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Travel on designated trails and camp at designated sites at least 200 ft away from water sources.
     
  3. Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Carry ALL trash with you and dig a 6-8″ cat hole for human waste, 200 ft away from water.
     
  4. Leave what you find: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
     
  5. Minimize campfire impacts: If fires are allowed, use established fire rings. Keep fires small and put out fires completely.
     
  6. Respect wildlife: Do not approach or feed wildlife, keep pets under control, and store your food properly.
     
  7. Be considerate of others: Yield to hikers going uphill and keep noises down.

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About the Route of the Hiawatha

Route of the Hiawatha Map

The Route of the Hiawatha trail, known as the “Crown Jewel” of rail-to-trail adventures, is a 15 mile (one way) trail with 10 train tunnels and 7 trestles, and has been named a “Hall of Fame” trail by the Rail-to-Trail Conservancy.

Once part of the Milwaukee Railroad that ran for 46 miles through the Bitterroot Mountains, this former railroad route has been converted into a biking trail in Idaho (and a tiny bit of Montana) that is managed by Lookout Pass and open from mid-May through mid-September for people of all ages to enjoy!

We haven’t been on a ton of bike trails but we think this one has got to be hard to beat when it comes to rideability, views, and overall epicness! With most riders going downhill only (and taking a shuttle back up, or in our case, an E-Bike), it’s not a hard trek at all and with the uniqueness of the tunnels and trestles, it keeps you entertained the whole time.

Where to start the Route of the Hiawatha


The official and most popular start to the Route of the Hiawatha is at the East Portal Trailhead, which is located just over the Montana border near Taft, Montana. This is the most popular option because you ride downhill the entire 15 miles and then can take a shuttle back to the top, or if you’re like us, ride an e-bike back up to the top, which we will share more about in a bit. 

You can also start at the end of the trail at the Pearson Trailhead and go uphill for 15 miles and then ride 15 miles back down, but this is definitely the less common option and we’d only recommend it if you’re in amazing biking shape or if you’re riding an e-bike and can have assistance getting uphill.

If you ride the Route of the Hiawatha trail the traditional way, here’s how long it’ll take you to get to the East Portal trailhead from some nearby destinations:

  • Wallace, ID: 21 miles, 30 minutes
  • Coeur D’Alene, ID: 68 miles, 1 hour 
  • Missoula, MT: 102 miles, 1.5 hours
  • Spokane, WA: 102 miles, 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Bozeman, MT: 303 miles, 4.5 hours

Route of the Hiawatha Trail Hours

The Route of the Hiawatha is open from May until September (in 2020, the trail was open May 22-September 20) from 8:30 AM-5 PM Pacific Time. This timezone is very important to note because when you start the trail at the East Portal Trailhead you’re in Montana on Mountain time, so the clock will say 9:30 AM, but once you go through the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, you are in Idaho on Pacific Time the rest of the trail.

Depending on where you’re coming from, make sure to pay attention to the time zones so you know what time you’re actually starting and ending, especially if you need to return any bikes. We highly recommend starting the trail right at 8:30 AM Pacific Time, as it can get busy, especially on the weekends.

We started right when it opened and had tons of space between groups when going down the trail. On the way back up, we did run into more people, but still had stretches where we didn’t see anyone. It’s also important to start early so you can catch a shuttle easier.

The ride took us about 4 hours total (2.5 hours down the trail). We enjoyed the journey on the way down, but booked it back up to the top since we had to leave Kona behind. We hear 2-3 hours is pretty normal to go downhill with photo stops.

Bike Options for the Route of the Hiawatha

There are a handful of options when it comes to what bikes you can ride on the Route of the Hiawatha. As non-bike owners and owners of a van with no room for bikes, this is when planning got a bit tricky for us. Here’s a rundown of your options when it comes to renting bikes for the Route of the Hiawatha trail, as well as costs and bike delivery options.

Bring your own bike!

Cost: Free!

Have your own bike? Sweet! You can ride your own bike along the trail and save the cost of renting one.

Rent from Lookout Pass

Cost: $35-$40

Lookout Pass runs the Route of the Hiawatha trail and they have bikes that you can rent from them from the Lookout Pass Ski Area, which is located right on the border of Montana and Idaho at exit 0 of I-90.

You have a couple options of bikes to rent from the ski area, a comfort bike for $40 or a standard mountain bike for $35. There are a few more options to check out if you are bringing kids along as well. All of the pricing and options can be found on the reservations page. 

One thing we have heard is that the quality of the bikes when renting from the Lookout Pass Ski Area can be iffy, so beware if renting from them. We have read that the lights can be dim, there may not be reflectors on the back, and some other mechanical issues can occur. 

If you are renting from the ski area you will need to get the bike to the trail. You have a couple options with this as well. Lookout Pass can give you a bike rack to attach to your car and you can haul the bike to the trailhead yourself or you can have your bikes delivered to and from the trailhead for you for a $35 fee for 1-4 bikes.

e-bike Route of the Hiawatha

E-bike

Cost: $10/hour or $70/day

Your third option, and the one we HIGHLY recommend, is to rent an e-bike. These things are so dang fun! We visited the Route of the Hiawatha during COVID and did not feel comfortable riding the shuttle back up the trail and definitely did not feel fit enough to ride a regular bike back up the trail, so for a couple days we were worried we’d have to skip the experience. But then we discovered that we could rent e-bikes and we are SO glad we did!

The best thing about the e-bikes is that you can ride them down the trail like a regular bike, but then instead of taking the shuttle, you get to use the pedal assist and throttle to experience the trail again on the way back up. The looks on peoples faces when we zoomed back uphill were priceless!

We rented our fat tire e-bikes from Spokehouse E-bike in Wallace. They are a bit pricey, but we feel they are totally worth it! The price for an e-bike rental is $10/hour or $70/day. We booked ours for the full day, which was worth not having to stress over the hours. We ended up having the bikes from around 7 AM-1 or 2 PM by the time we picked them up, drove to the trail, rode the trail, and drove the bikes back.

Similar to the bikes at Lookout Pass, you can either transport the bikes yourself (beware, they are a lot heavier and larger than a regular bike!) or Spokehouse E-Bikes can drop off and pick up from the trailhead for a fee. You can also rent trailers to take them yourself too, but you’ll need a hitch.

If you watched our Route of the Hiawatha vlog, you’ll see that we put the e-bikes in our van, which was pretty difficult. But with the help of the owner, Stu, we managed to get both bikes in and not damage our van. Thanks Stu! Next time, we will splurge to have them delivered for us. 🙂

Important note: The Route of the Hiawatha trail website says that eBikes with throttles are not allowed on the trail. We checked with Spokehouse E-Bikes and they said that the trail’s website is outdated and that the e-bikes with throttles (which is what they rent) ARE allowed and were voted to be allowed in October 2019.

Route of the Hiawatha Shuttle

As we mentioned earlier, the most common way to ride the Route of the Hiawatha is to ride the 15 miles down the trail and then take the shuttle back to the top.

The shuttle begins at the Pearson Trailhead and takes you back up to the Roland Trailhead (some people choose to start here, but we advise starting at East Portal for the full experience), which is actually about a 1.7 mile ride back to the East Portal Trailhead.

This shuttle ride takes about 40 minutes and costs $8 for children (5-12), $12 for adults (13 and up), and $18 for e-bikes, speciality, or fat tire bikes, as they are larger and heavier. You can buy your shuttle passes here.

We did not use the shuttle, so we cannot speak about the experience firsthand, but we hear the lines get very long. Some reviews on TripAdvisor claim they waited just as long for a shuttle as it took them to ride down. If you’re going to take the shuttle, we suggest starting the trail as early as possible to make sure you get a seat quickly.

Cost to ride the Route of the Hiawatha

We mentioned some costs above for bike rentals and shuttles, but there is also a fee to ride the Route of the Hiawatha. Below is the cost for the trail, as well as a reminder of the other costs for the bike rentals and shuttle. 

Cost for the actual trail + how to pay

The cost to access the Route of the Hiawatha trail is $9 for kids (5-12) and $13 for adults (13 and up). You can buy this online with a card, at the Lookout Pass Ski area, which accepts card and cash, or you can buy it at the East Portal Trailhead with cash only.  

Other costs to consider

Lookout Pass bike rental (standard mountain bike): $35
Lookout Pass bike rental (comfort bike): $40 
Lookout Pass bike delivery: $35 for 1-4 bikes
E-Bike rental: $10/hour or $70 day
Shuttle (kids 5-12): $8
Shuttle (adults 13+): $12
Shuttle (e-bikes, speciality bikes): $18

Our total cost

The total cost we spent to ride the Route of the Hiawatha was: $70 (e-bike) + $13 (trail) = $83 a person before tax.

We are used to doing free activities, such as hiking, so we had a bit of sticker shock at first. It’s  not the cheapest experience, but we thought it was totally worth it! We had so much fun, especially with the e-bikes, and it made for a memorable afternoon!

What to bring with you for the Route of the Hiawatha

As you get ready to embark on this beautiful bike ride, make sure to bring these items with you!

  • Layers: The St. Paul Pass Tunnel stays a consistent 47 degrees and you’ll be in the tunnel for 10-20 minutes, so bring a jacket! We went in July and the tunnel was COLD!
  • Headlamp: While your bike will have a light, we also liked having our own headlamps for the tunnels, especially the St. Paul Pass Tunnel. 
  • Clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting dirty: The tunnels can be a bit muddy, as can the trail if it has rained, and you may get a bit of mud on your legs and back.
  • Water: There are no water sources on the trail so make sure to bring your own!
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses: Some parts of the trail are exposed and get sunny! 
  • Lunch and snacks: They sell some food and light snacks, like sandwiches and chips, at both the East Portal and Pearson trailheads, but we suggest packing your own.
  • A camera to capture all of the beautiful scenery!

Safety & Etiquette 

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You can read more about the safety and etiquette when on the trail, but the following are some of the most important rules to know beforehand.

  • Bicycle helmets and lights must be worn at all times. 
  • No dogs allowed, except for service animals.
  • Pack it in, pack it out! Please leave the trail more beautiful than you found it.
  • Make sure to remove your sunglasses before entering the tunnels. This is a hard one to remember sometimes but it is a stark contrast so beware!
  • Be courteous of oncoming riders and stay to the right.
  • If you’re riding an e-bike, make sure to slow down when passing people, or move to the side. We were one of the few people going uphill, so a lot of riders going downhill took up the entire trail and wouldn’t notice us coming towards them, some of them almost running into us. So make sure you pay attention, slow down, and move over if needed.

Riding the Route of the Hiawatha Trail

Alright, let’s hit the trail! As soon as you leave the East Portal Trailhead, you instantly get a taste of the uniqueness of this trail by going through the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, also known as the Taft Tunnel.

This tunnel is 1.7 miles long and is completely dark (and very cold!) the entire way! Be careful riding down this tunnel because it is very wet and muddy from water dripping from the ceiling and on either side of the road surface are gutters or runoffs for the water to flow down. It’s so much fun and a tad creepy at times!

When riding in the tunnel, make sure to use your rear brake versus the front brake, as this might cause you to slip or skip and possibly fall off your bike.

After you exit the tunnel be sure to stop to see the waterfall on the right side! If you keep riding it is easy to miss, but this is a great spot to take your first break on the trail.

As you continue on the trail, you will go through 9 more tunnels, none as impressive as the first, as that one is hard to beat, as well as over 7 trestles varying in height from around 75 to 175 feet in the air! If you are afraid of heights, you may not enjoy that part, but they are wide enough for you to stay away from the ledge.

You’ll have mountain views most of the way and you’ll also notice 47 signs with history about the trail placed throughout. Don’t worry if you miss any, they have them online for you to read after too!

The downhill ride and the terrain on the trail, which is not too rocky, make this a great trail for those even a bit more nervous on bikes, like Kathryn. 🙂

Where to eat after the Route of the Hiawatha

Wallace Idaho

After a fun morning and afternoon riding on the Route of Hiawatha, there’s a good chance you’ll be hungry! Here are some of the best spots close by to grab a bite to eat.

Wallace, Idaho

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Spokane

Where to stay to ride the Route of the Hiawatha

Wallace Idaho

Looking for somewhere to stay before or after riding the Route of the Hiawatha? Here are some options close by!

Wallace, Idaho

Kellogg, Idaho

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Spokane, Washington

PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!

Other things to do near the Route of the Hiawatha

Ready to ride the Route of the Hiawatha?

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about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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