Hiawatha Trail - Atlas Obscura

Hiawatha Trail

Mullan, Idaho

Cross the Continental Divide through an old railroad tunnel, and ride back to the top on a shuttle. 


The Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Pacific Railroad, more usually known simply as the Milwaukee Road, was a railroad that headed west from Chicago across the northern United States. By the early 20th century, it extended all the way to Seattle. The railroad had financial difficulties through much of its existence and went into bankruptcy in 1977. The line to the West Coast, the so-called Pacific Extension, was abandoned in 1980.

This part of the route, through the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest, included some of the most spectacular rail line in the U.S. Much has now been converted to hiking and biking trails, including the section crossing the Continental Divide at the Idaho-Montana state line. This is called the Route of the Hiawatha, or just the Hiawatha Trail, named after an express passenger train that ran in the mid-20th century. In turn, the train was named for the Iroquois leader, who was renowned for his swiftness and made famous by a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.

The Hiawatha Trail begins with a tunnel across the Continental Divide, the St. Paul Pass or Taft Tunnel, 8,771 feet (1.66 miles) long. It is also called Tunnel 20, the tunnels on the main line being numbered in increasing order from Chicago. The bike ride traverses 10 tunnels, nine of which you bike through (#23 is closed due to unstable rock), and also crosses seven trestles. The bike loop is about 15 miles in total, but only drops about 1,000 feet, which makes for a mellow ride. The turnaround, where you pick up the shuttle back to the top, is at the former railroad stop of Pearson on the North Fork of the St. Joe River.

Know Before You Go

The center for biking on the Hiawatha is the Lookout Pass Resort on Interstate 90 right at the pass, on the Idaho side. A ski resort in winter, it is open in summer for various activities including mountain biking. You pick up the tickets for the return trip on the shuttle here, and can also rent bikes.

You bicycle through the Taft Tunnel both ways, as the shuttle returns only to the west portal. A light (and a spare) is critical in the tunnel as there is no lighting otherwise. A headlamp is ideal, but bringing a flashlight too is recommended. There is also no water on the trail. The resort sells bicycle accessories, including lights and water bottles, if you need them.

To get to the trailhead, follow Interstate 90 into Montana and take exit 5. Proceed about two miles, following the signs. There is ample parking at the trailhead. Although the trail starts in Montana, most of its length is in Idaho.

The trail typically opens in late May, but check as it varies with the severity of the winter. Also check the website for shuttle schedules.

The Hiawatha is open to motor vehicles from the west portal of the Taft Tunnel to the Moss Creek turnoff, a stretch that includes Tunnel 21. Use extra caution through here.

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November 16, 2023

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