Hiawatha Trail

You’ve undoubtedly seen the Idaho Travel “18 Summers” advertisements on TV depicting families having fun together. Families having fun together is what RVing is all about. Some of the video clips feature families riding their bicycles through abandoned railroad tunnels and over high trestles. Those scenes are of families enjoying the Hiawatha Trail which is considered the Crown Jewel of rail to trail conversions in the country. Let’s face it, what child doesn’t like exploring a dark underground place or soaring like a bird high above the ground? If mom and dad can join in the adventure, all the better! 

Prior to the advent of today’s homes on wheels (aka RVs) and the network of highways across the west, riding the rails was the preferred method of traveling in comfort. During their heyday, railroads fiercely competed against one another to offer the best, finest and most unique railcars and locomotives available. The Olympian line was the Milwaukee Road's flagship luxury line to the Pacific Northwest. When introduced in 1911, it was the first railroad to offer “all steel” cars. To further define the uniqueness of the line, the cars and engines were painted orange and maroon and were among the first to carry broadcast radio receivers. The Milwaukee Road also advertised the fact that their modern fleet of equipment could make the run between Chicago and Seattle in just 72 hours! The section of the route crossing the rugged Bitterroot Mountains was considered the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country.

To keep up with their competitors after World War II, faster stylish streamline locomotives were ushered into service along with distinctive glassed-in “skytop” observation lounging-sleeping cars and full-length “Super Dome” cars with the improvements. The name of the route was revised to Olympian Hiawatha to reflect the upgrade in the line and the fact that the travel time had been reduced to 43 ½ hours. However, as the interstate freeway system developed, people began traveling more by car and those newfangled contraptions that would eventually be coined as RVs. The Olympian Hiawatha lost ridership, became unprofitable and ceased operations in 1961. By 1980, the majority of the line had been abandoned.

Today families can experience the same spectacular scenery train passengers did over 100 years ago, by riding the Route of the Hiawatha trail. Parents can relive the history of the rail line via interpretive panels along the route, while their children live the life of adventure pedaling through underground “secret caverns” and flying across narrow spindly bridges, pretending to be outrunning a gang of train robbers.

One of Many Numerous Interpretive Signs

The Route of the Hiawatha mountain trail traverses a 15 mile section of the old Milwaukee rail line which carried passengers during its 50 years of operation. The trail encompasses ten tunnels and seven soaring trestles. The 1.6 mile (8,771 ft) long St. Paul Pass Tunnel, also known as the Taft Tunnel, penetrates the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains which also serves as the state line between Idaho and Montana near Lookout Pass and is the highlight of the trail for many. In addition to the scenery, waterfalls and vistas along the trail, you will also be treated to numerous interpretive signs providing information about railroad history, the rich mining history of the region and of course information of the famous Route of the Hiawatha line that operated between 1911 and 1961. The best part of the trail is you only need to ride it in one direction – downhill – as shuttles are available to transport you and your bicycle back to the top where you started. This family friendly 1.7% downgrade trail is easily enjoyed by a wide variety of bicyclists from young children to their active RVing grandparents. 

Cyclists Exit a Tunnel

The Route of the Hiawatha begins just off Interstate 90 when crossing between Idaho and Montana and provides a great day trip for everyone in the RV. Be sure to pack your bikes and include the trail on your next RV trek through the Idaho Panhandle. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a flashlight (or two) for the tunnels. Staying overnight near or at the trailhead is the perfect way to experience riding the Hiawatha as there’s no lodging remotely close to the start of the trail.


The Route of the Hiawatha is operated by Lookout Pass Ski Area under a special-use permit of the U.S. Forest Service. Trail users must obtain and display a trail pass while on the trail. Trail rangers patrol the trail to assist users and check for trail passes. The trail is scheduled to open May 26th for the 2018 summer season.

Plan on spending half a day if you are riding the trail in the downhill direction and being shuttled back up. If you are bike riding the trail in both directions or hiking, plan on spending a whole day.

Into the Abyss

Fees: Trail passes are required to hike / ride the 15 miles of trail mentioned above. Fees for the summer of 2018 are $11 for adults, $7.00 for children.

Shuttle: A return shuttle to the top of the trail is available: $9.00 for Adults, $6.00 for children

Rentals: If you don’t carry a bicycle when you RV, rentals are available from the concessioner at Lookout Pass Ski Area.

Hours: The trail, trailheads and facilities are open 8:30AM – 5:00PM (Pacific Time) daily from late spring through early fall. Check the concessionaire’s website for the current schedule.

Restrooms: There are vault toilets along the route.

Rules: A couple of rules you will want to be aware of in advance of your visit:

1. No pets allowed on the trail. Service animals are allowed per the parameters listed on the concessionaire’s website. Plan ahead to find a shady campsite for your pets if they travel with you.

2. Helmets and lights are required on the trail, so be sure to pack them in the RV before leaving home.

Camping: Staying overnight near or at the trailhead is the perfect way to experience riding the Hiawatha as there’s no lodging remotely close to the start of the trail.

There are no developed campgrounds in the vicinity, you are welcome to dry camp in the parking lot of Lookout Pass Ski Area which is about seven miles from the trailhead. To reach the ski area take exit 0 (zero) off of Interstate 90.

You are also welcome to dry camp (vault toilets available) at the east portal of the Taft Tunnel trailhead. To reach the trailhead take exit 5 and travel just over 2 miles southwest on a well-signed, well-graded road to the trailhead.

For more information, visit RideTheHiawatha.com.

There are also boondocking opportunities at both ends of the trail. A nice campsite within walking distance of the east portal of the Taft Tunnel trailhead can be found at: N47° 24.077 W115° 38.048

Boondocking Near the Trailhead

Tip: If you are traveling with other RVers, you can use your tow vehicles and / or dinghies for your personal shuttle. Camp near one of the trailheads, drive both vehicles to the opposite trailhead, drop one of the vehicles and return to camp. The advantage of this is you are not tied to the shuttle schedule and can return to camp at your leisure, you save the shuttle fee and best of all, your personal vehicle is most likely air conditioned where the concessionaire shuttles aren’t.

Dave Helgeson
Author: Dave HelgesonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Dave Helgeson is the MHRV Show Director. He and his wife love to travel across the west in their RV. Dave writes about all things RVing but loves to share destinations and boondocking advice.

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