When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to my father’s hometown of Talcott, West Virginia. It was a couple of hours from where we lived, and we would drive over once a year or so to see my dad’s old home place. We would also drive down to the Great Bend Tunnel–the tunnel supposedly dug, in part, by John Henry–for a look around. During each visit, I’d stand at the entrance to the old tunnel and wish I could walk through it. I wanted to experience the darkness inside. I wanted to see the other end. But, the old tunnel was crumbling, and the new tunnel next to it was still in use by trains, so it also would have been too dangerous to walk through it.
Jump ahead two decades, and head west about 2,000 miles, and you’ll find the place where my dream was finally realized. The Route of the Hiawatha is a 17 mile trail–a former railroad–that begins in Montana and runs into Idaho. It’s downhill the entire way, but here’s the really cool part: along the route, you pass over 7 trestles and through–get this–9 old tunnels. The longest of those tunnels is 1.66 miles long, and it’s the one that takes you from Montana into Idaho.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
If you need to rent a bike, you can get one at the Lookout Pass Ski Area. They’re very friendly, and will even provide a bike rack for free. You can also rent a helmet here, or any other accessories you need. It’s not cheap–bike rental alone is $26-$30–but they do give you a sturdy, well-maintained mountain bike that includes a bright headlamp. You also need to buy a day-use pass, which costs $8, and a bus pass for the return trip (unless you want to pedal back uphill) which costs $9. It adds up to a pretty expensive adventure, but it’s worth it.
Once you reach the trailhead, park your car and take a moment to ponder the journey ahead. You can also explore the ruins (all that’s left are foundations) of the old power plant that used to supply energy to the rail line (this stretch of track was similar to a streetcar line, with power lines overhead).
On the Montana side, the Taft Tunnel (also known as the St. Paul Pass Tunnel) isn’t very impressive. It looks more like you’re headed into a barn than a 12/3 mile long tube. You may or may not be able to see the light at the other end, depending on the time of day and the position of the sun. I could see the light on my first trip through the tunnel, but not on the return trip to the trailhead.
As soon as you enter the tunnel, an amazing experience begins. The temperature drops. Your eyes struggle to adjust to the dim light of your headlamp. There’s water trickling down the walls, and sometimes dripping directly on you. A stream gurgles on both sides of the dirt track. You pedal, and are barely able to tell that you’re moving, because you can’t see anything change. The dot of light–more than a mile and a half away–never seems to grow any larger. You can’t see the walls rushing by, because there’s only enough light to illuminate the dirt trail directly in front of you. You begin to wonder if somewhere in the midst of the darkness, there’s a portal into another dimension.
And in a way, there is, since when you come out the other side, it’s an hour earlier than when you entered.
It’s not due to a rift in the space-time continuum, it’s because of the Montana/Idaho state line. Northern Idaho is on Pacific Time, while Montana is on Mountain Time.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll be able to spot the exact point where you pass between the states. It’s not easy to see–the words are written faintly on the wall. And as I mentioned before, it’s incredibly dark. Even too dark for a camera flash to work. In order to take this picture, I had to set my camera on a tripod, set it for a :30 exposure, then “paint” the wall with light from my flashlight. I still can’t believe it turned out.
Here’s the only other photo I attempted, as I straddled the state line. In the far distance, you can see the tiny point of light at the end of the tunnel. From here, it’s still probably 3/4 of a mile away. Also note the interpretive sign on the wall. Aside from the painted-on state names on the opposite wall, this is the only indication that you’re crossing between states.
You press on, and eventually you’re near the end. The air changes, becomes warmer and starts flowing the opposite direction. The trickling water changes course too: here it flows into Idaho, while on the other end it drained into Montana. The tunnel is basically flat, but it must be arched just slightly in the middle, to force the change in flow. You ponder all of this, and then suddenly, your sensory depravation ends…
… and you emerge into the sunlight. On the Idaho side of the Taft Tunnel, there’s a waterfall, which mingles with the water from the tunnel, forming Cliff Creek, and flows into the valley below.
If you’re planning on using the shuttle busses, you should know that they pick you up at the bottom of the trail, and drop you off here. You must then ride your bicycle back through the tunnel to the trailhead.
After you leave the tunnel, everything is downhill. And because this used to be a train route, the slope is gentle: less than a 2% grade. For the first few miles, bicyclists must share the trail with motorized traffic. This isn’t a big deal–only one shuttle bus passed me on this part of the road. Eventually the traffic turns off, and you can have the trail to yourself.
The view is absolutely awesome. In this picture, there are a couple of things worth noticing. First, the dirt road in the foreground: that’s the road you will climb, if you take the shuttle bus back uphill. Also, notice another road in the distance: that’s the Route of the Hiawatha, the very same trail that you’re on now, only an hour or two away from your current location.
It really is an amazing feeling to be so remote, so far from your car, so distant from a highway.
I’ve talked a lot about the tunnels, but the trestles are equally fun. There are seven of them, the highest rising 230′ above the ground.
While most of the tunnels are a little more “finished” inside, this one isn’t. The rough walls give you some idea of the effort it must have taken, to chisel and blast away all that rock.
Another trestle: on this one (and several others) the power poles are still intact. The wood frames supported wires that hung directly over the railroad tracks.
Some of the tunnels have snowsheds at the end, to keep the snow from sliding down the hill and piling up during the winter. I can only imagine what this view would be like, in the middle of January. (Of course, the trail is closed until the snow melts.)
It is with mixed feelings that you come upon this sign. After 17 miles of bumpy, shaky biking, your wrists and your rear can certainly use a break. But at the same time, it’s all over too soon.
It’s not really over, though. You still have the bus-ride back uphill, which may end up being more fun than you expect.
The “shuttle” is nothing more than an old school bus, which you’ll probably enjoy simply because you haven’t ridden in one for a good many years. Be ready for a rough ride, because if you thought the daily commute to 4th grade was bumpy, you had no idea.
If you’re prone to motion sickness, grab a seat near the front of the bus. Also be aware that there’s no air conditioning, so you’ll be totally dependant on the functionality of those sliding windows that require you to pinch in both sides at once.
OK, so far I haven’t made the trip uphill sound very fun, have I? Well, I wasn’t having very much fun either, until about 1/3 of the way there, the bus screeched to a stop (as much screeching as it could muster, as it groaned up the steep grade) and everyone started pointing out the right windows. In a marshy area at the side of the road…
… there was a moose! I couldn’t get a clear shot with my camera, but that didn’t really matter. For the first time, I was seeing a moose in the wild, casually going about his or her moose-related activities. After a minute or two, the bus started rolling again. I thought about all those times my father had told me to scan the marshy areas at the side of the road, proclaiming “Nowthere’s a good place for a moose!” That proclamation had become a running joke on our road trips, but finally, the advice had paid off.
At the upper bus stop, I retrieved my bike from the shuttle, then waited for the rest of the crowd to head off into the tunnel. I wanted to have it all to myself. The final ride through the darkness was a little less thrilling, I think because I already knew what to expect on the other end.
Then about halfway through, another anomaly: time jumped ahead exactly one hour.
Here’s a short Hiawatha history lesson:
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Milwaukee Road decided to expand its railroad network over the Rocky Mountains to the west coast. Explorers searched out the best route, beginning in 1904, and by 1907 construction began. The difficult work didn’t stop for any reason–including bad weather. By 1909 the line was complete, and on July 4th, freight service began.
The next year, a devastating fire scorched a huge portion of the forests in western Montana and northern Idaho. It’s possible that as much as 3 million acres burned. According to some of the heroic tales told about this disaster, as many as 600 people were saved by railroad employees, who drove the trains through flames, and took shelter in the tunnels.
Shortly after the fire, and partly because of it, the Milwaukee Road decided to electrify 440 miles of track. As you’ve seen in the pictures above, many of the relics of that old electrified system still stand today.
The railroad enjoyed a few prosperous years, and many difficult ones. The final passenger trail passed through the area in 1961. Diesel engines replaced the electrical ones by the early 1970’s. The rail lines west of Butte were abandoned in 1980.
The old railroad bed opened to hikers and bikers in 1998. The Taft Tunnel opened in 2001.
31 more miles of trail could soon open. Plans are in the works to expand the trail to St. Regis, Montana, over a route that would include one more tunnel, and two more trestles.
Mile markers along the Hiawatha Trail, like this one, provide the distance to Chicago–if you were to follow the old railroad bed.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006. Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.