Many years ago I was visiting a good friend in Santa Cruz, CA. He suggested that we go camping at Point Reyes National Seashore. We took his two mountain bikes and biked into one of the campsites near the ocean.
I had never been on a mountain bike before. As we were dropping down the hill to the campsite a huge boulder suddenly appeared in front of my bike. I put on the brakes, hit the boulder, flipped over the boulder, the bike flipped over and landed on top of me. I ended up with whiplash and lots of bruises. As I lay on the ground my buddy, Neal looked at me and said “Wow, Janet that was a great flip.” So much for sympathy and help.
It took some time to recover from that incident. Since then I have had a few minor incidents with mountain bikes. I have religiously avoided them. Until today.
Today I decided to be brave and rode the Hiawatha Trail on a mountain bike. This hike and bike trail is 15 miles long with 10 train tunnels and 7 sky-high trestles. This Rails to Trails path follows the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains on the border of Montana and Idaho.
I rented a mountain bike, helmet and headlamp at Lookout Pass Ski Resort, mile 0 on Route 90. I put the bike on the back of my Roadtrek and drove to East Portal. East Portal is the beginning of the 15 mile gradual descent.
On a beautiful sunlit day I approached the mile and a half tunnel. I turned on my head lamp and began my descent into darkness. I could only see as far ahead of me as my head lamp would allow. The only sounds were of water, my bike and me letting out an occasional whoop. The echos were great.
After my mile and a half ride, I came out into brilliant sunshine, incredible blue skies and a water fall. How much more perfect can one get than that. The temperatures were in the 60’s at the start of the ride. By the time I finished the trail, the temps had climbed into the low 80’s. As the temperature heated up I could smell the pines and the damp earth. It is such a fine smell.
Along the trail there were signs to stop and read and learn about the building of this incredible stretch of railroad. Along the way I learned about the “Silks” and the early days of first class travel on the rail.
Here are a few of my favorite interesting facts.
- The “Silks” were special trains that transported Asian raw silk from west coast ports across the country to the east for processing into finished garments. These trains were fast and were considered top priority. Raw silk deteriorated quickly, the price of silk fluctuated rapidly and insurance was high. There was also a fear that silk could be hijacked from slower trains so it was important to move it as quickly as possible. In 1928 at the height of the silk trade $452,000,000 of raw silk was transported across the continent. When other ways of shipping took over (the Panama Canal) the “Silks”run faded away.
- The railroad was one of the great hirers of freed black slaves. They became porters and waiters on the trains. It was a very different lifestyle than anything they had known before.
- 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 section of the route crossing the rugged Bitterroot Mountains was considered the most scenic stretch of railroad in the country.
- It was named to the hall of fame by the Rail-to-Trail Conservatory, one of only 15 trails across the United States to receive this designation.
As I approached the end of the trail I had two choices. I could turn around and ride my bike back up the trail I had just come down or I could take the shuttle bus. l climbed on the shuttle bus for the ride back to the St Paul Pass Tunnel. The shuttle dropped me and the other riders off a mile and a half short of the trail head. All of us got to experience the ride through the St Paul Pass tunnel once again. It was a great way to finish the day, riding and whooping into the darkness, once again. It was a great finish to an absolutely beautiful day in the high country.
Now my day is over and I am camped next to Lake Coeur d’Alene in a National forest campground. I have been for a swim to get the trail dust off. The water was warm on top with a bit of chill coming from below. It felt wonderful. Another good finish to a good day.
Here are suggestions and facts regarding this trail.
- You can boondock in the parking lot at the ski resort for free. I did this. It was quiet and peaceful. The workers coming in the morning were a good alarm clock for me.
- Go early. The rentals open at 8 a.m. The Trail opens at 8:30 a.m. I recommend the early hours because it is cool and pleasant. For you photographers, the lighting was good, really good in the earlier part of the day.
- There is a fee to ride the trail. You can pay it at the ski resort or at the trail head. These fees help maintain this amazing trail.
- There is a fee for the shuttle. I did not buy my ticket until I got to the end of the ride. I thought I might pedal, back but there was a very patient little kitty waiting for me to return. After bumping along for 15 miles I was ready to give my seat a respite.
- This is not a breeze of a ride. You do have to pedal. The trail is well maintained, yet it is dirt and rocks. I wore my bike shorts under a pair of regular shorts.
- Take snacks and water with you. They also sell snacks and drinks at the trial heads. Just remember that what you take in you need to take back out. There are no trash receptacles along the way.
- Take your time. Read the signs. Take pictures. Be amazed. It was a delightful day.