Conclusion - Idaho Trails 2019 - CycleBlaze

Conclusion

A successful tour!

347 miles/555 km in 8 days.

61 miles/98 km was unpaved.

No aches and pains. No bike trouble, not even a flat tire.

The route offers an excellent immersion in railroad history on some of the nation's best recreational trails.

Red lines are paved roads. Blue lines are paved trails. Black lines are unpaved trails and roads.
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No problem

I knew in advance that the route is less challenging than my previous 3 tours. The gentle rail grades helped me avoid problems:

  • I never needed to take Advil.
  • I never needed to take a nap.
  • I didn't develop a bad cough.
  • I never had an upset stomach.
  • I never needed a rest day.

Why it was easy

This tour had relatively short daily distances. 3 of 8 days were less than 40 miles. The longest day was 51.2 miles. Average daily distance was 43 miles.

The majority of the route is bike trails and rail grades with easy terrain. 3 of 8 days were extremely flat, with less than 800 feet of climbing. Day 2 is the hilliest, with 2520 feet of climbing on roads east of Lake Coeur d'Alene. The biggest steep climb is 800 feet on day 7, again on roads east of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Elevation on this route varies from 1900 feet (580 m) in Spokane to 4750 feet (1448 m) at Lookout Pass. Not high enough to cause problems. Much lower elevation than my previous 3 tours in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Surprises

I researched this tour in advance but there were a few surprises:

Spokane is mostly pine forested. I thought it was more of a desert city.
The route crosses the northernmost Palouse. I pedaled across the southern Palouse in 2013 and didn't know it sprawled this far north.
Several serendipitous surprises such as the car show in Harrison.

Towns were not the focus of this tour but there was surprising variety:

Spokane, the metropolis of the inland northwest U.S.
Coeur d'Alene, a lakefront tourist resort city.
Harrison, a historic logging town.
Wallace, a historic silver mining town.
Saltese, a mountain village that caters to ATV and snowmobile enthusiasts.
Avery, a historic railroad town now catering to fishermen and hunters.
St. Maries, a modern logging town.
Plummer, an Indian town, capital of the Coeur d'Alene tribe.

The biggest practical surprise was that the weather was colder and wetter than I expected. High temperatures were in the 80's for weeks before I drove to Spokane, but most of the tour had highs in the 60's. The first four days had rain. Fall came early and abruptly this year.
I pedaled many miles on muddy trails. Most cyclists encounter dry trails but every cyclist is guaranteed to come out of the Taft tunnel with mud on their bike. It bothers some people, not me.

Mistakes

My biggest mistake was starting too late in the morning. I could have avoided rain on days 3 and 4 if I got to my destination before 4 PM. On day 6 I had heavy rush hour traffic coming into St. Maries that could have been avoided if I arrived 2 hours earlier.

Perhaps it was a mistake on day 6 to stay on the increasingly busy paved road all the way to St. Maries. I could have diverted to the rail grade when the paved road crossed the trail 17 miles before St. Maries.

Conclusion

This is a great first tour for casual cyclists who are averse to mountain climbing and/or highway traffic. The route has easy terrain yet offers a great back country mountain experience. To me the best part is the 2 easy no-traffic days of gravel trails and roads crossing the Bitterroot mountains.

The unpaved Northern Pacific, Route of the Olympian, and Route of the Hiawatha rail grades are truly exceptional, with 11 trestles, 18 tunnels, plus many big rock cuts and embankments that create two routes across the Bitterroot mountains with easy grades and little or no traffic. My tour route has 61.5 miles of unpaved trails and roads but the only steep unpaved grade is 1 mile on Yellowstone Trail road.

The paved Centennial Trail and Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes are extremely popular and useful as connecting routes. They are notable for being very long and very flat. Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes has the best scenery but the urban trail in Spokane adds variety to the mostly rural route.

This route is almost twice as long as the Bitterroot 300k route which is only a 4 or 5 day trip. Maybe a good name for this route would be Spokane-Bitterroot 550k.

Bitterroot 300k

The map below shows the 300 km route that I mentioned several times. Most people do it in 4 or 5 days.

Between Avery and St. Maries cyclists have the choice of pedaling either a paved road or an unpaved rail grade. The route below follows the rail grade.

Blue: paved Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes. Black: unpaved trails and roads. Red: paved roads. The elevation spikes are tunnels, not real.
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The blue line is the paved Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes. The black line is 3 unpaved rail grades: Northern Pacific Railway (Mullan to Taft), Route of the Hiawatha (East Portal to Pearson), and Milwaukee Road Scenic Alternate (Pearson to St. Maries).

It's possible to extend the route slightly by going 5 miles farther east to Saltese, which has a store, restaurant, and lodging. Then the mountain climbing is spread out over two days and you get to ride one more excellent trail, Route of the Olympian from Saltese to East Portal, connecting directly to Route of the Hiawatha.

The red segment from St. Maries to Plummer has no shoulder and much truck traffic. The motel in St. Maries offers a shuttle for cyclists who don't feel safe on that segment. I didn't ride that segment. If I did, I would do it on a Sunday, before 8 AM, or after 6 PM.

Do a Google search for Bitterroot 300k and you can find many useful web sites.

Note to Canadians

Idaho shares a border with Canada, southeast British Columbia to be precise. Coeur d'Alene is 178 km south of Creston, B.C. Think of this region as the southern Kootenays, but with incorrect spelling for the mountains and rivers. Our dollars cost more than your dollars but some things are still cheaper here. Northern Idaho is the untamed wild west with bears, wolves, and moose. If you stay in tourist areas and obey signs, you probably won't see anybody carrying a gun.

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