Day 5: Saltese to Avery. Route of the Hiawatha - Idaho Trails 2019 - CycleBlaze

September 12, 2019

Day 5: Saltese to Avery. Route of the Hiawatha

I didn't get on the road until 10:15 AM. I don't care because today is only 34 miles and it's an hour earlier in Idaho.

In Saltese I crossed under I-90, then pushed the bike up a steep and severely eroded access road to the tall Saltese trestle. Later I discovered a newer less steep access road is 1/4 mile west. The Saltese trestle is not as well renovated as other trestles. Only 2 cables for a railing, with flimsy wood posts. A few places have holes in the wooden deck. It's open to cars and ATV's but appears to need structural repairs.

Saltese trestle on Route of the Olympian in Saltese, Montana. The surface and railings are not as good as on other trestles.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Route of the Olympian is a 31 mile gravel trail on the east slope of the Bitterroot mountains. The east end is in the town of St. Regis, Montana. The west end connects to Route of the Hiawatha which descends the west slope of the mountains. Both trails use the Milwaukee Road rail grade. The trails are named after a streamlined luxury passenger train named the Olympian Hiawatha which operated from 1947-1961.

Ad for the Olympian Hiawatha train.
Heart 0 Comment 0

I only pedaled the highest and westernmost 8 miles of Route of the Olympian, a segment that climbs 800 feet from Saltese to East Portal. The grade is 2%, the standard railroad mountain-climbing grade. Motor vehicles are prohibited on this segment during summer but allowed the rest of the year. The eastern 3/4 of the trail is open to motor vehicles year-round.

Route of the Olympian climbing a 2% grade on a big embankment.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Milwaukee Road's St. Paul to Seattle rail line was completed in 1910 at a cost of $257 million, triple the expected construction cost. The rail grade was an engineering marvel, the first cross-country railroad to use all steel trestles. It was also notable for electrifying two long segments. This segment was electrified with power from Thompson Dam in Montana. Transmission lines provided 100 kV AC from the dam. Then many substations provided 3 kV DC to wires above the track. It saved on fuel costs but was high-maintenance.

The new Milwaukee Road line had huge debt and had to compete with two long-established railroads on the same route (Northern Pacific and Great Northern). The nation didn't need 3 railroads from St. Paul to Seattle. The business plan assumed that cross-country freight traffic would grow indefinitely and eventually make all 3 railroads profitable. Unfortunately for the railroads, the Panama Canal opened in 1914 causing the demand for cross-country freight to drop sharply and permanently. The first railroads put canals out of business. A century later the Panama Canal put railroads out of business.

Milwaukee Road's 1925 bankruptcy was the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history at the time. Milwaukee Road was reorganized and had their third and final bankruptcy in 1977. Since then, hundreds of miles of Milwaukee Road tracks have been converted to recreational trails in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways merged in 1970 and are now part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad. Today the Great Northern railway "Hi-Line" grade is the only railroad from St. Paul to Seattle.

Route of the Olympian passing a big rock cut.
Heart 0 Comment 0

I mostly had Route of the Olympian to myself but did see one car drive to Dominion trestle. And I saw 3 cyclists going the opposite direction near the top, presumably pedaling from East Portal down to Dominion trestle.

Dominion trestle on Route of the Olympian.
Heart 0 Comment 0

A 450 foot tunnel is immediately after Dominion trestle. I didn't expect that. Altogether I saw 2 trestles and 1 tunnel on Route of the Olympian. The grade is a very consistent 2%, easier than the temporary Northern Pacific Railway grade I pedaled yesterday. Both routes have similar surfaces.

450 foot tunnel on Route of the Olympian.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Route of the Olympian feeds directly into Route of the Hiawatha. I pedaled past a mile of parked cars when approaching East Portal. Route of the Hiawatha is extremely popular.

East Portal trailhead, beginning of Route of the Hiawatha. Big orange water jugs can be found in several places on the trail.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Route of the Hiawatha is an Idaho State Park that opened in 1998. The East Portal area is actually in the state of Montana, though! The season is short, late May to late September. It has stricter rules than all the other trails, notably a $12 per person entry fee. Everyone including hikers is required to have a helmet and everyone is required to have a 300+ lumen light because of the tunnels. No pets allowed. No motorized vehicles is the official rule but pedal assist e-bikes are allowed for a test period. I suspect they will be allowed permanently if the test creates no problems.

Most people start at East Portal so that the trail is all downhill, and pay for a shuttle bus to get them back to the top. A few people do the trail in reverse or round trip, and a few people like me do the trail as part of a longer loop with no shuttle needed.

The trail is unpaved, 15 miles long with 7 trestles and 9 tunnels. The trail begins with the mother of all trail tunnels, the 1.66 mile (2.66 km) long Taft tunnel. It took 3 years to complete, opening in 1909. Taft is the nearest village 2 miles north of East Portal. The tunnel is also called St. Paul Pass tunnel.

The north entrance to Taft tunnel is a big snow shed.
Heart 0 Comment 0

My 800 lumen LED headlight lights up the tunnel quite well. The surface is crushed limestone. At first the surface was mostly dry with only occasional wet spots. But the last half of the tunnel is much wetter, making the trail a muddy mess.

The light ahead is an oncoming cyclist's headlight.
Heart 0 Comment 0

The tunnel is pretty much level. Both ends are about 4150 feet elevation. 600 feet lower than yesterday's summit at Lookout Pass. This time I cheated by tunneling through the crest of the Bitterroot mountains.

Half a mile from the end of the tunnel. Now I see light.
Heart 0 Comment 0
The doors close for the season on September 25.
Heart 0 Comment 0
Waterfall at the south exit of the Taft tunnel.
Heart 0 Comment 0

After the Taft tunnel the trail is downhill all the way to Avery with about a 1% downgrade. Very gentle. The top half of the trail has most of the tunnels. The bottom half of the trail has all the trestles.

On top of the world. Highest point of Route of the Hiawatha. Gentle downhill all the way to Avery.
Heart 0 Comment 0

The trail descends the mountain in one enormous gently graded switchback. At first I had views of trestles below. Later I had views of trestles above.

Looking down on a trestle that I will be on later.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Hundreds of people were using the trail on a Thursday afternoon in September. Nearly everybody was on bikes, only a few hikers. Probably 90% went in the downhill direction. This was my first time to see many e-bikes. Many of the e-bikes are rentals.

The trestles are all made of steel.
Heart 0 Comment 0

The long tunnel is a unique attraction but trestles are the scenic highlight of Route of the Hiawatha. The most photogenic trestles are curved, allowing a view of the steel structure underneath.

Kelly Creek trestle is 850 feet long, 230 feet high, giving the sensation of biking through tree tops.
Heart 0 Comment 0

I like how trestles give the sensation of biking through the treetops.

Note another trestle in the distance.
Heart 0 Comment 0
The trestles are all long and tall.
Heart 0 Comment 0
Clear Creek trestle is 760 feet long, 220 feet high. The only self-portrait of the tour.
Heart 0 Comment 0

The official trail ends at the Pearson Trailhead. I pedaled past a hundred people waiting for the shuttle bus. It was obvious that few cyclists keep going beyond Pearson.

At the Pearson trailhead I have the choice of two roads to get to Avery. I decided to stay on the rail grade instead of drop steeply to the road on the other side of the river. Both roads seem to be very scenic. The 10 mile long rail grade has views of the river below, plus 7 tunnels and 2 long steel bridges. This part of the rail grade is open to traffic and is 2 lanes wide except on the bridges and in the tunnels. I never encountered traffic in the curvy tunnels, but I imagine cars sometimes have to back out of a tunnel. I saw more ATVs than cars, mostly near Avery where the road is close to the river. The rail grade connects to St. Joe River road in the village of Avery.

Descending very slowly to the North Fork St. Joe river. The road across the river also looks awesome.
Heart 0 Comment 0

The St. Joe river is a popular fishing stream. Not poisoned by mining like the Coeur d'Alene valley to the north.

Confluence of the North and Main forks of the St. Joe river in Avery.
Heart 0 Comment 0

I arrived in Avery at 4:40 PM Pacific time. I got my hour back when returning to Idaho but my Verizon phone had no service and still thought I was on Mountain time.

Avery was founded as a Milwaukee Road employee town. The town ballooned to about 1000 people in 1920 but has a year-round population of 26 today. It's a tourist village now, catering to mostly to fishermen but also hunters, cyclists, ATV riders, and back country motorcyclists.

The only store in Avery, population 26.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Tonight I stay in a 2-bedroom apartment in one of four apartment buildings built in 1920 for railroad employees. $81. Dinner was a burger and onion rings at the store. Not many choices here. I could have bought groceries at the store and used my fully equipped kitchen, but I didn't think of that at the time.

5 Bitterroot 300k cyclists are staying in the apartment upstairs. A man who seems to be a guide and 4 women who seem to be clients.

Avery has 4 apartment buildings built in 1920 for railroad employees.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Avery is a quiet and very isolated little village. Even smaller than Saltese, with no Interstate highway. I like quiet and isolated.

Camping seems to be allowed at the park in Avery.
Heart 0 Comment 0

The weather was pretty decent today. Mostly sunny in the morning. About 60F (15C) at East Portal at noon. About 70F (21C) in Avery after descending from 4200 feet to 2500 feet elevation. No rain, gentle wind.

Today in only 34 miles I pedaled over 11 trestles and through 17 tunnels. The Milwaukee Road rail grade across the Bitterroot mountains is possibly the most amazing rail trail in North America.

33 miles unpaved today.

Distance: 34.2 mi. (54.7 km)
Average Speed: 7.8 mph (12.5 km/h)
Ascent/Descent: +797/-1476 ft. (+243/-450 m)

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 211 miles (340 km)

Rate this entry's writing Heart 1
Comment on this entry Comment 0