I’m pedaling a bicycle in the middle of a dark, two-mile-long, old train tunnel somewhere in the Bitterroot Mountains of northern Idaho. There’s a headlamp on my handlebar providing the only light. It’s cold, dark and damp. Water drips and runs from the walls and occasionally the ceiling. The trail is wet gravel or crushed limestone with puddles all about and lacking fenders, I’m a little splattered in clay-colored slop. The moisture combined with the cold creates fog mid-tunnel. I can’t see the sides of the tunnel next to me, or Rob, or more than ten feet ahead. It’s eerie and other-worldly.
This is the Route of the Hiawatha, the crown jewel of the rails to trails system. We started in Montana and rode mostly downhill (1.6% grade) along a previous railway through eleven tunnels and over nine high trestles. It’s a popular, scenic, easy ride. It will get crowded later today, a sunny 80 degree September Saturday. An early start was in our best interest. I’m wearing shorts, gloves, a jacket and a required helmet. Inside the tunnel, it was a damp 50 degrees. Outside, in the sun, the shorts and t-short are all I need.
At the end of the first tunnel is a small, but loud gushing waterfall flowing into a creek that runs under the trail. A few hundred feet further and we’re looking out across a vast mountain valley lined with pines and peaks as far as I can see. The scent of cedars and pines is thick in the crisp mountain air. Ground squirrels dart across the path, their tails held straight up to the sky.
Each tunnel entrance is framed by large timbers, still red in their newness. In another decade or so, they will gray with age. The next ten tunnels are shorter and drier than the first. Some don’t even require the headlamp. Most of the tunnels are made of arches of smooth concrete built deep in the earthy mountainsides – an engineering feat to be sure. Others are just chiseled out of the rock leaving craggy, dripping, cavitated ceilings. I’m sure there are bats in here somewhere.
We passed a remarkable number of cheerful cyclists biking up the route. Rob and his friends opted to cycle back up a few days ago instead of waiting in line for the shuttle bus. It was that experience that prompted our early ride today. We arrived at the terminus to a line of people and bikes.
The school bus arrived within a few minutes and we were the last two to board. Lucky day! It’s a fun scenic ride, either one-way or round-trip. If you find yourself in northern Idaho, check it out.
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