6 min read

Route of the Hiawatha and More

Adventuring on the Crown Jewels of America's Rails-to-Trails
Route of the Hiawatha bike trail tunnel
The 1.7-mile-long Taft Tunnel is a highlight of the Route of the Hiawatha. Photo by David Lukas

When my wife signed up for a week-long training course in Spokane, Washington, I begin researching ways I could fill the seven days I would be hanging out...What I discovered sparked one of my deepest lifelong passions.

You see, I'm crazy about long trails. In my mind any trail that stretches vast distances into the unknown is a marvelous freedom, and it turns out that Spokane is a hub of astounding long-distance rail-to-trail routes.

Today's newsletter shares what I learned about these trails. I hope you enjoy it and consider making a trip to experience some of these places for yourself!

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Route of the Hiawatha

trestle on Route of the Hiawatha
One of seven sky-high trestles on the Route of the Hiawatha. Photo by David Lukas

One warm, sunny day it came as a shock to find myself shivering in the cold of a pitch-black tunnel on the famous Route of the Hiawatha. But this was no ordinary tunnel, this was the legendary 1.7-mile-long Taft Tunnel, a vast echo chamber of falling water carved through the crest of Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains.

Taft tunnel echoes

Emerging from the tunnel, I began the glorious 15-mile ride down the gently sloping Milwaukee Road railroad, passing through 8 more tunnels and 7 sky-high trestles as I leisurely bicycled through canyons, forests, and snowy peaks.

Route of the Hiawatha
Riding the epic Route of the Hiawatha. Photo by David Lukas

It is easy to see why this trail is considered the "crown jewel of America's rail-to-trail system." And the best part is that at the bottom you can catch a shuttle bus back to the Taft Tunnel and parking lot at the top, or else bike back up like I did.

One of the things I loved about the Route of the Hiawatha is that it was slightly challenging but still family-friendly, with lots of families, kids, and people of all ages having the time of their lives on the trail. It made for a fun outing.

Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes

Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes
Following the Coeur d'Alene River for 73 miles. Photo by David Lukas

If I've ever found a bike trail that was pure perfection it would be the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes. It's considered one of the top 25 bike trails in the nation, but in terms of wildlife and habitats I would put it at the top of the list.

Imagine spending an entire day on a flat, paved trail biking through riverside forests filled with singing birds, past meadows of native grasses so green they hurt to look at, and across endless marshes (there are 15 lakes and marshes along this trail) that are full of moose and waterbirds. You could even stay the night in one of the small towns along the route and turn this into a multi-day outing.

Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes
Biking for hours through expansive marshes. Photo by David Lukas

Stretching 73 miles, and flat for much of its length, this astonishing trail can be accessed from dozens of trailheads with many picnic spots and restrooms along the way, creating countless options for different types of outings. You can bike along the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene, trace the route of the Coeur d'Alene River, or meander up the historic Silver Valley to just shy of the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains (where you can hop on the NorPac Trail and continue another 22 miles to Saltese, Montana).

Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes
Long stretches of the trail are unbelievably idyllic. Photo by David Lukas

The entire time I was on this trail, I kept thinking that it would be worth visiting the Spokane area for the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes alone!

Spokane River and North Idaho Centennial Trail

This 64-mile route (divided into Washington's 40-mile Spokane River Centennial Trail, and Idaho's 24-mile North Idaho Centennial Trail) adds tremendous value to an urbanized landscape as it closely follows the Spokane River through the cities of Coeur d'Alene and Spokane.

spokane river
Following the Spokane River for 64 miles. Photo by David Lukas

While portions of the route follow the freeway as it passes through cities and neighborhoods, this trail has the charm of linking quiet greenspaces along the river for much of its length. Even better, it passes through the heart of downtown Spokane, a beautiful old city built around the river and its awesome cascades.

downtown Spokane
Biking along the Spokane River through downtown Spokane. Photo by David Lukas

I usually seek out the wildest and emptiest places wherever I go, but in this case, I would choose to bike the stretches of this trail through downtown Spokane because the parks, flowers, arts, culture, music, and people are all so lovely!

downtown Spokane
Riverfront parks in downtown Spokane are delightful. Photo by David Lukas

Columbia Plateau State Park Trail

Columbia Plateau State Park trail
130 miles of trail stretching in front of you. Photo by David Lukas

The epic, long-distance Columbia Plateau State Park Trail has a bit of everything so you could call it a mixed bag. Stretching 130 miles from just outside of Spokane, all the way to the Columbia River, it includes sections of paved trail, sections of crushed gravel, and about 100 miles of very tough, expert-level, conditions that pass through vast areas with no water, access, or services.

Being an old railroad route, the trail is flat as a pancake and perfectly straight for as far as you can see. It's an odd experience, and it might be a bit unnerving, but there's one fascinating 5-mile stretch that runs through the fabulous Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge with its unique mix of marshes, intact Palouse prairie, and ponderosa pine forests.

Turnbull NWR
Having the entire trail to yourself on the Turnbull wildlife refuge. Photo by David Lukas

I biked this section on a weekend and had the incredible experience of biking 10 miles through a wildlife refuge with the entire place to myself. It gave me a chance to slow down, relax, and spend time enjoying the many birds on the refuge—I can't imagine a better way to bike!

Bike trails of the Spokane area
Some long-distance bike trails around Spokane, Washington. Image by Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail