By Roger Crandall – The Bitterroot 300K is a must do cycle tour for your bucket list.
Trail of the Coeur D’Alene
I’ve heard the rumors that there were fantastic bicycle trails in Idaho and that they were around the Coeur D’Alene area; but where exactly and what they were like no one could tell me from first-hand experience. My wife Jael, the hero of this story, said we should go up there during the UEA weekend in October and check them out. We went on a Wednesday and returned on a Sunday. We managed three days of riding up and back on the “like butter” smooth Trail of the Coeur D’Alene. Two of our days were rainy and cold but still enjoyable since the scenery was jaw dropping beautiful and the bike trail looked like the yellow brick road with it covered in golden leaves. Many of the small towns had closed for the fall and winter. The worst part was we were also missing the high point, the “Crown Jewel of the rails-to-trail system” in our country, and one of the top 3 trails in the world. What we were missing was the world famous Hiawatha Trail, only open from May 28-September 25. We were left to day dream about a return all winter and spring waiting for the balmy days of summer.
Planning for the Big Trip
Since my wife had a summer job with only 2 weeks off at the end of July 2017, I tried to recruit any and all of my cycling friends or anyone who had ever rode a bike! Finally my two best friends decided to go but we had to put off the trip to the end of May, then early June, then late June, then early July, but finally we were ready to go in mid-July. But wait, hold the presses, they both cancelled on me the day before we were to leave. In fact, one guy was in Chicago already and the other had band practices to do. Madder than hell and ten minutes later, I joined up with a Wasatch Mountain Club river trip on the Salmon and Snake Rivers for 10 days and I left 12 hours later. A whirlpool undertow on the Salmon flipped me out of my kayak and almost killed me but that’s another story!
By satellite phone I texted my wife, “Sigo vivo”, I’m still alive. And though she couldn’t sleep and was fighting a horrendous tooth infection while having to be in charge of her school Esperanza Elementary, her vacation finally came and she rose to the occasion like the heroin she is and said, “Honey, if your buddies are letting you down, then I’ll go with you”. An aside: (Men, if you think your wives can’t do what you are doing, think again!) It was time to change from my trusty old steed and touring bike that took me from Chicago to Mexico, Central and South America for two and a half years and get out our old Santana Cilantro tandem and make this a first time tour for my courageous wife from Costa Rica. You must know, this is the woman who I taught to cycle at 35 years old, and who suffered a broken tailbone in a bike crash in Snow Canyon some years ago. She doesn’t even cycle to work two miles away because there are cars on our West Valley City side streets! She ended up tough enough to put in two of the hardest days of riding I’ve ever done! Harder than crossing the Andes from Chile to Argentina and she did it on her first ride, and that’s heroic!
The Bitterroot 300 Trail
So what is this Grand Tour that every cyclist in the mountain west must do? The Bitterroot 300K really can be 3 tours in one. This tour can include bike packing, normal bicycle touring and camping, and European style touring including hotels in small towns. You can do this via a touring bike or road bike for the paved 72 miles of butter smooth bike trails and 48 to 61 miles of country roads. To complete this circle on the Northern Pacific Multi-use trail, the Route of the Hiawatha, and the Old Milwaukee Scenic Alternate Trail, I’d recommend a mountain bike or good gravel bike. Because we used our tandem with panniers in front and back with things piled on top of those front and rear racks we were going to really suffer on the gravel. We couldn’t have done it because the bike lacked great climbing gears except for the fact that this was all done on railroad grade trail at 2 and 3 percent grade.
Here is how we did it: but you could do this many different ways, both easier or harder to fit your style. We started in Wallace, ID on (or should I say, under) Interstate 90. From Salt Lake City all you have to do is go north on I-15 and make one left turn on I-90 up around Helena and you are there some 9 hours and 650 miles later. Wallace is a “mine owners” town with great architecture and terrific restaurants. It’s more authentic than Park City and the residents truly know how to fight for their rights to survive. In 1976 the Interstate Hwy. commission wanted to bulldoze half the town to put the highway through on level. Because they never did an environmental study the towns people took it to the Supreme Court and won so the highway had to do a “fly-over” to go around and above the city. But with all the great signs up on top telling you there is something special down below, only the fast driving idiots heading to Portland or Seattle wiz by and say, “oh look, cute town” and never stop. You can stand in the middle of the street in the center of town and photo bomb your feet by the man hole cover that proclaims you are at the ‘Center of the Universe” and no one will bother you or hurry you on your way.
The place to stay without a doubt is the Wallace Inn; bike friendly, best pool, sauna, Finnish bath, hot tub and is where the “Prime Minister” of the bike trails works. The Man, The Myth, The Legend, and The Prime Minister is Rick Shaffer your super contact person on all things pertaining to biking up there. ([email protected] 1-800-643-2386 or cell: 208-691-9169) He will answer all your questions give you hand written maps detailing every step of the way, and he knows every foot of this Bitterroot 300 Kilometers Trail, the entire 185 mile loop. Almost everyone up there knows him or has heard of him so you will be in good hands with Rick.
We left Wallace on day one headed east to Mullan but after just those 7 miles the paved trails ends and the gravel begins. We peddled into the wilderness all day and finally arrived at the Lookout Pass Ski Area where you can rent bikes and get a shuttle to the East Portal of the Hiawatha or you can skip this entire ordeal and get a shuttle from Rick in Wallace. We had to press on for more hours of struggling to get to a wilderness campground that had only two features to recommend itself: a small stream for water and bathing and lots of huckleberries.
Day two we headed out struggling with the uphill gravel trail heading so far east into Montana I thought we were going to end up in Missoula but we did find our way to the trail head of the famous Hiawatha at 1:00 PM and we were beat. After a day and a half of seeing zero cyclists now they are packing the trail. You pay $10 for the privilege to ride your bike on the trail but there are water stops, bathrooms, and tech helpers along the way. The trail is only 15 miles but because either we were so tired or it is just so full of the AMAZING that it felt like 30 miles when we were done. You start off in the first of 10 tunnels and this one is a mile and a half long and pitch black. If your lights are weak you’ll be walking and you don’t want that because it is so cold in there you can’t wait till you can get out. The tunnel is so long it’s actually “Interstate”, so you go from Montana back into Idaho. There are so many tunnels you start to take them for granted except when you see deer in them! But just when you think you can handle anything, you see trestle bridges shooting off into spaces filling between one mountain and another. One trestle is 760 ft. long and 220 ft. high! My wife said, “I’m not going over that, or at least not riding it, and for sure I’m not looking down”, but she did it!
After we left the Hiawatha and the tourists that included old people, kids as little as 4 years old, and every kind of bike imaginable, we were alone again so we kept heading south and down toward the village of Avery, population 18. We camped again in a US Forest Service campground by the North Fork of the St. Joe River. That whole road going down was gorgeous and still very few campers along the way.
Day three we made it to Avery after 5 miles of more gravel and then finally sweet smooth highway and no traffic! A second breakfast in the general store which is the only thing going in Avery is a must if not for the many posters of beautiful women that the owner says, “They work for me!” We cycled along the St. Joe River and a big country two lane highway that had basically no traffic for a city guy like me, but for locals they said to watch out for the logging trucks of which there were a couple. The truckers were courteous and gave us lots of room plus they call ahead and tell the others that there are cyclists on the road. After 24 more miles we were hammered and now a blowout. Though we were cycling in “happy valley” with no smoke and clear skies, there was smoke all over that part of the country, but we were in a sort of “heat dome” and today it was hotter than snot! We reached Calder population: at least 2. Nothing open but the post office and the lady Ronda, who worked there, called her friend Tony who came in one minute and took us in his pickup truck to St. Maries. When you are in the fairly large town of St Maries, you’ll want to stay at The Pines Motel because they offer free bike shuttles to Plummer or Heyburn State Park. That will get you back on the Coeur D’Alene Trail without suffering through curvy and hilly roads with lots of traffic and no shoulder for bikes.
Day four included a great breakfast at Heidi’s next door to the motel and open at 4:00 AM for the loggers. They have great food and big portions, plus it gives a real touch of Germany, so don’t miss that. After our shuttle ride to Plummer we were ready for the silky smooth bike trail and the 7 mile downhill. All was perfect and I was crossing my fingers that my patch, a $1 bill boot, on the tire was going to hold after a blow out on that ruined tire. I guess it never pays to be too cheap because even though I folded the bill over to make it twice as strong it ended blowing a hole through George Washington’s forehead and his neck. Luckily we were back to “civilization for cyclists” and two tandem teams came by and patched it up with 3 dollars this time. With just 2 miles back to Plummer we elected for safety sake to return rather than chance another blowout and have to walk our way back 15 miles to civilization. In Plumber we sought out assistance at the Benewah Wellness Center and came across super cyclist Kjell Schioberg who was going back to Germany to race in 3 days as if it were just down the road a piece. He hooked us up with co-worker Frank Bybee the “Worley Warrior” who took me up to Coeur D’Alene to buy a special tire for our tandem at Cyclemetrix. It’s a great racing bike shop, and Jim Kozak the owner and his daughter who’s the chef mechanic were much better equipped than the Ace Hardware stores that we had been dealing with. On the way up Frank told me his life story then gave me his book to fill in the rest of the story. We even made a two hour stop over to attend one of his AA meetings so I could get the life story on 27 other people! For a kid from the Southside of Chicago, I was starting to feel like a local up here in the North Woods of Idaho. Day four was now shot and the sun was going down so we bagged it for the one and only motel in Plummer. Thank god it wasn’t the Bates Motel from Psycho so we took what they had even though it looked a little bit sketchy.
Day five we were good to go so we sailed down the 7 miles of downhill, crossed the 2 and a half mile bridge and sailed in to Harrison to chat with the owners of the Bike Haus and Coffee shop, Jerri and Arron. They were willing to help us and were wondering if we were going to make it. Lunch was a delicious quiche at a corner coffee shop, and then we were on our way to make some make-up miles heading north along scenic lakes and riverside bike trails. Once again we could have been classified as “Los Locos” since only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun”. We took lots of rest and water breaks to beat the heat and kept chugging along. When we got to Enaville we came across Idaho’s oldest restaurant from 1880, The Snake Pit. Very rustic and historic but no longer are there “ladies” offering their “special services”. Missing out on that treat, we treated ourselves to salad, pie, and beer as our pre-supper. It wasn’t too much further to reach Pinehurst and our camp at the By The Way campground. Though it was mostly for RV’s, Dave the camp host, made us feel at home with fresh coffee in the morning making up for the extra light and noise from the highway close by.
Day six was harder than it looked on paper. Of course the heat still was cooking us and now we had some uphill to contend with too. Our tandem was starting to unscrew itself. Before all fell apart, we came across a great bike shop alongside of the trail in Kellogg, Excelsior Cycle and Sport, with Mike the owner doing a fabulous job of getting us back on the trail. Lunch was at another train depot turned into a restaurant and their fabulous smoked meat tacos were the best I have ever eaten. Finally at 3:00 PM we limped into Wallace and it was a most welcomed sight to see our RV waiting for us; and as Elmer Fudd use to say,” Wrest and wewaxsation at wast”. We took our relaxation in the pool at the Wallace Inn and celebrated with a glass of wine thanks to the Prime Minister Rick Shaffer.
Last but not least, every cyclist must make a pilgrimage to the Mecca of bike tourism in the Americas and one of the top centers for cycle-touring in the world: Missoula’s own Adventure Cycling Association at 150 East Pine Street. This office/store gets you your cycling maps for trips all over the US, your magazines full of stories about great cycling adventures, and they have an array of cycling gadgets and equipment that will make you salivate. But for me, it is the “history tour” of the store turned museum that excites me; and after taking my fourth tour I was more thrilled than ever. There is no better way than this to end a cycle tour and I can’t wait to come back and do it again! Let the quitters quit. Thanks to my valiant wife who rose to the occasion when I needed her most, we did it! So, put this on your bucket list and just do it!!
Nuts and Bolts:
- Day One: Wallace to Mullan, Idaho – 7mi. Then to Lookout Pass – l2 mi. Then to primitive campground-3 mi. Total: 22 mi. but think “40 miles” on a fully loaded touring bike. Best to take a mountain bike or gravel bike set for bikepacking.
- Day Two: Primitive camp to , Idaho and Montana – 9 mi. all gravel and uphill, think “18 miles”. Hiawatha Trail – 15 miles all downhill and smooth (take your time and enjoy). Open May 28-Sept. 25th. Cost: $10. Pearson trailhead to North Fork St. Joe USFS campground – 7 miles.
- Day Three: Campground to Avery, Idaho – 2 miles. Avery to St. Maries – 48 mi. Smooth low traffic highway FS 50.
- Day Four: Shuttle from The Pines Motel (free)( [email protected] (208) 245-2545) to Plummer, Idaho -13 miles avoids hilly, lots of traffic, no shoulder road. We then spent the day getting a new tire and doing repairs. We stayed in the one and only motel in Plummer. I would recommend rolling on downhill to Harrison-16 miles to end your day camp or stay in a hotel.
- Day Five: We coasted 7 miles downhill on super-smooth bike trail, then crossed a 2.5 mile bike bridge and then on along the coast of Lake Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho to Harrison for lunch. We then covered Harrison to Pine Creek (Pinehurst)-34 miles and camped at By The Way campground.
- Day Six: Pine Crest to Wallace, Idaho – 15 miles.
- Stay at the Wallace Inn Bike Trail Headquarters and meet the Prime Minister Rick Shaffer 1-800-643-2386, thewallaceinn.com. Have Rick send you the map of all the trails. · If you want to arrange bike shuttles: Ask Rick or visit www.captain-lou.com, 208-818-2254
Supplies and Services:
- Water: No hay problema, you are always close to a river, lake, or stream but bring a purifier. People are friendly and will gladly fill you up.
- Food and grocery availability: Great restaurants in Wallace, St. Maries, and Harrison. Not much in Avery and the one bar/restaurant in Calder is closed a couple of days a week. As you get close to I-90 you pick up some great places like the Snake Pit in Enaville, Hill Street Depot in Kellogg and many others. Get your groceries in Wallace, St. Maries, Plummer, Harrison. You can get small things in Mullan and Avery and all the little stops along the I-90 corridor.
- Bike Shops: The Cycle Haus in Harrison, 208-689-3436, plus espresso, craft beer and more! In Kellogg right on the trail go to Excelsior Cycle, 208-786-3751, both rent bikes. For the Hiawatha you can rent every kind of bike and trailer at the Lookout Pass Ski Area at I-90 Exit 0 or call 208-744-1234 ext. 16.
For more information on the trails, see: ridethehiawatha.com and friendsofcdatrails.org/route/bitterroot-300k-loop/