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Blogging about gardening in zone 4, marriage, our golden retriever and life in general.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Riding the Route of the Hiawatha

Dusty and I are huge history nerds. Seriously. We spend weekends traipsing around Montana hunting down historic sites. We're those people who buy the "Roadside History of Montana" books and then read them aloud on a drive. Dusty has kind of a big thing for the Milwaukee Road (railroad), more specifically. I'm a fan too.

Big, huge nerds.

So it should be no surprise to you that we used a day of our vacation to ride the "Route of the Hiawatha" last week. And while I wouldn't call it a workout, I would still call it an awesome adventure.

Here's how it works. You drive to Lookout Pass ski area on the border and buy your $9 ticket. It's another $9 if you're taking the shuttle bus back from the bottom to the parking area. Since we were headed back to Harrison after the bike ride, and you can drive from the end of the trail along the old railroad bed to St. Maries and on to Harrison, we only paid for DJ to take the shuttle bus.

Tickets in hand, you drive into Montana and get off at the Taft exit. Then you drive up about 2 miles to the "East Portal" of the St. Paul Tunnel and park in the parking lot.

Pro tip: the earlier you can get there the better. We arrived at about 11 am and the parking lot was nearly overflowing.

The East Portal area has some really nice interpretative plaques about the Milwaukee Road through this area and the "Big Burn" of 1910.

Once you've gotten acquainted with the signage, you head to the tent where they check your ticket and give you the FAQ's.

You'll need to bring your own bike, headlamp (for the tunnels) and helmet. I'd also recommend taking water/ liquid and snacks.

'Cause I'm all about the snacks!

And from there, you're off! First through the mile and a half long Saint Paul Tunnel. In the depths, it's 45 degrees year round. Your headlamp will definitely not seem bright enough at first, and the sides are full of water, but it's really, really a cool deal!

The interperative signs at the railroad sidings are really well done.

The route winds in a loop around a long drainage in the upper St. Joe River, so you're able to look down on the trestles you'll ride across below. 

The Milwaukee Road was completed about 1910, and went to an all electric railroad between Harlowton, MT and Avery, ID. They were able to draw hydropwer off of Montana Power's new dams on the Missouri River; which of course was another subsidiary company of Standard Oil, along with the Anaconda Company and the Milwaukee Road. Sounds like familiar politics, no?

The ride is pretty much all downhill, though at a gentle 3-5% grade. I could have ridden back up it, but it would have been a grinder under the hot sun.

 It's fun to look back up and see where you've been.

The inside of the tunnels are pretty muddy, so a little splatter is to be expected (note: Dusty's rear end).

The tricky part about tunnels is coordinating turning ON the headlamp and taking OFF the sunglasses.

Overall, the route is a really neat way to bring people into contact with their national forests and history. It sounds like the trail will be extended 30 miles from Taft to St. Regis sometime in the nearish future. Since it's all downhill and they run a shuttle back to the parking lot, one doesn't have to be athletic to use the trail. I'd recommend riding the Route of the Hiawatha for any reasonably fit person who can balance on a bike and operate the brake levers. It's really a fun way to get back into some of the most extraordinarily beautiful, and remote, parts of the US!

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