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Flat and paved, the Trail of Coeur d’Alene route is biking bliss for newcomers and veterans.
By Jim Sayer
One of the best cycling rail-trails in North America started on a bed of toxins. The lyrically named Trail of the Coeur d’Alene slices across the panhandle of Idaho from the Montana border to near the Washington State border, through gorgeous Northwest forests, rivers and lakes. Eventually, it may be part of the restored Milwaukee Road trail corridor, providing safe, uninterrupted cycling and walking between Seattle and Missoula, Montana – or possibly Chicago!
The paved trail came into being in 2004 – in part as a way to cap the toxic tailings of old railway and mining activities. It’s safe riding today although there are spots where signage will warn you to stay within a short distance of the pavement.
Otherwise, it’s biking bliss for newcomers or veterans. The total length is 72 miles (116 kilometers), connecting Plummer, ID, to Mullan, ID. As with most rail-trails, it’s relatively flat, so a strong cyclist could do the whole thing in one day – but I say, why hurry?
I did the trail on an Adventure Cycling tour with my (then) 10-year-old daughter. We rode all of 15 miles (24 kms) the first day across fantastic retrofitted trestles, beneath osprey nests, to the charming town of Harrison (population 260) and camped right on Lake Coeur d’Alene. It also helped that we were there when the town was hosting its annual parade and picnic, complete with sack races and homemade pie.
The rest of the trail is just like that – beautiful scenery interspersed with small historic towns. Make sure you check out Wallace, which has one of the nicest historic downtowns I’ve seen in the US, plus good barbeque and bars. There are plenty of bridges to jump off of into river and lake, lots of wildlife, periodic patches of wild berries and even a few unexpected perks, like the world’s longest gondola ride at Silver Mountain in Kellogg, ID. The only minor drawback en route is the limited number of (official) camp sites, but there are some nice ones, and with a little careful planning, you can design a great trip.
One bonus is that nearby, not far from the Montana border, is one of the other great rail-trails on the continent: the Hiawatha. This extraordinary 15 mile (24 km) gravel trail cuts through the Bitterroot Mountains and uses many historic trestles – spanning deep river valleys – and tunnels, including the 1.7 mile (3 km) Taft Tunnel. It’s totally dark inside, so bring a bright light. Unlike the Coeur d’Alene Trail (which is free), there’s a small fee to use the Hiawatha – but if you’re in the area, it would be a cycling sin not to enjoy it. Ultimately, the trail is slated to be part of a beautiful 185-mile (298 km) trail loop.
Together, these trails make Idaho’s northern panhandle a mini-mecca for people who want relaxed car-free cycling experiences in a gorgeous Northern Rockies setting.
Jim Sayer is executive director of Adventure Cycling Association, the largest cycling membership group in North America (www.adventurecycling.org). Adventure Cycling works to inspire people of all ages to travel by bicycle.
Great local resource on trails and facilities