Guest Post: Route of the Hiawatha

Hello, it's J here! A few weeks ago, I took Coco over to Montana for a bike ride along the Route of the Hiawatha. We'd done it last summer at the end of the season and she'd loved it, so when it opened at the end of May, I wanted to get up there as soon as possible.

The 15-mile-long bike trail goes along the old Milwaukee Railway over the Bitterroot Mountains. It was nearly 90 degrees out, but I had her bundled up in a fleece because the trail starts with a nearly two-mile-long tunnel.  

Inside it was about 50 degrees, cold and wet, like entering a basement that's eerily come to life. The sound of water dripping and rushing down the tunnel walls is constant, but it's so dark you can't see it. At first, only being able to see what's illuminated by the headlight is disorienting. I'm a bit claustrophobic, but oddly, this ride thrills me in the way a really good haunted house thrills. It's just frightening enough to be fun.

When we came out of the tunnel we were in Idaho. Most of the trail is on a fairly smooth gravel road. The appeal of any rail trail is that they're relatively flat. The Hiawatha goes through 11 tunnels and over 7 trestles.  

We stopped for lunch on one trestle and although it's super secure, I had a hard time relaxing that high up in the air. Coco and I dropped rocks through the cracks and watched them fall away into the canyon below.

Western Montana and the Idaho Panhandle are so enchanting. The land is rugged and undeveloped. There's no cell phone reception. I always put my phone in airplane mode, otherwise the phone will search for a signal constantly and use up all of the battery power. Maybe there's something uniquely special about going to a place where you're forced to unplug. It's liberating. But it's not all roses either. Because of the the bears, cougars, wolves, etc. I'm also in a slightly heightened state, too. I tend to always take the kids with me, so I've always got to know what I'll do. This is more of a dull murmur in the background of my thoughts and less of an alarm bell. Animals aren't looking for trouble. Several times on this trip we startled groups of deer hanging out in the tunnels keeping cool.

You ride 7.5 miles down and then back up the way you came. Right at the turnaround point, I got a flat. During regular riding the rear tire will wear twice as fast as the front. With kids on the back it wears much more quickly than that. I hadn't been rotating my tires and there was a big gash in it back tire from a rock I'd hit.

Coco thought it was great that I flipped the bike upside down, took off the tires, rotated them, switched the tube and pumped them back up. On the inside I was a bit keyed up. It was getting dark quickly. I only had one spare tube. It had to hold. With the gash in my tire, the chances of another flat were high. There's no way I'd walk the bike through that dark two-mile tunnel at the beginning, which meant that if the tube popped, I'd be completely screwed. The only other option was to push the bike up and over the mountain pass along a narrow logging road, which would have taken well into the night. Riding through the tunnel is thrilling, but walking was too terrifying to even contemplate.

"Alright Coco," I said, "you've got to be calm so I can focus on riding and we can make it back to the car." Kids can jerk around in the bike seat and really throw off the equilibrium of the bike. Honestly she'd been sort of a pill up until then, but from there on out she was humming and singing softly. I felt like Obi-Wan.

I knew there was a chance that a storm would blow through. I'd seen a blip of it in the forecast. As usual, once I got out there I lost track of time. Part of the appeal of the trip is not being bound by a schedule. This was a Tuesday; absolutely no one was out there. It was so tranquil. But, weather in the mountains can be mercurial. On the horizon were towering thunderheads and I couldn't deny it was unnaturally dark.

We entered a 900-foot-long tunnel. 100 feet from the end, I stopped in the tunnel.  I could see the forest at the opening of the tunnel was being thrashed by the storm. It had come in that quickly. The smell was of minced Christmas trees. There was so much rain, hail and wind, we had to turn around and go back deeper into the tunnel for refuge. The wind blew hailstones, leaves and pine needles into the opening and they bounced off the walls.

Once the storm had passed, we went outside. "Yay, it snowed!" Coco said. The ground was carpeted with hailstones larger than golf balls. We were so lucky to have been in the tunnel! I kept saying this to Coco, but the gravity of dangerous situations is just lost on children in moments like this.

The rest of the ride was a dream.  The light following the storm was gorgeous and the landscape took on the intense color and contrast of a painting by one of the Dutch masters. We made it back to the car and I ordered new tires first thing once we were home. Crisis averted. If you're in the area, I can't recommend the Route of the Hiawatha enough. Find pricing, rental bike and visitor info here. Let me know in the comments if you'd like more guests posts from me on Swiss Lark. Lindsey and I have some ideas we think would be fun to share from a dad's perspective. Thanks for reading! And if you've like to see more of my adventures with Coco, Theo and Lindsey, please follow me on Instagram! Thanks again. 


  1. Great post! Sounds like quite an adventure. And, yes, I always love to hear the dad's perspective in a family. Keep 'em coming!

    1. Hooray! We will set up the next post ASAP. :)

  2. I agree - keep them coming! I can't believe the size of those hailstones!

  3. I agree - keep them coming! I can't believe the size of those hailstones!

    1. So terrifying, right? Thank goodness they were in the tunnel!!

  4. What a wonderful post (and adventure!). Loved reading J's voice.

  5. Loved your post. Just had a moment to sit and catch up. Sounds like a fun day.

  6. oh i love this hiking trail. i would love to pack my hiking backpack and fly here.


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