A new trail system in northern Idaho's panhandle let's road bikers cruise into the backcountry on paved railroad beds, allowing tireless pedalers to make it all the way across the state's narrowest section in a day while enjoying pit stops in 19th-century boom towns. The 88 miles of paved trails – comprised of the 72-mile Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes and the 15-mile Hiawatha trail, which itself includes a 1.7-mile tunnel burrowed through the Bitterroot Mountains – are a smooth-tire dream. The pavement is fresh, crowds are scarce, and the grade is relatively flat. The wildlife, scenery, and history of the area offer lots of reasons to stop and the small towns along the way are full of cool bike shops, places to stay, and divey bars. Some bikers start with small sections of the trail while others attack the whole thing at once.
Starting in the small town of Plummer, on the western side of the panhandle, the trail follows Plummer Creek through the Heyburn State Park until it joins the south end of Coeur d'Alene Lake. From there, the path runs along the edge of the lake, across the Historic Chatcolet wooden truss bridge and up the western lakeshore toward the town of Harrison. Stop in town for a swim and a burger or beer at One Shot Charlie's, a local watering hole with a frontier attitude. The Crane House Museum, which contains the remains of an old jail, is a great place to learn about the local mining and logging industries – the reason the train tracks were built in the first place.
From Harrison the trail winds along the Coeur d'Alene River through the Chain Lakes, a series of nine scenic swimming holes linked together by the river and once used to transport the huge logs. Moose, bald eagles, osprey, deer, and elk are common sights along this 30-mile stretch. Nearby Kellogg, named after the man who made the largest silver strike in the area, is now home to a cool little ski town at the base of Silver Mountain and site of the longest gondola on Earth. The Silverhorn Motor Inn provides comfortable accommodations and heaping breakfasts at the Silver Dollar cafe.
Eleven miles further along is the town of Wallace, famous for its bordello-rich history and for serving as the backdrop to the 1997 Pierce Brosnan hit 'Dante's Peak.' The Sierra Silver Mine Tour, which starts just outside of town, offers an opportunity to check out an old silver mine via a 16-person trolley. During the ride up to the mine, hard hats are handed out. An experienced guide leads visitors into the mine's rather intimidating main tunnel and offers a quick course on mineral extraction.
From Wallace it's a beautiful seven-mile ride to Mullan, which sits on the Idaho-Montana Border, where the Coeur d'Alene trail meets the Hiawatha trail, a somewhat shorter railroad bed turned bike trail that leads pedalers through the eerie dark of a 1.7-mile long tunnel blasted through the heart of a mountain. The dark may remind bikers of the mines they've visited, but gliding through toward the light is easier work than sifting through stone.
More information:The Trail of the Coeur d' Alenes has 20 developed trailheads that serve as entry points and is technically supposed to run from Mullan to Plummer – we just prefer to do it backwards so we can finish on the Hiawatha. Plummer is an hour drive on the South Palouse Highway from Spokane, Washington.