Resources and Library:


Hosted by

One of our country's most scenic rail-trails, the route passes over seven trestles, some over 200 feet high, and through nine tunnels in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains.

arrowThis project was nominated for a Planning/Design Award as part of the 2008 National Trails Awards, announced at the 19th National Trails Symposium in Little Rock, Arkansas.


Route of the Hiawatha rail trail traverses national forest land

photo of bikes in mountains

One of the major trestles on the Hiawatha Trail


The Route of the Hiawatha is a 15-mile trail on the abandoned Milwaukee Road railroad grade, between St. Regis, MT, and the North Fork of the St. Joe River, near Avery, ID. The Route of the Hiawatha trail is operated in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest by a concessionaire under a USFS Special-Use Permit.

It has been called one of the most scenic rail-trail routes in the country. The route passes over seven trestles, some over 200 feet high, and through nine tunnels in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. Constructed by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company between 1907 and 1909, this segment of railroad completed the line’s transcontinental extension from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. The route's numerous tunnels, trestles and earth fills remain a feat of railroad engineering even by today's standards.

After the infamous 1910 fires that consumed nearly three million acres in the region, electric locomotives were introduced along a 440-mile stretch through Montana to Avery, Idaho. This innovation by the railroad was the first use of electrification over an extended distance. Generations of railroaders kept the Milwaukee Road running until it finally went bankrupt in 1977. The last train west passed through in 1980, after which the line was abandoned.

Issue: Transforming an abandoned railroad grade into a safe trail for bicycle and pedestrian travel presented many challenges.

Solution: The Taft Tunnel Preservation Society brought many partners together to expedite and support restoration and preservation of this masterpiece rail–trail project. This project has captured the imagination of hundreds of volunteers and organizations who have donated funding, labor, materials and equipment to transform an old railroad grade into one of the most spectacular bicycle rides in the country.

photo of big signs with roof over them

Route of the Hiawatha Interpretive Kiosk

Results: Collaborative efforts of many partners resulted in a world-class recreational trail that spans two national forests, two counties and two states. With government funding and private donations, trail construction started in 1997. The Idaho portion of the trail opened for public use on May 29, 1998. Safety upgrades of the 1.7-mile-long St. Paul Pass, or Taft Tunnel, were completed in May of 2001.

Bicyclists can ride the 30-mile round trip with almost 2,000 feet of elevation change, or choose to ride 15 miles downhill and shuttle back to the top. The shuttle charges $9 for adults and $6 for ages 3–13. Helmets and lights are required for all trail users, and a $9 usage fee ($5 ages 3– 13) applies to everyone. The concessionaire runs the shuttle, collects fees and provides information, emergency help, first aid and water if needed.


The Taft Tunnel Preservation Society was formed for the purpose of promoting the conversion of the abandoned Milwaukee Railroad grade into a recreational trail, working in collaboration with the USFS. This non-profit group provided momentum, expertise and support throughout project planning and analysis, fundraising, and construction phases. Many partners contributed their time and expertise:

• Idaho State Parks contributed funding for the environmental analysis, access to the State’s “snooper truck” for structural inspections and cable tensioning on the route’s many high steel trestles, and State grant funds for trestle improvements and repair;

• Montana State Parks provided State grant funds for installation of a trailhead interpretive kiosk;

• North Idaho College students in a welding class used their skills to design and fabricate massive open mesh gates to close access to a tunnel that presented safety risks;

• Milwest—this organization of railroad buffs and historians donated its entire archive of Milwaukee Railroad advertising materials for reference and use in development of Route of the Hiawatha interpretive materials and themes; and

• Local mining engineers provided technical review and recommendations regarding inspection, repair and reconstruction options for tunnels and snow sheds.

Additionally, a variety of funding, resources, materials and labor were donated by agencies, businesses, organizations and individuals including historic railroad journals and photos, traffic barriers, signs and posts, work parties, site preparation, and funding for toilets.

Project Success

A key component to success was a steering committee that was co-chaired by the Idaho Panhandle National Forest Supervisor and the Taft Tunnel Preservation Society Director. This interagency, multi-partner steering committee included representatives of the Idaho Congressional delegation, local mayors, county commissioners, local state and county government representatives, trail advocate groups, and chamber of commerce and visitor bureau representatives.

In this highly effective partnership, the Taft Tunnel Preservation Society and USFS worked together in the sharing of ideas, identification of options and opportunities, resolution of issues, and implementation of solutions. In its role as a non-governmental partner, the Taft Tunnel Preservation Society was very effective in generating widespread project support, uniting trail users and advocates, identifying creative solutions and needed resources, fundraising, and helping maintain implementation momentum.

In 1935, the railroad initiated streamliner passenger service with its speedy new trains—all named “Hiawatha.” The name of the rail-trail comes from a slogan the Milwaukee Road displayed on the side of its passenger cars. "Hiawatha" was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famed "Song of the Hiawatha," written in the mid-1800s. The connection with speed comes from the passage: Swift on foot was Hiawatha, He could shoot an arrow from him, And run forward with such fleetness, That the arrow fell away behind him.

Dollars and Funding Sources for Route of the Hiawatha Funding:

$390,000 - Congressional earmark for USFS survey and trail development design—1995
$450,000 - ongressional earmark for Phase I construction on Idaho segment—1997
$50,000 - Private donations in materials and funds—1997
$750,000 - Congressional earmark for Phase II reconstruction of St. Paul Pass Tunnel—
$74,000 - ID Dept. of Parks and Recreation grant (National Recreation Trail Program) for trestle
and bridge improvements—1999
$20,000 - Taft Tunnel Preservation Society and North Idaho College match for above RTP
$40,000 - USFS challenge cost share funds for interpretive kiosks and toilet—1999
$5,000 - MT Fish Wildlife and Parks grant (National Recreation Trail Program)—1999
$750,000 - Congressional earmark for Phase II St. Paul Pass Tunnel, trailheads and
interpretive signs—2000
$2,529,00 - Total Route of the Hiawatha funding as of 2000

increased tourism in connection with the new rail–trail. Trail use was estimated at 2,000 people in 1993, 8,600 people in 1998 and 24,000 people in 2007 (USFS, 2008). Another 31 miles of trail including a tunnel and two trestles are planned to connect to St. Regis, MT. This portion of the trail will be for use by bikers, hikers, all-terrain vehicles, horses, and automobiles.

For more information:

Friends of the Coeur d'Alene Trails -

Lookout Associates (concessionaire) -

Greg Marsh's website for the Hiawatha Trail -

Print Friendly
Print Friendly and PDF




Facebook Twitter

Stay up to date on legislative issues for trails, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


business directory


trail database

Need trail skills and education? Do you provide training? Join the National Trails Training Partnership!

The NTTP Online Calendar connects you with courses, conferences, and trail-related training

arrowEnjoy and share the new online, digital version of the American Trails Magazine!

arrowHelp us provide you more useful resources to keep you on the cutting-edge -- please join today!

arrowWe are advocating for your interests! Visit the Supporting Trails page to view the latest in legislative news, current issues, and opportunities, and to learn how to access funding.

arrow Sign me up for American Trails Action Alerts and e-Newsletters">Sign up for American Trails Action Alerts and Trail Tracks e-Newsletters.


PDF  Some of our documents are in PDF format and require free Adobe Acrobat Reader software.
  Download Acrobat Reader

section 508 logo American Trails and NTTP support accessibility with Section 508: read more.