Biking the Hiawatha Trail With Kids


“Let’s go on adventure”, I said. The truth is, I think I say that in the lead up to every Memorial Day Weekend. I’m ready to get out of town, shake the dust off the camping gear, and begin experiencing the main reason why I live in Montana: summer. Ok, nearly summer. It’s almost shorts weather, if you stand in the sun just right and don’t move. The ice has melted off of the majority (a few?) of the lakes and the rivers are running fast with melting snow. Summer or not, it’s time for an adventure.

This year, we decided to bike the Route of the Hiawatha, a 15 mile “Rails to Trails” bike path that begins in Montana and ends in Idaho. On Saturday night, we camped in St. Regis at the Cabin City campground. Cabin City is a great campground – not too far from the highway to get you off track, but far enough to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. We unloaded the kids’ bikes from the trailer and they spent the evening biking around the paved loop at the campground.

Things to do with kids. Bike Riding the Route of the Hiawatha. St. Regis, MT

Camping at the Cabin City campground in St. Regis,MT.

The next morning, after a leisurely camp breakfast, we packed up and headed over to Lookout Pass to purchase our tickets for the Hiawatha. Tickets were $10 for grown ups and $6 for kids (6 to 13). We also purchased a shuttle bus ticket, which was $9 per grown up and $6 per kid. The shuttle bus ticket is important because once you get your kids down the hill, I’m pretty sure you will not want to try to get them to bike back up it.

Biking the Route of the Hiawatha

Bikes are at the ready.

Now, here’s the part where it turns into a classic Graham family Memorial Day adventure. The St. Paul Pass Tunnel at the top of the Hiawatha is 1.7 miles long. Yes, 1.7 miles of complete darkness. This tunnel does not appeal to us for so many reasons, the main two being our daughter who doesn’t like the dark and our 8 year old, easily frightened, slightly wobbly on a bike son. Big tunnel – no thank you! We were told that you could normally take a road that goes over the pass and avoid the tunnel, but not this weekend. It was opening day and they hadn’t plowed the road yet. The adventure begins.

Biking the Route of the Hiawatha

Spectacular scenery awaits on the Route of the Hiawatha.

We thought it would be easy enough to take the road to the Idaho trailhead and start our adventure there. The map made it look so close and I swear the woman at the counter called it a “highway”. Just an extra 30 miles or so of driving and we’d solve the tunnel problem. Here’s what we learned: as Montanans, we have a very loose definition of the word “road”. But, no matter what we will let pass as a road, it’s nothing compared to what passes for a road in Idaho. I may be exaggerating a bit, but the nausea that I felt as we slowly navigated 20 miles of bumpy “road” was very real. The “road” to the Idaho “trailhead” was unpaved, rutted out, and a little scary – especially with a trailer in tow. Maybe this was because it was the start of the season, maybe it’s always this way – who knows. Anyway, I would not recommend taking the road to the Pearson Trailhead in Idaho. If you don’t want to face the tunnel, just wait for them to clear the snow off the pass.

Once we arrived at the trailhead, we loaded up our bikes on a school bus turned shuttle bus and headed up the road. Again. The bus ride was a similar experience to the drive that I had taken, but I felt a little more confident because I hadn’t heard any stories of Hiawatha busses careening down cliff. These are the types of stories that people usually tell me when I mention that I’m headed on a particular adventure, so no news is good news in this case. We had one dramatic moment on the bus when a car was coming down the one lane “road” and we were headed up. We all cheered and clapped with relief as the bus driver safely maneuvered us around the other vehicle.

Bike riding the Rout of the Hiawatha

The bike trail is not steep–just a slow gentle grade.

And finally – we were at the top. From the Montana side (the side without the vomit inducing dirt road drive – you get here by taking the Taft exit after purchasing your ticket at Lookout Pass) we would have taken the school bus shuttle at the end of our journey. There were many people who had ridden the trail and were headed home, back through the tunnel. We set out down the hill, happy with our decision to skip the tunnel, even though it took a little extra effort. The trail was not a steep hill, just a slow, gentle grade. Downhill enough to make the trip effortless, but not so much that I worried about the kids getting going too fast.

Things to do with kids. Bike Riding the Route of the Hiawatha. St. Regis, MT

Interpretive signs are an added bonus on the Hiawatha.

Two of my kids zipped off to lead the pack. One hung back and started her slow, steady descent. Her leisurely attitude was conveyed by the sound of her singing “Mama Mia” and other favorites as she pedaled her way down.  My other son stayed with me. Mostly because I was a little nervous for his safety – he has a hard time focusing and he has a tendency to bike forward while looking sideways or behind him. These are not good things when one side of your path drops off the side of a mountain.

Interpretive signs are an added bonus on the Hiawatha.

Beautifully designed signage with interesting information makes learning fun!

So, we stayed together and took the opportunity to talk, ride, and look at the signs. The beautifully done interpretive signs were an added bonus on the Hiawatha. We stopped at every one. We learned about the fire of 1910, the different trains that used to travel on the trail, the history of the railroad and the people who lived and worked in the area. The signs are colorful and full of facts that my son was actually interested in! It’s amazing to me just how much information our kids can retain if they are excited about a subject.

This was a great opportunity to show my son that I wanted to learn about the history of the area as well. As we went down, I read each sign to him in my most dramatic stage voice – in hopes that he would commit at least one fact to memory. He would get excited when he saw another sign coming up in the distance – “Mom, let’s stop and read this next one!” And then… the ultimate piece of historical evidence… the grave of the lost railroader. Yup – you heard me. Right there on the side of the trail, complete with a story about the fires of 1910. My son thought that was just about the coolest thing he had ever seen.

The grave of the lost railroader on the Route of the Hiawatha Bike Trail.

The grave of the lost railroader.

After 13 miles of amazing scenery, slightly scary tunnels and breathtaking rides over trestles, our journey ended as we rolled through the sign marking the bottom of the Hiawatha trail. We got back in the car and drove the 20 miles back to Wallace, where we celebrated our successful day with burgers and beer (or Mountain Dew for those who were not of age). I was proud of my children and happy with our weekend. It was truly an adventure – A classic Graham Family Memorial Day weekend!

Biking the Route of the Hiawatha

Crossing the finish line. What a ride!

To get to the Hiawatha: Drive west on I-90 to exit 0 – Lookout Pass. Go to the ticket counter and purchase your tickets. Then, drive back to exit 5 – Taft.

For more information, visit the Hiawatha Trail website.

Tips for biking the Hiawatha with kids:

  1. If you are worried about your children’s biking ability, bring (or rent) a trailer and pull them behind you. They will enjoy the scenery and it won’t take much effort on your part to pull them down the hill.
  2. It IS possible to skip the long tunnel. One of my children is a Hiawatha veteran and he has travelled the tunnel a few times. He was happy to skip it! Novel, yes, but also just a little overwhelming for most kids. There are plenty of opportunities to go through tunnels as you go down, but none are as long or as scary as that first one.
  3. Make sure that everyone has a light on their own helmet! Even small tunnels can be a little scary. Hand held flashlights will not cut it as you are using your hands to navigate your bike through some muddy terrain.
  4. Bring plenty of snacks. There are some beautiful places to stop and snack along the way, including a few trestles with breathtaking views. Even though it’s all downhill, it’s still a tiring trek for the kids.
  5. Stop and read the signs! They are informative and really well written. When your kids see you getting excited about new information, they might just be little more willing to let their guard down and enjoy learning something new.
  6. Take the shuttle back up. Biking back up might be a fun challenge for grown ups, but it might be less fun with tired kids. The shuttle runs every 1.5 hours – check the schedule to make sure you don’t miss it. There are picnic tables and a bathroom at the Pearson trailhead (the bottom) if you have to wait for the next shuttle.


Learn it BioAnnie Graham and Brandon Kendall are convinced that education can be fun, exciting, and meaningful. Brandon has been a teacher in Missoula for the better part of a decade. Annie is a proud parent of six children and a home school teacher. Check out their blog for fun (and educational) adventures around Missoula. Visit their Learning With Meaning website for ideas on dynamic and project based learning at home and in the classroom.