AT A REST STOP near the Washington-Idaho state line, I scanned through a pamphlet rack for suggestions on a safe passage before resting my eyes on the “The Recreational Trails of Idaho.”
The enclosed map detailed an almost uninterrupted web of biking trails running the entire length of the Idaho Panhandle. Most of the trails were old railroad lines that had been converted into recreational bike routes, following the recent conservatory trend of railbanking. Completely avoiding I-90’s deathtrap and promising mile after bucolic mile, the trails looked like a golden road. Here’s how I linked up several of these routes, and how you can too:
The Centennial Trail
Built to commemorate Washington’s 100th anniversary of statehood, the Centennial Trial runs a paved 71 miles through the Washington-Idaho border. I picked up the trail outside of Spokane, WA at the bottom of the famed “Doomsday Hill,” every inch apropos to the name.
This Sisyphean grade occurs at the fifth mile in America’s second largest timed roadrace: the Lilac Bloomsday Run. Every first weekend in May, 50,000 participants — myself included this year — slog up Doomsday and question why they run at all.
Although this time I futilely pedaled up with a trailer in tow, Doomsday felt less like a road to Calvary and more like an old friend, a necessary toll paid for the trail’s coming beauty. The Centennial Trail’s remaining miles run flat and brisk following the bends of the Spokane River.
The trail brought me to its last mile on the outskirts of Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. I consulted my trusty pamphlet on the best method for reaching Idaho’s next bike path, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. A 72-mile route from Plummer to Mullan, ID, the trail had once been a Union Pacific railroad and before that a Native American hunting and trading route.
Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes
The Centennial Trail had provided comfort and safety. Now, I had to bike 35 miles south down Highway 95, the one gap in the Panhandle’s trail network, where the speed limit is 70 and the only viewable wildlife lies covered in flies.
For the first few miles, I did immediate battle with a juggernaut hill but soon entered the Coeur d’Alene Reservation’s farm country where a panoramic sweep of wheat fields, open space, and miles of downhill greeted me.
That night in Plummer, I slept in an abandoned schoolhouse near the town park. I had vivid dreams in which an old Indian women, her lips drawn and puckered back into her skull, stood over my sleeping bag holding a lamp.
The dream reminded me of my past year living on an Indian reservation in eastern Washington. I had heard numerous ghost stories, tales of returning relatives bearing wisdom and warning. These stories rarely contained an element of horror; instead, they seemed to express the people’s lasting kinship to land and family, even in death.
I lapped up the miles that next day, not encountering a soul. Along my way, I spotted ospreys scanning the waters for their morning fish. They stalled 40 feet in the air before dive-bombing to the surface. On the path, my wheels ran over fading moose prints.
With my wheels rotating automatically on the trail’s downhill and my eyes distracted by wildflowers, I hardly noticed the 62 miles that brought me to Wallace, Idaho. I spent the night at the Wallace RV Park within eyesight of the bike path. For a pittance, the park provided tenting space; the microbrews that soothed my muscles came from the adjacent, co-owned City Limits Pub.
The next day, fueled and rested, I finished the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in Mullan, Idaho, eight miles west of the Montana border. After breezing through the Panhandle in two days, eight miles might seem a trifle if it weren’t for the elevation leading up to Exit 0, Lookout Pass.
But the pamphlet did not fail me here.
Under its guidance, I again eluded I-90, traversing Idaho’s side of the Bitterroot Mountains on an old Northern Pacific Rail Line, now a gravel road. I felt like the first person these woods had seen in years. The trail’s series of switchbacks eased me up the elevation towards the pass. I-90 whirred softly below.
At the top of Lookout Pass, Exit 0 greeted me like a fresh start. Walking into the Lookout Pass ski lodge for some water, I spotted two moose, a mother and calf, grazing on the wildflower slopes. My legs burned, but I ran up the hill for a closer look.
I had never been so close to moose before. I imagined they had stood here for centuries, watching my progress, as they had countless others, on the Panhandle’s time-worn trails. From the fatigue and altitude, I was almost certainly delusional.