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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hiawatha Trail to open soon...

From the Coeur d'Alene Press:

LOOKOUT PASS - In the rugged mountain range along the Idaho/Montana border, some lingering snow drifts have delayed the opening of the Route of the Hiawatha bicycle trail.

But according to Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area, venturesome riders won't have to wait long - the famed 15-mile route, formerly the main line of the Milwaukee Road railway, is scheduled to open Saturday, June 11.

"We've still got a lot of snow to deal with," said Bill Jennings, director of marketing and sales at Lookout. "We're waiting for the snow to melt so we can get access."

Known for its stunning scenery, spindly trestles and dark railroad tunnels, the Route of the Hiawatha attracts thousands of visitors every season. Because of its high elevation - the Pearson trailhead, the trail's lowest point, is 3,175 feet above sea level - the trail is blanketed with snow for much of the year.

Lookout Pass, which operates the route during the summer months, had originally planned for a May 28 opening day. The Bitterroot Mountains, though, had other ideas.

After a long winter in the high country, East Portal, one of the trail's main entry points, was still snow-covered last week, Lookout President and CEO Phil Edholm said. Upper reaches of the trail were also snowbound, and near the midpoint of the route, Tunnel 26 remained icy.

"We let Mother Nature melt the snow off," Edholm said.

In the meantime, the Hiawatha is gearing up for another busy season. Trail crews are clearing deadfall, filling potholes, painting facilities and prepping shuttle buses.

"We've got 47 interpretive signs on the trail, and they all have steel covers on that we have to remove and store," Edholm said. "We inspect all 15 miles of the trail, make sure it's a nice surface."

Before the route opens, Forest Service engineers look over the route, Edholm said. They pay special attention to the historic tunnels and trestles, searching for any safety hazards.

Every day, Hiawatha trail marshals examine the wire ropes on every trestle, Edholm added. Exposed to the elements, the ropes may expand or contract as conditions change. If they become too tight, they might pull on certain parts of the bridge.

"We inspect those on a daily basis," Edholm said, "and loosen and tighten them as needed."

New for this season, Lookout added 200 Trek mountain bikes to its rental fleet. Riders can now choose between a hard-tail or full suspension model.

More than 34,000 people rode or walked the trail in 2010, and Edholm anticipates another successful year.

"The Hiawatha is literally drawing people from all over the globe," he said. "As long as Mother Nature cooperates, I think it's going to be bigger than ever."

More than 100 years old, the Milwaukee Road's Pacific extension was completed in 1909. Freight and passenger trains once rumbled along the Route of the Hiawatha, switchbacking through the scenic Loop Creek drainage.

In 1998, long after the railroad was abandoned, 13 miles of the old grade were opened to hikers and mountain bikers. Last fall, the route was named to the Rails to Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame.

To learn about the new Route of the Olympian click here.

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