It never crossed my mind to go bicycling in Idaho until three days before we did. The original tour outline had us headed to Walla Walla to rampage through the the wine country there. However, with one of the expeditioners out, we started looking at loops closer to our final destination, the fire lookout at Mt. Spokane State Park. The Internet suggested the Idaho Panhandle to me: I would have never thought of it on my own.
I hadn’t been to that part of Idaho since the summer of my twentieth year, when I hitchhiked through on my way to Alaska via Denver. Outside a gas station in Kellogg, I picked up this postcard of a giant smokestack. It was the first postcard in my “Ugly Post Card” collection, stunned that a place could be so forlorn and hopeless that someone thought it fitting to put smokestacks on souvenirs. That smokestack is gone now.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is a 73-mile paved trail that gently winds across most of the Idaho panhandle. Built over the main rail line out of the Silver Valley of Idaho, it’s a very pretty ride around lakes and a river which slowly becomes smaller and wilder as you get higher toward the pass to cross into Montana. There’s plenty of bridges and not many towns. There’s also plenty of warning to stay on the trail, not to stir up the soil contaminated with heavy metals and mining detritus and very limited camping.
In late September, when we went, the days were quite warm, but the evenings quite frosty up in the mountains. We made the 5-hour drive from Seattle straight to a staging hotel on the edge of the freeway in Couer d’Alene. I know this town is supposed to be driving a renaissance of the Spokane metro-area, but in the dark, it’s hard to judge and in the morning, we we’re out of there after finding a cup of coffee.
It took most of the day to get from the start on the Indian Reservation in Plummer on the edge of the palouse to the mountain town of Osburn, however that also included a long unplanned stop in Harrison. Hats off to the crack and generous mechanic at Pedal Pushers. We camped at the Blue Anchor RV Park and drank beer from the grocery store for an early night to make the assault into Montana the following morning.
While the paved trail ends in Mullen, one can continue on the NorPac (old Northern Pacific line) up to the border and I suppose beyond. It’s about a seven mile climb on fire roads to the ski area at Lookout Pass and Mile 0. It’s the longest I’ve had my skinny-wheeled tourer on gravel, but felt good to continue our adventure away from the traffic while building some new skills. There wasn’t much to see or do in the amount of Montana were we in, but we were there! And in a new time zone! After lunch, we were back down to Osburn, more beer and tall tales of daring and adventure before calling it a night.
Our final day was a timed affair, trying to get back before 3 pm in order to catch the last of the daylight on our hike up to the firelook out. We would have nearly succeeded, but thankfully did not need to find out as the ranger gave us a lift up that evening when we arrived. What of the ride that day? Perfect…a nearly imperceptible downhill to start with for miles on end, a lovely lunch overlooking the lake, and while we were exhausted by the six mile climb back up to Plummer, we were exhausted in a good way.
I’d definitely recommend this ride to almost anyone. Those with small kids might want to arrange shuttle cars, as the distance between towns, especially, Harrison and Smelterville might be too much for a little kid. While it was easy enough to continue on the NorPac, connecting the Centennial Trail (Spokane to Couer d’Alene) on the other end might present more of a challenge to the long distance tourer. Evidently the ride along the lake on 97 is narrow, with lots of blind curves, trailers hauling boats and not recommended. We thought that 95 for almost it’s entirety looked good with plenty of shoulder except through Worely. We were also over-enthusiastic about connecting our ride to the Hiawatha Trail. I think this would be doable, but might mean moving camp to a forest service site for the night to be a bit closer to it.
For maps and trail knowledge you couldn’t ask for better than chatting with Greg Marsh. He has a small shop in Wallace and runs the Friends of the Coeur d’Alene Trail site. When we met him Sunday morning, he pointed us to the right place to eat and gave us a bit of history on how the trail came to be. Stop in and say hi when you’re in Wallace, or drop him a line here.