Guide to Riding the Bitterroot 300K

Gravel, Lumber, Mines, and Tunnels: A less-than-definitive guide to riding the bitterroot 300K

Good adventures are getting hard to come by, and as legitimate adventures go, cycling the rail trails of the Bitterroot 300K in northern Idaho is about as accessible as it gets. The route consists of four connected rail trails (Old Milwaukee Road, Route of the Hiawatha, NorPac Trail, and Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes), half being gravel, that make up a 300-kilometer loop in the Bitterroot mountains of northern Idaho. You’ll need no guides or permits, or really even a map – just a decent gravel rig equipped with bikepacking bags and enough food, water, and stupidity to get you through. Though you’ll never be in true wilderness, the route is often quite remote and surrounded by woods that are deep, dark, and even a bit creepy. It’s a perfect two-day ride for any experienced cyclist looking to get away from it all without dropping a wad of cash, traveling for days, or wasting countless hours on logistical planning. Admittedly, there is a reasonable amount of Bitterroot 300K information available on the internet. However, some of it is contradictory, and there’s very little in the way of terrain description, trailside attractions, or helpful tips for extracting more enjoyment out of your ride. George and I rode the route counter-clockwise in two days in early September, and what follows is a bit of basic travel and mechanical advice, some crude geographical descriptions, and a few rants based on our experience.

To begin, here are my top tips for making your Bitterroot 300K ride close to the best thing ever.

Tip 1. When deciding what town to make your home base for the ride, do not consider St. Maries. Why? Because St. Maries is a soul-sucking town lacking in good food, motels, or just about anything else any decent person might appreciate. If you must stay there, do it mid-ride, and for one night only. In our experience, Wallace or Harrison would be much better places to spend more than one night if your logistics allow for it. We made the mistake of staying in St. Maries at the start and finish of our ride, and made things worse by staying at the Pines Motel. If your preference is to pay 90 bucks for a dark, depressing cinder block room that smells like smoky bleach, the Pines might be for you. The one redeeming quality of this place is that they provide a shuttle to Heyburn State Park for those riding the route clockwise, but are hesitant to brave highway 3 or 5 to complete the loop.

Tip 2. When navigating the rail trails of the Bitterroots, always use common sense to find your way. Signage is lacking on the route, and there will be times when you are presented with splits or intersections on the roads. Trains don’t like to turn sharp corners or climb steep grades, so always choose the straightest, flattest option and things will generally be OK. The one true exception here is the turn onto Old Siberts River Road approximately halfway between Calder and Avery along the Old Milwaukee Road (or in the town of Avery if you’re riding in a clockwise direction). Take Siberts Road rather than the paved St. Joe River Road. Siberts is gravel (with some potholes), shaded, and undulating. You’ll like it. Willow Creek Road east of Mullan also deviates from the right of way at a semi-confusing intersection/trailhead. If you’re descending from Lookout Pass, simply take the steepest trail downward at the trailhead.

Tip 3. Ride a cyclocross bike or designated gravel bike and you’ll be happy. George rode a custom steel gravel bike with 42c tires, and I rode a carbon CX bike with 40c rubber. A mountain bike would be too inefficient to complete this ride in two days, and a road bike with skinny tires would be sketchy and uncomfortable for much of the route. We went tubeless and ran 40-45lbs of tire pressure on the dirt and then simply added 10lbs for the paved Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. You could swap tires between the gravel and paved sections, but that seemed like overkill for this trip. 1x gearing is appropriate for this ride, but a wide-range cassette is ideal as the climbs, though not steep, are long and the surfaces relatively rough. One thing to note: George’s bike can carry three water bottles, and mine only two. I briefly ran out of water twice. Though you frequently pass by small towns, in hotter summer months play it safe by bringing three bottles or a water filter.

Tip 4. The big debate relative to the Bitterroot 300K is whether to ride the route in a clockwise or counter-clockwise fashion. In our estimation, riding clockwise would make the climbing a bit steeper and more difficult, but you would avoid the potential headwinds of the westerly ride on the long, exposed sections of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes (they are considerable). It’ll be fun either way – you just have to know your strengths and weaknesses and choose your evil.

The Route

I mentally divided the Bitterroot 300K into four sections during our ride: The flat section of the Old Milwaukee Road between St. Maries and Avery; the hilly section of the Old Milwaukee Road and Route of the Hiawatha to Taft; the NorPac climb to Lookout Pass and corresponding descent into Mullan; and, finally, the long, flat, drag westward along the paved Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes to Chatcolet Lake. Here’s what you can expect when riding each of these sections:

Old Milwaukee Road

The Old Milwaukee Road follows part of the Pacific Extension of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis Railroad. Constructed from 1906 to 1909 and remaining in service until 1980, the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension stretched the railroad’s freight and passenger service from the upper Midwest to the Pacific coast. The majority of the route between St. Maries and Avery now allows both bicycle and auto traffic, and you’ll likely have to share the space with a few logging trucks making their way along the road. Auto traffic was very light when we rode it, and it never interfered with our enjoyment of the ride. From St. Maries, simply take Milwaukee Road adjacent to the St. Maries River until you reach the second entrance (left) onto Riverdale Road (there are indeed, two). Follow Riverdale until you reach a ramp up to the railroad grade and you’re good to go. The OMR follows the St. Joe River all the way to Avery and is quite scenic as it makes its way through the river valley, climbing only 365 vertical feet over 45 miles. Though this section is basically flat, don’t underestimate the effort it will take to ride a loaded bike over the rough washboard or deeper gravel surfaces. There is virtually no coasting and you’ll have to put pressure on the pedals the entire time. If you look at this section from the satellite view, it will appear that you’ll be riding through a flat plain filled with farmland divided up into squares containing different crops. That’s not the case. You’ll be riding in a deep valley most of the time and those geometric shapes are actually lumber clear-cuts in varying stages of re-growth. In Idaho, a standing tree is not a profitable tree, so we chop down as many as possible. It’s neat. Just before reaching the tiny village of Calder, west of town, you’ll have a choice to ride the spur road to the left, which eventually joins Trout Creek Road and leads into the village, or, you can hop some barriers, walk across two burned trestles, and continue on the right of way. Definitely hop the barriers and walk the trestles. It’ll make you feel like you’re a criminal getting away with something and that adds to the adventure of the trip. The railroad bed between the trestles is overgrown with weeds, and it will feel like you’re off-course. You’re not. Just ride through that shit to the next barrier – a higher obstacle that’s a bit more difficult to overcome with a bike – and walk across the next trestle. Just east of the even tinier town of Marble Creek, you can choose to continue on the right of way, which is now the paved St. Joe River Road, or you can take one of two bridges that spans the river, and continue on the gravel-surfaced Old Siberts River Road. Take the gravel road. The undulating and curvy terrain and long, shaded sections are welcome changes after grinding along the flat and straight railroad grade. Additionally, about halfway to Avery on this road there is a nice old bridge that spans the river. Stop here, eat something, and watch the giant trout swim in the deep channel under the bridge. Note: there are some wide, deep potholes on this section that are tough to bunny-hop with a loaded rig. Definitely keep your eyes looking ahead on the faster downhill portions of Old Siberts.

Old Milwaukee Road and Route of the Hiawatha

Once you cross the river again and arrive in Avery, remain on the railroad right of way through town. It’s paved and runs right by a general store and some other businesses. Before you do, though, stop in town and take a walk through the Milwaukee Road museum lounge car and feed the huge rainbow trout in a little pond created back when the railroad was first built. Avery used to be a switching point between diesel trains and the electric trains that went over the continental divide, so passengers needed some time-killing diversions. We weren’t looking to kill time, but George still fed the hell outta those fish. If your ass isn’t already sore by this point in the ride, the long grade up to the Route of the Hiawatha will make it so. We found this surface to be among the roughest of the trip, alternating between rocky and bumpy, and deep and washy. However, you’ll be treated to plenty of great mountain scenery, and a plethora of tunnels and trestles will help break up the momentum-killing surface as you slowly make your way up to the Hiawatha. Note: the trail section between Avery and the entrance to the Hiawatha is open to vehicles and ATVs and we ran into a few camo-clad folks headed out to find shit to kill. They were generally cordial, and the dust created by their vehicles was only a slight nuisance. The Route of the Hiawatha is a throwback to the glory days when passenger railways competed to be the “most scenic in all of the lands.” This section of the road is named after the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis Railroad’s Olympian Hiawatha speedliner passenger train, which featured distinctive Skytop observation cars that allowed travelers to take in the grandiose views as they (more than likely) smoked cigars and sipped cognac. Good times. Twenty years ago, some smart person had the great idea to turn fifteen spectacular miles of the former railway line up and through the continental divide from Idaho to Montana into a vehicle-free bike path. That person should be President of All Things, because the Route of the Hiawatha definitely lives up to the hype. A moderate grade, ten dark and cool tunnels and seven scenic high trestles make for a very unique and interesting riding experience. Since the vast majority of the trail is flattish and motor vehicle-free, it’s devoid of washboard and dust, and completely awesome to ride. The trail is a destination ride for many non-cyclists, and you’ll be sharing it with folks who might not be the most comfortable bike handlers in the universe, so you have to be aware at all times. George and I rode uphill against 99% of the bike traffic and saw our share of awkward maneuvers as oncoming riders haphazardly moved out of our way like drunken deer. Note: there is an $11.00 fee per-person to ride the Hiawatha, and you can purchase tickets on either end. The cost seems steep, but is well worth it considering the maintenance involved to keep this trail running. Another note: Lookout Pass ski area runs a shuttle service for riders who only want to ride the downhill direction on the Hiawatha, and therefore, it can get quite crowded. We rode through on a Friday afternoon and were surprised by how many folks were on the trail. It’s likely less crowded mid-week. Additional note: definitely bring a bright headlight, as the tunnels, even the short ones, are dark, especially as your eyes struggle to quickly adjust from the bright sun. With a bright light, you can also absolutely rip through the 1.66-mile-long, pancake-flat, Taft tunnel at 20+ mph, exiting the other side covered in wet clay sprayed up from the tunnel’s soft surface. It’s so much fun and everyone else in the tunnel will hate you.

NorPac climb to Lookout Pass and descent into Mullan

Once clear of the Taft Tunnel at East Portal, take a left downhill and onto NF 506 northward to Taft. This a fast, fun descent if you’re riding counter-clockwise and likely a mean climb if you’re not. Once you hit the junction at I-90, take a left and pedal past the metal-roofed barn structure, then take a slight right onto the old Northern Pacific railroad grade. Here you will start your climb to Lookout Pass. If you already have significant gravel miles in your legs, the nine-mile, meandering, 1100-ft. ascent to the pass will feel like something like the Tourmalet, but with less cycling history and more complaining. Despite its close proximity to the interstate, the forested climb feels remote and provides some sweeping vistas as you pedal in and out of small valleys carved into the hillsides. The higher you get, however, the rockier the surface becomes, and the tough going nature will make you swear in frustration at least a few times before you reach the summit. At Lookout, simply ride straight through the ski area parking lot and begin the descent toward to Mullan. This is a sweet ride on mainly packed dirt and gravel and it won’t take long to rip all the way down to the right-hand turn at the Willow Creek trail junction. We rode down Willow Creek as it’s the fastest and most straightforward way into town. The top section is a bit steep and rocky, and the bottom portion is even steeper, paved, and super-fast. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can also make the right-turn hairpin through the trailhead parking lot and continue into town on the right of way. Note: The entire descent from Lookout Pass totals nearly seven miles and could potentially be a bit chilly late in the day after working up a sweat on the NorPac climb. Ride it fast and it probably won’t matter.

Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes from Mullan to Chatcolet Lake

Regardless which direction you’ve chosen to navigate the Bitterroot 300K, the little mining town of Mullan signifies a dramatic change in riding surface. If you’ve just descended the west slope of Lookout Pass, as we did, you’ve likely completed eighty miles of gravel and are looking forward to a few smooth miles on the paved Trail of the Couer d’Alenes. The 72-mile, 10 ft.-wide trail follows the former Union Pacific rail line from Mullan to Plummer, passing through the Silver Valley mining district as it follows the Couer d’Alene River all the way to the Chain Lakes region, eventually crossing Lake Chatcolet and heading to its terminus near the Washington border. We chose to stay in the silver mining town of Wallace and that proved to be a good decision. Wallace has successfully preserved its historic downtown and is vibrant and lively, with a drinking establishment seemingly on every corner. We drank beers at City Limits Pub and Wallace Brewing Company and had good experiences at both. The Wallace Inn has embraced the cycling culture and caters well to riders traveling along the Trail of the CDA, providing a bike storage room and also by not freaking out when sweaty, dirty, lycra-clad folks wander through the doors in an exhaustion-induced stupor. Wallace has a fascinating and often violent history. In the town’s formative years, a silver boom brought countless miners to town, prostitution was legal and regulated, and a healthy gambling and drinking culture flourished. However, the crazy combination of railroads, silver mines, unions, and greedy mine owners and operators proved to be more than Wallace could handle on several occasions at the turn of the century, resulting in bloody clashes and a couple declarations of martial law. The assassination of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, who was openly sympathetic to mine owners, also has its roots in Wallace’s labor battles. Steunenberg was eventually killed by a bomb rigged by labor hit-man Harry Orchard, who first joined the union while working the silver mines in Wallace. We didn’t mine for silver or murder anybody, but we did drink beers and get a good night’s sleep in this cool town. Once you leave the canyons of the Bitterroots, the trail is very straightforward, despite some construction detours in the town of Kellogg, twelve miles northwest of Wallace. Eventually the trail begins to veer from its east/west direction and heads slightly southward as it continues to follow the river. There are some very long, straight, and unprotected sections of trail through the open flood plain here, and if the headwind is strong, you’re in for a real treat. It felt like we were crawling through this portion and I had to develop a sweet mantra of curse words to keep myself from going crazy as I pedaled along. I’m not sure what George did. Once you reach Lake Chatcolet, which is essentially Lake Coeur d’Alene – South, and arrive in Harrison, stop and check out the town for a while. George got some coffee and a donut, and I enjoyed a decent turkey sandwich from the trading post/general store. There was a classic car show happening while we were there, and a live band was playing in the town park. People were frolicking about. We liked Harrison. The route alongside the lake is scenic and fun, despite the ever-present wind. Perhaps the neatest part is riding up and over the old Chatcolet Bridge, originally a rotating structure built by the railroad in 1921, that has been permanently raised to allow for the passing of river traffic. The trail climbs up and descends down from the original structure on a strange tiered surface that acts as a sort of pump track on the downward side. It’s fun to see how much speed you can build over the humps as you descend into Heyburn State Park. 1.7 miles beyond the bridge it’s decision time: do you take a left on Heyburn/Chatcolet Road to cut off some of the junk miles on highway 5? Or do you continue on the right of way to Plummer and complete the trail? We took the road. There is some traffic and little shoulder along both roads, but we found them perfectly easy to deal with. Unfortunately, this section is a necessary evil if you want to complete the loop, unless, of course, you ride in a clockwise manner and the people from the deluxe Pines Motel give you a lift. If you are experienced enough to complete this ride in two days, you will feel moderately safe and likely have no trouble on these roads. If you are a beginner cyclist, you might consider hitching a ride, arranging a shuttle, or just living out the rest of your days in Heyburn State Park. Note: There is a relatively short climb on highway 5 between Heyburn State Park and St. Maries, and it didn’t feel good after two long days of riding. FYI.

The Bitterroot 300K is pretty amazing. I look forward to riding it again, perhaps in a clockwise manner, once the snow clears.