PLUMMER, Idaho — For many cyclists, it takes about three months to go TransAmerica, biking across the continent. Got that kind of time? Me neither. How about a long weekend to traverse one state? That’s doable, on the paved, off-road Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.
The 72-mile rail-trail bisects Idaho’s narrow, northern ‘”chimney” and takes you through stunning rural scenery, from lakes to mountains, and through a few small towns. Between them, you’ll feel the pull of the changing landscape.
“I was going to turn around, but I just want to go farther,” said Matthew, from Vancouver, Wash., as we cycled side by side for a bit on the asphalt path. The smooth trail, finished in 2001, seems to invite a longer trek.
You can begin riding from one of 19 trailheads, half of them right off Interstate 90 east of Coeur d’Alene. Riding either direction, you’ll soon realize there’s a distinct character to each section.
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Wet west end
The western — and southern — third of the trail takes you through a watery landscape, pleasant in the arid Idaho summer. From Plummer, southeast of the big lake, it’s a 5-mile wooded ride before bisecting the shore of Lake Chatcolet to the south and Lake Coeur d’Alene to the north.
Along the big lake is where most summer visitors access the trail. “It gets a little more crowded in summer, but not to the point where you’re like, oh, man, I’m stuck behind these people,” says Coeur d’Alene cyclist Amy Lawson, who trains on the trail.
Lake Coeur d’Alene laps at the trail’s edge for a few miles to the inviting burg of Harrison, and then come the half-dozen Chain Lakes. With their adjacent marshy areas and the Coeur d’Alene River visible at almost every point, it’s a verdant route where you’ll see songbirds, waterfowl, deer, and even moose.
Summer homes dot the big lake’s south end, but the trail’s middle section shows ranching life in a fertile valley. For settlers’ history, take a 3.8-mile sidetrip to Old Mission State Park, a worthy detour at the Cataldo trailhead.
The imposing Mission of the Sacred Heart is Idaho’s oldest building (built in the early 1850s). Behind its pilloried facade, a high ceiling and planked flooring are impressive, while painted ornamentation shows the fading of many decades.
The small museum at the visitor’s center documents early interactions with settlers. The peak of a white wedding tent on the grounds mirrors the spires of teepees set by the cemetery below.
Continuing east, you soon feel the transition to the trail’s third distinct section. The hillsides close in as the river valley narrows, wooded peaks get closer, and your quads strain a bit with rising elevation. A gradual climb is felt from Kellogg east into the Silver Valley. You’re entering mining country.
Home to the Silver Mountain ski area, Kellogg is the largest town on the trail. Ride through post-mining land restoration areas, cycle under the lines of the big gondola that takes skiers up from town, and then pass a working gold mine as you begin the climb.
Gold, you might say? In the Silver Valley? Yes, and those aren’t the only metals stripped out of these hills.
“Up until the mid-1970s, silver and gold were just byproducts of the lead and zinc” that were being mined, says Chuck Carlson, assistant ranger with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, who tends most of the well-kept trail.
The vast forests of the Bitterroot and St. Joe mountain ranges hold some of the area’s most storied history: They were largely consumed in a massive 1910 fire. Three million acres of forest land went up, towns were destroyed, and dozens of settlers and forest rangers lost their lives fighting it or trying to escape.
Charred stumps of massive trees burned a century ago are still visible as you head toward Wallace, the town most associated with the fire. Take a short hike on the Pulaski Tunnel Trail along Placer Creek, a half-mile south of Wallace, and see interpretive signs detailing the “Big Blowup.”
Nearly flattened by the fire, Wallace today is a village with a historic, redbrick center, including some buildings that survived and many dating from its rebuilding. The scenic town is the most popular overnight spot for cyclists, and is just a few miles short of the trail’s end, at Mullan.
Riding the 72 miles of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes could be a one-day outing for a fit cyclist but, as a long rural line with no easy loop option, tackling sections over a few days might be more satisfying.
Stay in Plummer or Harrison on the west end, then relocate to Kellogg or Wallace in the east. Or stay in Coeur d’Alene and drive out for day trips.
Or you could ride it like Art, from Bainbridge Island, another solo rider encountered on a late-May trip. He stayed the night in Wallace, left his car (with permission) at the inn, then cycled to Harrison for an overnight before heading back. In two days and nearly 160 miles, he would see the entire trail from both directions.
Cyclists who want to carry their bedroll and camp will find numerous public and private campgrounds.
“Go slow, so you can enjoy it,” advises Kellogg cyclist Mike Heglund.
The long trail provides a few ways to go TransIdaho. Whichever route you choose, the stunning scenery and Old West history will more than satisfy the urge to see the country, without a life-interrupting trek.
Bill Thorness is author of “Biking Puget Sound: 50 Rides from Olympia to the San Juans” (The Mountaineers Books); firstname.lastname@example.org.