I’m a sucker for a side-trip. That is precisely why I enjoy traveling the smallest, least travelled roads possible. I …
Some people travel. Some people wander. I’m a wanderer. On a recent trip, for example, I set out with a couple of loose goals anchored by a two-night reservation at a bed and breakfast in Coeur D’Alene (CDA), Idaho. First I wanted to explore the Centennial Trail. Second was a long-overdue visit with friends in Seattle. I envisioned exploring Olympic National Park on the way home.The more traveled road from Boise to CDA takes about seven hours of highway cruising. But highways are not for wanderers. I prefer back roads—roads that allow me to gawk and gape and suddenly veer to the shoulder for an ad hoc photo.
A concession to the bike strapped to the back of my car, I intended to stay on paved roads as much as possible. From Boise to Grangeville I followed the standard route: State Highway (SH) 55 then Interstate 95, deviating only for the old portion of the Whitebird grade. Pondering the night’s camping possibilities, I spied a sign pointing to Snowhaven Ski Area east of Grangeville. A paved road climbs steeply and meanders past a patchwork of private homes. At seven miles, I reached the ski area, owned by the city of Grangeville and quite obviously off limits to camping. But the road continues onward and upward through dense forest and so did I. Normally I look for little two-track trails leading into secluded woods, but I wasn’t seeing anything promising. With the sun racing for the western horizon, I pulled into Fish Creek Campground and grabbed one of several available sites near the entrance. This was a reminder of why I loathe campgrounds. Around the corner a village of homes on wheels was plugged into every possible noise making device. Meanwhile shrieking children rode bikes through my campsite as if I weren’t there.
Just west of Orofino, I meandered through the Palouse along Cavendish Grade and Southwick Road to SH 3, which took me north through Deary, Bovill, and Santa—all villages too tiny for stop signs. By early afternoon I arrived in St. Maries, where I planned to unload the bike and ride a dirt portion of the north Idaho trail system.
I’ve been hearing about the magic of this trail for years. I had a map and a vague idea of what was in store: lots of tunnels, some dirt portions of road, some paved portions, some portions of road to be shared with cars, and many options. I discovered that my map was really more of an idealized diagram of possibilities. I drove around and drove around looking for the trailhead. I finally asked a cop. He looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. “A bike path? Here? Nah, ya gotta go up north Wallace or Mullan way. I think ya can catch it at Plummer, too.”
Well hell. I knew the major portion of the trail was up there, but I was looking for the Old Milwaukee Scenic Alternative Trail—which on my map clearly begins in St. Maries and connects with the Route of the Hiawatha, which in turn connects with the Trail of the Couer d’Alenes in Mullan. I found Milwaukee Rd, which quickly turned into dirt and ended at an old mill. I bypassed a residential street. Then, noting that my diagram showed a couple of river crossings, I tried the St. Joe River Road on the other side of the river. This road was gravel, in good condition, lovely, and even went through a tunnel.
At places, I could see the gravel road on the other side of the river which had to be the other portion of the Milwaukee scenic alternative. I followed this road, Forest Service 50, all the way to Avery, where I found the bike trail headed north toward Pearson.
This is the famous Route of the Hiawatha portion of the trail that contains the tunnels and trestle bridges I’ve heard so much about. But by this time, it was nearly 4 PM—way too late to begin a rather serious climb on a trail that eventually ends in Montana. So, I backtracked to Calder for a burger that I needed a ladder to negotiate. Then it was time to find my own private Idaho camp site. It being a Monday early in the season, I found Shadowy St. Joe campground to be completely empty but for the camp hosts. I spent another night snugged into my sleeping bag while rain thrummed the top of my car. A beautiful meadow of wet, wild onions greeted me in the morning.
Back in St. Maries, I saw banners advertising espresso. Hoping to snag some breakfast too, imagine my surprise when I found a row of shampoo basins lining one wall of the espresso joint! But the barista kindly pointed me in the direction of a good hot meal at the end of the block. I’d passed right by, thinking it was a Laundromat. Go figure!
The breakfast was delightful, but cowboy coffee not so much. I returned to the Espresso-salon on the way to the car. The barista, now joined by another employee, smiled warmly. “I knew you’d be back!” she crowed. Then, she asked if I were planning on riding the trail.
“Eeyaaah . . . if I can ever find it!”
These ladies also seemed unaware of the Old Milwaukee section of the trail. But they recommended that I pick the trail up either at Chatcolet in Heyburn State Park or in Harrison. So armed with a delicious mocha, off I went on SH 3, headed for the small tourist town of Harrison.
My next post will describe the delights that awaited me once I finally found the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.