There we were in Mullan, ID, on Sunday, going in multiple directions to locate the Northern Pacific (Nor Pac) Railroad Trail. No signage in any direction though a helpful Sinclair gas station employee did provide some guidance. And after coming across two other cyclists also trying to locate the trail, we all finally found it. The goal now was to climb up to Lookout Pass, some 12 miles upward to an elevation of 4,710 feet. Once at the pass, the trail promised 14 miles of downhill coasting to Saltese, Montana.
The climb upward seemed fairly easy given that it was a railroad grade. However, it was at the top of the pass that we faced a quandary. We were informed that the US Forest Service had just closed the Borax Tunnel, a necessary part of the way down, 24 hours earlier, because the tunnel is in imminent danger of collapse.
Our only route down, according to a Lookout Pass ski area employee was to ride down I-90 with those thundering fast tractor trailers. I absolutely refused to do so, leaving us with trying to find another way to Saltese. Should we ignore the tunnel closure and gamble our way through in the dark? Or should we, according to another employee, attempt to find the correct ATV trail shortcut (there were so many) that would guide us around the tunnel safely?
As we slowly cycled down over the rock-strewn trail, a family of ATV riders, appeared at just the right moment from the opposite direction. We stopped them and asked them about the tunnel. They had driven the tunnel detour and they indicated their tire tracks were still easily visible. “Follow them, we spun our wheels” they said and “you will be fine.” By 8 p.m. that evening we were finally in Saltese, a tiny community, too exhausted to have more than a cherry soda with some Washington State cherries. We stayed in a motel attached to a real general store.
Monday morning, full of newfound energy, we were back on the Milwaukee Road trail (the one that we had crossed Washington on). This Montana section is named the Trail of the Olympian and it was only 200 feet, via a connector, from yesterday’s Nor Pac Trail. In Haugan, literally in the middle of nowhere, we stumbled upon M’s Drive-Up Espresso and Smoothie Stand. Hmmm, who would have thought?
Five hours and 23 miles later (the trail was rich with rocks and gravel). we arrived in St. Regis. After climbing out of St. Regis on a back road, we were treated to wonderful views of ranches and surrounding mountains. We cycled through a section of a National Forest and tired, decided to stop in Superior for the night.
Tuesday was our day to make lots of miles (62) to Missoula and there were no off-road trails. Up early, we made great time 15 miles on Old Route 10, until we suddenly came to an unanticipated dead end. Though Google Maps indicated that the road we needed was right there on the dirt strewn path, instead there was a large yellow sign which read “No Outlet”. The only way to Missoula from here was multiple miles on the interstate. Would we now have to walk or ride on I-90 for 40 miles on a very hot day? As we prepared to walk up the ramp entrance, we stopped for a moment to determine the distance to the nearest exit. And that’s when another trail angel, named Cindy, appeared before our eyes. Cindy, who is about the same age as we are, was driving a pickup truck and going to Missoula for a massage. Yes, she would happily give us a ride.
Cindy told us she was raised in western Washington on a Holstein farm, with four other sisters. She and her family have lived in western and eastern Montana and sold a property that subsequently burned to the ground. Cindy is full of love, positivity and curiosity. On the outskirts of Missoula, we said our goodbyes and shortly thereafter, Pat discovered he had left his cycling helmet in the truck. Whoops – time for a new helmet. Then we found the Milwaukee Road rail trail once again, stopped at the Spotted Dog bicycle shop and then crossed the river into downtown Missoula where we popped in to visit the headquarters of the Adventure Cycling Association.
A gentleman opened up the door and said “Welcome.” “You can park your bicycles here and then come on in for free drinks and ice cream.” We filled out a small card with our information and they took a Polaroid photo of us, posting it with the other cyclists who have passed through in 2021. We spent several minutes describing some of the trickiest parts of the Great American Rail Trail thus far while we sipped our Coke’s and ACA’s Jeff said, “We had a couple here yesterday who essentially shared similar information.”
Now staying for a few days in Missoula, we have cycled the rest of the Milwaukee Path, the Kim Williams Trail and the Canyon River Trail. These trails run alongside the Clark Fork River (a branch of the Columbia River becomes gravel-like and heads to a golf course and resort community. This is the end for now of what is open of the GART in Montana
Shevonne and Pat