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  • Writer's pictureAl S.

Water, Water, Everywhere - St. Regis, MT to Vantage, WA

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

After 2 long difficult weeks, I completed the crossing of Montana and entered Idaho. The miles were passing quickly now as my final destination grew nearer. Idaho was an absolute delight on the very pleasant Trail of the Couer D'Alenes rail-to-trail. After Idaho, I finally entered Washington and experienced the arid eastern part of the state that runs from the state line to the Columbia River at Vantage, WA.



 

Jul 13, 2021

Mileage: 53.7 miles

Odometer Start: 5400.0

Odometer End: 5453.7

Avg Speed: 9.5 mph

Max Speed: 31.8 mph

Riding Time: 5 hrs, 38 mins

St. Regis, MT to Wallace, ID


I was looking forward to getting onto a series of rail-to-trails that begin just west of St. Regis. These trails would take me the last few miles to the Idaho border. I had availed myself of rail-to-trails at every opportunity on my way across the country and there were 2 trails that covered some difficult terrain over the last 40 miles in Montana. My enthusiasm was quickly dashed once I saw how bad the first trail was. Unexpectedly, this turned into a surprisingly tough day.


The "Trail of the Olympians" can be accessed just west of St. Regis. The trail started out as a gravel road. This was not entirely a surprise since there were several homes that were immediately next to the trail and obviously used this gravel road to access the main road. Within a couple of miles, it became apparent that the gravel road was, in fact, the trail surface... it would not be changing to a crushed limestone surface.


The Trail of the Olympians in western Montana. This is supposed to be a rail-to-trail.

After roughly 5 miles I reached a point where the trail just ended at a stream. There was no bridge, there was no "long way around", there was nothing but knee-deep water. Someone had been nice enough to place a fallen tree across the stream so that it was possible to walk across (carefully) without getting soaked. I had to remove all of the gear from my bike and carry it across this stream, then come back and get the bike itself. I took this opportunity to text Will & Kathy and Peter (other cross-country cyclists that I had met over the last couple of days) to warn them about the obstacles. I sent them a picture and told them to lower their expectations about the condition of the trail.




After crossing the creek, the trail returned to a gravel surface and the going became quite a bit easier. I followed the Trail of the Olympians for another 15 miles to the little town of Haugan where I stopped for breakfast. This town had an exit off of I-90 and there was a tourist trap directly adjacent to the exit ramp called the 50,000 Silver Dollar Inn. It was basically a large souvenir shop with an attached restaurant. I will give them credit for serving a decent stack of huckleberry pancakes.


The walls were covered with dollar coins at the 50,000 Silver Dollar Inn at Haugan, MT.

The gimmick for the 50,000 Silver Dollar Inn is that they allow you to buy a silver dollar that will then be mounted on the wall. Most of the walls around the entire building were covered in silver dollars. I got a closer look at some of these dollars and it turned out that most of them were the Eisenhower Dollars minted in the 1970s. These dollars were all made of a copper-nickel alloy, not silver. I did not see any of the older dollars (minted until 1935) that were actually made of silver. I could not actually see most of the dollars that were higher up on the walls, so it is entirely possible there are a few silver dollars in the building. Of course, most people have not actually seen a silver dollar in the last 50 years, so they would never know the difference.


After my hearty breakfast, I was back on the trail and followed it another few miles to Saltese, MT. The NorPac Trail converges with the Trail of the Olympians at Saltese. I followed the NorPac Trail (short for Northern Pacific Rail) as it started climbing up the mountains. At this point, I was only about 10 miles from Lookout Pass on the Idaho border. However, the railroad followed a very circuitous path around the mountains in order to keep the grade at around a 2% incline. The serpentine path of the rail trail meant that I had 15+ miles of riding before I was finished with Montana.


A rail trestle bridge near where the Trail of The Olympians and the NorPac Trail converge.

At the very beginning of the NorPac trail was a sign indicating that the trail was closed ahead. There was an associated sign that was very weathered and difficult to read that stated that the Borax Tunnel was closed and impassable. I eventually deciphered some other text that indicated there was a cut through on the trail that bypassed the tunnel. I spent a few minutes pondering whether I trusted any of this information. I really did not want to ride up this hill only to learn that I had to turn around and return to where I started. I looked at the map, and the only other road in the area was the interstate. I decided to take my chances on the NorPac Trail.


The 15 miles of the NorPac Trail from Saltese to Lookout Pass was all uphill and all on a very difficult riding surface. It turned out that the NorPac Trail was less of a "rail-to-trail" and was more of a "rail-to-logging road". The surface was rutted, it was full of rough gravel, and it was exhausting.


The approach to The Borax Tunnel on the NorPac Trail.

The Borax Tunnel was, in fact, closed. I had read reports of this tunnel being impassable before leaving home, so that did not surprise me. The cut through that was created as a detour around the tunnel was a 2 lane dirt path created to accommodate logging vehicles. The cut through ran straight up the hillside and was so steep that I had to dismount and push my bike up to the point where it rejoined the trail.



As I continued to climb up toward Lookout Pass, I began seeing logging vehicles. Some of these were pickup trucks with workers, others were heavy semi trucks parked on the side of the trail. I was occasionally passed by one of the pickup trucks and we would have to make room for each other. Toward the top of the mountain I came upon some of the large trucks that were loaded with large logs and were carrying the trees off the side of the mountain. These trucks were quite intimidating.


The best picture I could get of the "Welcome to Idaho" sign at Lookout Pass on I-90.

After a long morning, I finally reached Lookout Pass. There is a ski resort at the very top of the pass. During the summer months it serves as an end point for people riding The Hiawatha Trail (another scenic and well-know rail-to-trail in the area). You can rent a bike at the ski lodge, hop on a bus up to the top of The Hiawatha Trail, and then ride downhill all the way back to Lookout Pass. For me, I was excited because the lodge was selling Gatorade and pre-packaged sandwiches. I was pretty wiped out after the difficult ride up the mountain, so I took a little nap on the deck of the lodge.


This marked the end of Montana. I was in Idaho as soon as I left the Lookout Pass ski resort. It had taken me 2 full weeks to get across Montana and I was happy to be finished with it. This had been the most difficult stretch of the entire trip and I had completed it successfully.


The end of The NorPac Trail where I got back on the road headed for Mullan, ID.

It was all downhill from Lookout Pass into Mullan, ID. I was making good time on the downhill portion of the NorPac Trail, but I still could not go at top speed because the trail surface consisted of too much loose gravel. I eventually got back onto some pavement on the outskirts of Mullan, ID and was able to pick up some speed.


I stopped at the convenience store in Mullan for some food and Gatorade. I was sitting outside in the shade enjoying my cold Gatorade when Peter pulled into the parking lot on his bike. It turned out that he saw the start of the NorPac Trail and decided to ride on the interstate up to Lookout Pass. He had started several hours after me that morning, but had easily caught up to me by skipping the difficult gravel conditions of The NorPac Trail.


After we had re-hydrated, we found the beginning of The Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes and rode together into Wallace where we were planning to stay at a campground that evening. It was an absolute joy riding on The Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes... it is paved, mostly level, and has frequent amenities.


I texted Will & Kathy and it turned out they were also staying in Wallace that evening. Myself, Peter, Will & Kathy all met at a local pub for dinner. It was nice to have a couple of riders in the same place because we all had some great stories from our trips.


It turned out that Peter had ridden over 1000 miles on I-90 starting back South Dakota. We were all amazed. He said that after a week of riding on I-90, he would occasionally have a semi truck headed in the opposite direction give him a "special" honk from their horn. He began to assume it was "Wow, look!! There is that cyclist I saw on my way out. I can't believe that guy is still alive!".


Until that story, I had not realized that it was perfectly legal to ride on the interstate in the west. There were several points where I could have saved myself some serious problems had I known I was allowed to take a bike on the interstate. Oh well, live and learn.


One interesting thing that we learned that evening was that everyone in the group had really disliked crossing Iowa. Everyone had at least one horrible story about hills, bad roads, or just miserable stretches of the trip across Iowa. Peter recounted that on one 25 mile stretch of gravel road in western Iowa, he had encountered 49 ups and downs. He said it was one of the worst stretches of road on the entire ride. I was happy to learn that it wasn't just me that had a miserable experience in Iowa.


Amusingly, there was a guy at the next table wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes t-shirt. Peter and I could see him, but Will & Kathy had their backs to him and they did not know he was there. I have no idea if he was actually from Iowa, but I'm guessing that he heard at least part of our conversation and was probably wondering what Iowa had ever done to us. To be fair, our stories about Iowa never once criticized the people of the state. All of our complaints were focused on the roads, the winds, and the surprising number of hills that we encountered crossing a supposedly flat state. All of my experiences with the people of Iowa were positive.


 

Jul 14, 2021

Mileage: 50.1 miles

Odometer End: 5504.1

Avg Speed: 14.1 mph

Max Speed: 20.6 mph

Riding Time: 3 hrs, 32 mins

Wallace, ID to Harrison, ID


I broke camp shortly before 7 am and made my way into downtown Wallace to find some breakfast. I was anticipating an easy day so I was in no rush to get on the trail. The only place that was open was the restaurant attached to a hotel in the middle of town. It was actually a pretty good looking place, but didn't open until 7. I waited in the lobby until they started seating people.


Downtown Wallace, ID.

Once I was back on the trail, I was making good time. The Trail of the Coeur D'Alenes is an awesome trail. It is paved, smooth, flat, and crosses through towns every couple of miles where you can stop for refreshments.


The only downside to the trail is the reason it was built. The railroad built this line in the 1800s to support mining operations in the area. They used mine tailings from the surrounding mines as fill to build the rail bed. Unfortunately, these mine tailings all contained high levels of heavy metals. By today's standards, the entire rail bed is basically a Super Fund site. In order make the rail bed safe for local inhabitants, the federal government came in and cleaned up all of the problem areas inside the town limits. It was more economical to just leave in place all the tailings located in the areas in between towns. In order to keep the contaminants from leeching into the nearby river the rail-to-trail was built and the rail bed was secured in place with asphalt. There are signs everywhere outside of the towns warning people to not leave the paved path and do not eat outside of approved areas.


The Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes. You can see smoke in the distance from nearby wildfires.

This was a really good day of riding. I was in Harrison, ID by noon and the entire ride was either flat or slightly downhill. The entire length of the Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes is paved, so it was also easy on the body. I would have ridden much further today, but the trail terminates on an Indian reservation and I didn't want to have to cross the entire reservation before the end of the day.


There were several wildfires burning to the south and west of The Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes and the smoke was noticeable in the air all day. There were several points where the smoke was so noticeable that I could taste it. I was keeping an eye on the location of these fires and was prepared to change my plans if it looked like they might spread near the route I was following. I was currently quite a distance from any of the fires, but the smoke was still sufficiently noticeable that it was a slight irritant to my eyes and lungs. I did not want to get any closer and experience thicker smoke.


My campsite on the lake in Harrison, ID. The view was not a disappointment.

I was able to get a spot in the Harrison City Campground for the night. The campground is immediately next to the lake in Harrison, ID. This was a city-run campground with a great view looking out over the lake. The city had even been nice enough to provide showers. It was very pleasant and I sat around for a bit enjoying the view. Peter arrived several hours later and we shared the site.



Peter and I met up with Will & Kathy again for an early dinner. They were staying at a bed & breakfast a couple of miles past Harrison and had stopped for a short while to get supplies before heading to their lodging.


 

Jul 15, 2021

Mileage: 73.3 miles

Odometer End: 5577.5

Avg Speed: 11.0 mph

Max Speed: 32.7 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 36 mins

Harrison, ID to St. John, WA



The causeway and bridge across the lake just outside Harrison, ID on The Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes.

I was back on The Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes first thing in the morning. There is a large bridge that crosses the lake a short distance past Harrison. Once again, the views along the lake were very picturesque. On the other side of the lake, the trail climbed up the side of the valley away from the water. At the top of the hill lay Plummer, ID and the end of the bike trail.


Once I reached Plummer, I visited the monument to the Coeur D'Alene Tribe that marks the end of the rail-to-trail. From there, I tracked down a diner in town for some breakfast.


I found it curious that very few places out west served blueberry pancakes. That is a staple for east coast breakfast diners. I was able to make due since many of the diners were serving huckleberry pancakes. I'm not saying they are better than blueberry pancakes, but I certainly enjoyed them.


The end of The Trail of The Coeur D'Alenes in Plummer, ID.

Shortly after leaving Plummer, I hit the Washington state line near the small town of Tekoa. This was the 15th state of the trip and the last state line I would cross.


I stopped at the "Welcome to Washington" sign to get some pictures. One of the local farmers was just pulling his tractor into the barn across the road and noticed me. He came over to speak with me and introduced himself as John. It was obvious that he had previously seen cyclists stopping at this sign for pictures. He asked me where I started and I told him "the coast" and he asked if I had been riding for about a week. I explained, "no, the other coast" and he was a bit impressed that I had crossed the entire country. He offered to take my picture and then we exchanged contact information so that I could let him know when all the pictures from the trip were available on the web.


Peter and I had agreed that we would attempt to reach the town of St. John for this evening. I made my way to the town while fighting a stiff headwind for a good part of the day. On the upside, I only had to ride on 8 miles of gravel road for the entire day.


Welcome to Washington!

There were no really good options for camping in St. John, so Peter and I decided to post up at the city park for the night. All the way across the mid-west, most of the small towns were perfectly happy to have you camp in the city park but there was no information here as to whether camping was allowed. We decided to take our chances.


As we were getting situated, one of local residents that lives directly across the street from the park came over and said "hello". He wanted to let us know that the park sprinklers come on at night and we would probably end up getting wet if we stayed there. He then invited us to camp out in his front yard so that we could stay dry. I took him up on the offer and slept under the stars without even bothering to put up my tent. Peter decided to stay in the park and hung his hammock under one of the pavilions.


While he was talking to us, he mentioned that he owned the small grocery store in town. He offered to head back over and open the store for a few minutes if we needed anything. That was unbelievably nice of him, but we had already picked up some provisions and were all set for food for the evening.


 

Jul 16, 2021

Mileage: 84.4 miles

Odometer End: 5672.5

Avg Speed: 11.1 mph

Max Speed: 32.8 mph

Riding Time: 7 hrs, 35 mins

St. John, WA to Lind, WA


I was up early the next morning and walked across the street to the park restroom. I noticed that Peter had moved his hammock to the very center of the pavilion. I'm guessing that he was getting hit with the sprinklers during the night.


I followed Rt 23 north out of St. John for about 30 miles until it met up with I-90 in Sprague, WA. It was a nice flat landscape with only the occasional hill. I found a diner in the small town and had a nice breakfast to give me some energy for the day.


A dust devil rolling through the wheat fields in eastern Washington.

After I finished breakfast, I followed the road parallel to I-90 all the way to Ritzville. The headwinds had started picking up and I was not making great progress, but an injection of Gatorade lifted my spirits. While I was in town, I found a little Mexican restaurant and had a sizeable lunch. The food and rest break raised my energy levels and I decided to push on a bit further even though I had already covered 50+ miles.



I headed due west and then cut south on Rt 21 heading toward the town of Lind. I arrived in town in the late afternoon due to the strong headwinds. Fortunately, the local grocery store was still open. I stopped in and picked up some items for dinner.


The town park in Lind had a few signs that expressly prohibited camping, so I made my way up the hill to some baseball fields that I had spotted on Google Maps. These types of facilities can sometimes be used for the night if you are in a pinch. These sports fields were mostly out of the way and I thought I could get through the night unnoticed.


I was sitting in the bleachers enjoying some of my snacks from the grocery store when a lady walked by, spotted my bike, then came over and said hello. We talked for a few minutes and she then invited me to camp in her yard which was just across the street. I took her up on the offer.


Her name was Vicki and she introduced me to her husband, Jeff, who was out in his garage. Jeff had turned his garage into a nice man-cave with a full bar, TV, and pool table. He also had a well-equipped wood shop in the garage. Jeff was a truck driver, but he also was a wood turner. We talked about wood working for a bit before I excused myself to go set up my tent and turn in for the night. There are a lot of nice people in the world and I appreciate Vicki and Jeff for their hospitality.


 

Jul 17, 2021

Mileage: 77.5 miles

Odometer End: 5740.1

Avg Speed: 12.6 mph

Max Speed: 33.9 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 06 mins

Lind, WA to Vantage, WA


I packed up early the next morning and rode over to the Lind City Park where I could sit at a picnic table and eat breakfast. Nothing in town was open yet so I munched on a couple of granola bars.


The Columbia River... I had not yet figured out how to get across it.

The entire park was soaking wet when I arrived, including most of the tables under the pavilion. The sprinkler system had been running overnight in order to keep the grass green. I had seen this use of water in a number of places while riding through Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington.


There were a lot of news stories floating around about the extremely dry conditions in the west. There were multiple wild fires around the area and I had been riding through a light haze of smoke generated by these fires for several hundred miles. Yet everywhere I went towns were using copious amounts of water to keep the public spaces green. Private citizens were also using water on their lawns and sprinklers were a familiar site in front of houses. It didn't make any sense to me. I could not understand how the entire region seemed to believe that water was abundant and available when it is such a precious resource in an area that does not receive much rain fall. Somehow, a significant percentage of the region seems to think there is water, water, everywhere.


I rode due west from Lind and had lunch at a small place next to Potholes State Park. I didn't stop at the park, but it certainly had an interesting name. Apparently, the name originated due to a geological feature created by retreating glaciers. The "potholes" are actually a series of hundreds of lakes that have created tiny islands in between them. The area seems to be very popular with the RV crowd. There were a lot of people at the surrounding campgrounds enjoying some of the freshwater beaches.

I continued west and began seeing a number of apple orchards, farm stands, and gardens. At the time, I was not sure how much of the agriculture was due to irrigation and how much was due to a wetter climate. It turned out that the agriculture appears to be completely due to irrigation. As I continued riding, the landscape remained brown except for those areas under irrigation. Even the banks of the Columbia River were mostly brown.


I reached the Columbia River where I-90 crosses at Vantage, WA. There is a dam downstream, so the river is approximately 1 mile across at this point. The Beverly Rail Bridge on the Palouse to Cascades Rail-to-Trail is a couple of miles south of I-90. Unfortunately, this bridge was closed when I arrived due to a fire several years before. Aside from the I-90 bridge, the nearest bridge across the river was in Wenatchee about 55 miles north or the Verita Bridge about 30 miles south of Vantage.


I knew that getting across the I-90 bridge was going to be a challenge before I even left Baltimore. I had seen several mentions on line about ways to cross the I-90 bridge but had not actually put that information in my notes. As I approached the river I began referring to my plan as "The Streetcar Named Desire" strategy... "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers"... basically, I was going to post up at the on-ramp just before the bridge and stick out my thumb and wait for someone to give me a ride.


The Columbia River with the I-90 bridge in the background.

I was certain of one thing, under no circumstance would I attempt to ride across that bridge on my bike. I had seen a video that someone had posted of them riding their bike across the bridge while I was researching the trip. I was sitting safe in my office and I was still terrified by that video. Attempting to hitchhike across the bridge may not have been the smartest thing I have ever done, but it was far better than attempting to ride across.


I found myself a shady spot under the bridge, made sure my bike was very visible, and then stuck out my thumb. I was hoping that if people could see my bike and me wearing a bike helmet, they would understand why I was trying to hitch a ride. I was there for about 30 minutes with not even a nibble of a ride. I started thinking about my options and checked if there were any Ubers or Lyfts in the area. That was a definite "No". It occurred to me that it was just not possible that I was the first cyclist that had stood here trying to get across this bridge.


I sat back and thought for a moment and then called the campground in Vantage. I explained to them that I was planning to stay there for the evening and asked if they knew anyone that provided a shuttle service for bikes across the bridge. She told me to stay where I was and she would be there in about 20 minutes. Awesome!


It turned out that she had been shuttling people across the river regardless of whether they were staying at the campground. There was no charge for the service, but she asked for an "appropriate" contribution. It was up to me what amount would be considered "appropriate". Basically, she did not charge for the service so that every cyclist would call her. She did not want someone to ride across the bridge just because money might be tight. I gave her $40 for the ride and thanked her profusely.


I still had some daylight remaining, so I did some laundry and got a shower. It felt good to wash off the dirt and sweat. My last shower had been in Idaho. As I sat down to eat dinner, the woman at the next campsite came over and asked if I would like to join her. She said that she was serving some stir-fried vegetables. That sounded great to me because my dinner was going to consist of a Knorr's rice dish packet with a can of chicken added.


She was an older lady and had been driving around the west seeing some national parks. Her eventual goal was in Oregon where she would spend some time visiting a friend. She was extremely nice and the fresh vegetables were really appreciated.


 








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