Fall Bikepacking Rambles, From Idaho to Montana

There’s something precious about late season rambles, whether it’s a gentle ride for an hour or two with friends or an adventure so absurd you couldn’t possibly con anyone into joining you. The windows of fair weather that open up in the fall encompass some of the most comfortable riding one can do in the Inland Northwest, yet at night you’ll be piling on every scrap of clothing that you brought and wishing for a few more layers.

The closer we get to ski season, the stronger is the pull of a favorable forecast coinciding with free time for a turn of the pedals. Obedient to the call of good autumn weather, I recently rode out of Harrison, Idaho, up the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, greeted by e-bikers smiling ear to ear. Even the fish swimming about in the creeks along the path seemed to agree that this was a fine day to be out.

I only made it 50 miles before the call of the sleeping bag dragged me to a halt in Wallace, Idaho.

The next day promised to be as lovely as the first, and I would need all the sleep I could get if I wanted to finish the remaining 200+ miles of my intended route. There was a huckleberry milkshake with my name on it in St. Regis, Montana, and I was determined to get to it by the most interesting route I could find before milkshake season closed out. (Does milkshake season “close”?)

And “interesting” was just what I got the next morning before dawn when the route turned north from Mullan, Idaho, up the Idaho Centennial Trail.

Illustration of author/cyclist slurping a huckleberry milkshake while sitting on a tree stump with mountain bike, loaded with panniers and bikepacking gear, leaning against stump.
Justin Short slurping his coveted huckleberry milkshake in St. Regis, Montana, along his bikepacking route. // Illustration by Justin Short.

I step-step-DRAG, step-step-DRAGGED myself up to a 6,500-foot ridge that overlooked Lookout Pass on I-90 and the ski hill next to the pass. Farther up the ridge was a breathtaking view of Upper Glidden Lake, a spot I’m definitely eyeballing for the dog days of summer in 2022.

After a quick gas station hotdog in Thompson Falls, Montana, I headed over the next mountain to St. Regis and the aforementioned milkshake. It was a comparatively gentle climb on Cadillac gravel (luxuriously smooth) up to 5,000 feet, with some rather inviting campgrounds on both sides of the mountain.

With the milkshake down the hatch, I embarked upon the Route of the Olympian, a truly delightful rail trail that is often overlooked because it lives in the shadow of the Hiawatha.

The big tunnel of the Hiawatha was closed for the season by a castle gate built to withstand an attack from an army of mountain trolls, so I took the bypass that climbs up to the elevation of Mount Spokane.

A bright and shining moon peeked over a mountainous horizon, guiding my way, though I skipped the rest of the Hiawatha on account of the lions, tigers, and bears (moose, more likely) that my imagination placed in each of the remaining tunnels. Along the highway to St. Maries, I gazed by moonlight upon all the swimming holes that my wife and I had jumped in on a much warmer ride in years gone by.

What I thought was the final push for the finish turned into a quandary about why the sun was rising in the west, ending this late season ramble a little later than I’d anticipated.

But I eventually got there. I think.

Originally published as “Shoulder Season Rambles” in the November-December 2021 issue.

Justin M. Short’s rambles will continue into the snowy months; however, he’s justifiably concerned about sub-freezing temperatures on The Big Lonely, a 350-mile bikepacking race out of Bend, Oregon, that he may or may not have finished by the time you read this.

Find more bikepacking stories in the OTO archives.

To read more of Justin M. Short’s amusing essays, visit the Everyday Cyclist column.

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