Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes
Following the former Union Pacific Railroad from the mining town of Mullan to Plummer, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is a 72-mile paved path through the Silver Valley. It’s one of several projects undertaken by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to transform the nation’s abandoned railways into recreational corridors and is one of the United States’ most loved.
Nature, wildlife and small town encounters
Spanning the width of Idaho (from its eastern border with Montana to its western frontier with Washington), the trail roughly follows the banks of the Coeur d’Alene River (after which it is named). It takes in historic towns such as Kellogg, Wallace, and Harrison, as well as the natural wonders of Heyburn State Park and the Palouse prairie. The surrounding marshland offers exceptional wildlife viewing, with sightings of eagles and ospreys regularly recorded, along with moose, elk, and several butterfly species.
After winding its way through the mountainous Silver Valley (so named for its rich mining heritage), the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes continues along the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene. It crosses the Chatcolet Bridge before exploring one of the oldest protected areas in the Pacific Northwest, Heyburn State Park, with its centuries-old Ponderosa pines and wildflower-covered hills. The route concludes with a gentle climb through the rolling hills of the Palouse prairie, which is a major center for the cultivation of wheat and legumes. If you’re feeling energetic, you can continue riding from Plummer along the bike path that leads to the cultural city of Spokane.
There are 20 developed trailheads for entering and exiting the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, as well as 20 scenic waysides with tables where you can picnic or simply rest. In Wallace, you’ll find a beautifully restored depot of the Northern Pacific, which is now operated as a museum. It houses artifacts and rolling stock related to the railway, as well as offering a brief insight into its history.
Gold fever in Idaho’s panhandle
Gold and silver were discovered in Idaho’s panhandle in 1884, which led to an influx of opportunists hoping to strike it rich. While the gold deposits were minimal, silver, zinc, and lead all proved to be lucrative for widespread mining operations. In response, two railways were constructed to haul the ore and transport mining supplies, as well as serve Idaho’s timber industry. One was the Washington & Idaho Railroad, which was later acquired by the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company (a subsidiary of the Union Pacific) while the other was the Coeur d’Alene Railway & Navigation Company, which would become part of the Northern Pacific system.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes follows what was known as the Washington & Idaho Railroad, a 154-mile system that was first conceived in 1886 to connect Tekoa, Washington with Mullan, Idaho. It later became known as the Wallace Branch and sustained itself by not only hauling lucrative silver and mining deposits but also timber and freight traffic.
After being in operation for more than 100 years, the Northern Pacific’s successor, Burlington Northern, sold the line between Wallace and Mullan to the Union Pacific. Traffic was steadily declining and by 1991, the entire Wallace Branch was abandoned.
An innovative environmental solution
When the railway was built, mining waste rock and tailings with heavy metals were used for the bed, which was further contaminated by ore concentrate spillage from passing trains. A lawsuit was filed by the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council to have the land cleaned up, which was undertaken as a collaborative project between the Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Idaho, and the Union Pacific.
Today, the trail is managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, with a section of the trail extending through the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. The thick asphalt and gravel barriers are designed to permanently isolate the contaminants and prevent them from spreading to the surrounding environment. Creating the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes has turned out to be an innovative solution to the environmental degradation caused by years of mining activities and the route has now been recognized by the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.
With its gentle grade and smooth surface, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is ideal for cyclists of all ages and can be completed on traditional bikes or e-bikes. It is open year-round, with the most easterly stretch of the trail between Wallace and Mullan groomed for snowmobiles, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers in the winter months. Camping facilities and rest areas are conveniently dotted along the route, which is ideal for not only walkers and cyclists but also in-line skaters and those in wheelchairs.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is one of several rail-to-trails routes that can be explored on a multi-day guided tour, with all of the logistics taken care of for you. Knowledgeable local guides will immerse you in the region’s fascinating past, as well as offering their unique insights into the current state of affairs. With shuttles to and from the trailheads included (plus high-quality bicycles, accommodation, and meals), all you have to worry about is enjoying the experience with other, like-minded cyclists. We offer both traditional and e-bike tours of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, as well as the Route of the Hiawatha.