Cycle through a slice of Northwest culture on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes

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PLUMMER, Idaho – The discovery of gold and silver in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains more than 100 years ago changed everything for the area’s indigenous people. News of mineral-drenched mountains triggered a stampede of prospectors, entrepreneurs and steamboats crammed with settlers who blazed, blasted and sawed their way into the heart of Indian country, as the tribe moved away from ancestral villages scattered along the region’s lakes and rivers.

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes traverses this historic landscape across Idaho’s panhandle. Anchored in Plummer, 30 miles south of Coeur d’Alene, the 73-mile paved recreational path stretches from the reservation to Mullan near the Montana border, with numerous access points along the way.

Previously an abandoned Union Pacific railbed laden with mining waste, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe was instrumental in promoting the trail as a way to clean up the corridor. Cycling enthusiasts are calling it one of the best places in the United States to ride.

Bill Schneider, an online travel editor who has logged roughly 100,000 cycling miles in his lifetime, says it can’t get any better.

“When riding it, I had to pinch myself over and over to make sure I wasn’t dreaming,” he said.

The nonmotorized route features an easy ride along verdant hillsides, sparkling waters and serene forests, and the historic Silver Valley.

His observations, found in “Idaho Hits Tourism Grand Slam” at www.newwest.net, echo the glowing sentiments of many riders who appreciate the smooth asphalt, rich scenery, abundant wildlife, plentiful picnic areas and clean solar-powered composting toilets.

The Plummer Trailhead offers a large parking lot, restrooms, drinking water, picnic tables and maps. But before hitting the trail, visitors may want to check out Great Cycles Touring Co., a full-service bike shop which specializes in “adaptable cycles” for seniors and those who find riding a regular bicycle painful or impossible. Other points of interest are the tribe’s modern wellness center, which welcomes day visitors to the Olympic-sized pool, spa and gym for a small fee; and free, high-speed public Internet access at their computer center.

Heading east, riders glide downhill through six miles of conifer forest toward Lake Coeur d’Alene, where generations of tribal families hunted, fished, gathered and set up winter camps. This area is now Heyburn State Park, which offers camping, cabins, affordable lake cruises, fishing and one of the Northwest’s premier osprey nesting locations.

Dotted with interpretive signs, the trail leads over the sweeping Chatcolet Bridge and meanders another 7.5 miles along the lake’s tree-lined shore across the reservation boundary to the tiny town of Harrison, which is perched on the hillside among a profusion of berry bushes and fruit trees. Once the site of a tribal village, it was removed from the reservation at the behest of encroaching settlers and became a bustling hub of mining and lumber activity. Nowadays, it attracts a stream of tourists who come for lodging, meals, camping, gift shops, boating, a hopping summertime music scene and Pedal Pushers bike rental and repair.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe manages the trail within reservation boundaries and the state oversees the route from Harrison to Mullan; however, riders who pedal up the Coeur d’Alene River will travel through ancestral lands long after leaving the reservation. Twenty-five miles upstream past marshes, pastures and a chain of lakes, visitors pass near the Mission of the Sacred Heart, established in 1848. The oldest standing building in Idaho, the cathedral was constructed by the Coeur d’Alenes from hand-hewn timbers, wooden pegs and saplings woven with grass and mud.

After the long stretch devoid of accommodations, riders will find a riverside campsite at Cataldo and an eatery nearby. A few miles later at Enaville, the Snake Pit, which offered hospitality to prospectors, loggers and rail passengers for a century, caters to a lively cycling clientele.

The Silver Valley stretch provides plenty of amenities, with a host of inns, motels, restaurants, museums and attractions, including a gondola at Kellogg’s Silver Mountain that can haul cyclists and their bicycles on a breathtaking ride up the mountain.

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is the result of a legal settlement to resolve the cleanup of toxic waste left along the rail line after most of the mineral wealth was moved out of the mountains and trains stopped rolling. Representatives of the tribe, railroad, mines and governmental agencies agreed to cap the heavy metals beneath a coating of asphalt that doubles as a bike path. Rest areas have been cleaned up, but visitors will find warning signs to keep surrounding soils off their hands and out of their mouths. Those signs don’t appear on the reservation, where the tribe pressed for removal of contaminants.

Concerns about potential risks haven’t deterred the estimated 100,000 visitors from around the world each year. Along with an enjoyable getaway, they discover modern-day Indian life and some appreciation for what transpired in the area. Visit www.cdatribe-nsn.gov/lake/r_recreation.shtml and www.friendsofcdatrails.org.