Washington-Montana-Idaho-BC Loop: A Trip to a Different America

Cycling in Montana

I am not even sure why we picked Montana. Maybe because it sounded exotic, not in the way most people think of exotic, but rather exotic for cycling. Big open sky, light traffic, expansive scenery. I don’t know where we got this impression, but the reality was that many of the roads actually had a lot of traffic and narrow or nonexistent shoulders. Luckily we spent half of our time in Idaho, which we actually knew almost nothing about, and was almost everything we expected Montana to be. Not that we didn’t like Montana, we did, but the surprise of this trip was actually Montana’s neighbor to the west, Idaho.

Osoyoos Lake, BC – first swim out of many

Since June was gray and rainy in Vancouver we desperately needed some sun and warmth, which finally arrived just days before we left. We were both a bit upset about the fact that we were leaving just as the weather became so nice, but we had no idea that we’d get more summer than we had ever bargained for. Because Maya was not feeling well when we left we took it easy on the drive. We picked some cherries in Osoyoos, stopped for a swim in Osoyoos Lake, ate Russian food in Grand Forks and enjoyed the open roads and the luxury of sitting in a car.

An empty road from the border south, WA

We planned to start from the tiny border crossing at Nelway between BC and Washington. We expected to find a small town by the border, and were surprised that we reached the border with no town in sight, just a few houses. We found the house closest to the border and asked the guy if we could park on his property for two and a half weeks. He agreed immediately. That was the first time we encountered the kindness of people on this trip. The hospitality and generosity of people would repeat itself many times over.

While waiting at the border crossing we noticed how hot it was. From then on we got into a “heat wave routine”: stopping only in the shade, drinking lots of water, swimming and cooling off as often as possible. We also tried waking up early and taking long lunch breaks.  We spent the first day of the trip in Washington mostly cycling along the Pend Oreille River. On the second day we left the river and entered Idaho, the state that is famous for its potatoes (it even says so on their license plates!).

Talking with a local farmer, WA

It was probably 38c, and we cycled 109km that day…, ID

The temperature was around 38c that day and it felt incredibly hot. When we reached the tiny town of Blanchard around lunch time we were about ready to collapse. We found the town park and spent the next few minutes hosing ourselves down. I am sure that everyone that passed by thought we were nuts, but they should try cycling in that heat! We stopped for another swim in a town called Spirit Lake that was indeed very spiritual with eight churches for less than 2,000 people. We of course jumped in the lake there too.

We wanted to reach the city of Coeur d’Alene that day, so we pushed on and ended up cycling 109km. Just before we left Vancouver it turned out that Niki, Gili’s mom, actually has a friend in this city. Niki hosted her a few times in Israel, and her friend Claudia and her husband Will were more than happy to host us in their Bed & Breakfast unit. We got to their house at around 8pm to the sound of thunder, and a few minutes later the storm started with heavy rain – perfect timing. Will immediately offered to cook for us and we couldn’t refuse a homemade steak dinner.

Leaving our wonderful room in Coeur d’Alene

Coeur d’Alene is a lively city with a relaxing atmosphere and a big lake to jump into. We spent the day walking around, exploring, swimming and enjoying Tubbs Hill Park. During this visit we learned more about the 117 km long paved rail-trail nearby, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, and decided to change our route to include it. This involved cycling along the
highway to Plummer, 50 km away, but the cycling was actually very pleasant since the shoulders were as wide as two cycling lanes.

Camping in Harrison

The real treat though was the trail, it was so enjoyable to ride without worrying about traffic, not being seen, or drivers who are busy texting or what not while driving. The highlights of this trail included the almost 1km long Chatcolet Bridge, thimble-berries, Saskatoon berries, wild cherry trees, water lily ponds and more swimming. In the evening we camped in Harrison. The campground was very busy because there was a bass fishing tournament, but we got the best spot by the lake. After dinner we went to the pub to listen to live music by a local Idaho band.

The longest cycling bridge we’ve ever seen, Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes

When we woke up in the morning it was raining which gave us an excuse to sleep in. The campground still seemed sleepy when we left at 10:30am. We continued farther on the trail until we reached its end the next day in Mullan. From there it was all gravel roads on less developed rail-trails in order to connect with the well known Trail of the Hiawatha.

The progress was slower on the gravel and we had to climb a lot. It didn’t help that we were also on the wrong trail for a bit, adding extra kilometers, but enjoying spectacular views. The peak was at Lookout Pass, where we passed a ski hill and crossed into Montana briefly. We cycled down the other side and then had one more steep and hot climb to connect to the Trail of the Hiawatha.

Wrong trail, but great views….

The Trail of the Hiawatha is a well developed rail-trail with many tunnels and bridges along the way. The biggest attraction is the St. Paul Tunnel – an almost 3 km long dark tunnel right at the beginning of the trail. We were very thankful for the coolness of the tunnel but it was also a bit spooky. To add to the challenge, there are channels with flowing water along the sides of the tunnel that one must avoid falling into.

Inside the tunnel we crossed back to Idaho, and when we emerged the weather had changed – it was cloudy and cool. We continued along the trail and then the gravel road which actually follows the rail-bed as well, again crossing many tunnels. We were surrounded by nature, on this gravel road going downhill, and were doubtful that there would be anything civilized down there, but finally there it was – the tiny town of Avery, in the middle of nowhere.

St. Paul Tunnel – almost 3km long!

The Milwaukee Road (a railway) used to pass through Avery

We reached Avery at around 7pm. We shouldn’t even call it a small town, because it was smaller than that. Just a few houses along the river, a pub, a general store, a post office, and a fly shop. We tried to find someone to ask where we could camp, but there was no one around. Then we noticed a nice spot by the fly shop, and that is where we saw a guy removing the “open” sign from the front. At that point our luck changed and everything worked out for the best. This guy was Dan, the owner of the fly shop and one of the most generous persons we ever met. He took us to his friend and neighbor Wade, who once cycled from Avery to Kansas. It was almost as if they were expecting us. Wade had a nice grassy yard and he was more than happy to let us camp on his lawn. He also gave us free access to his bathroom, shower and clean towels. As we finished dinner Dan showed up again, and asked us if we like ice cream. Ice cream is among our favourite things in the world, especially after a hot day of riding. He returned with two huge cones of huckleberry ice cream. He bought our hearts, and that was only the beginning.

Cutthroat Trout – Catch and Release on the St. Joe River

The next day was Maya’s birthday, and we wanted to take it as a rest day before the big climb over the pass to Montana. In the morning we chatted with Wade who also turned out to be one of the nicest persons we met. He works in the post office, and pretty much knows everyone in town (all 35 of them…). We spent the day walking around Avery, checking the train museum and the local pub for lunch. At the fly shop we met Art, who comes there every summer to fish, as fly fishing on the St. Joe is the big attraction in the area. Later on we also went to see him in action on the river, and he even caught (and released) a Cutthroat Trout while we were there.

We also spent time with Katie and Emily, Dan’s 10 year old and 7 year old daughters. They spend their summers in Avery, riding around, picking cherries, raspberries and strawberries and helping their dad in the fly shop. These two girls are probably the most intelligent young girls we’ve ever met, and they conversed with us like they were adults. Dan was very happy to find out we’re spending the day there and invited us for dinner which included a spring salmon he had caught in the spring, Wade’s rice specialty, and a salad made by Gili. I guess a bird whispered that it was my birthday, because Dan also arranged a cake with a candle and more ice cream. I will never forget this birthday as everything felt so right and yet so random at the same time. It was one of the best birthdays I had in many years.

Our friends in Avery during Maya’s birthday dinner at the fly shop

Cycling along the St. Joe River

In the morning it was hard to leave Avery. As Katie and Emily waved us goodbye we felt a pinch in our hearts, we felt as if we belong there and that we connected with these people even though we only spent a day with them. Then came a nice long ride with a moderate uphill along the impressive St. Joe river. After lunch the grade got steeper and there was heavy machinery doing construction work on the road. That was weird because we saw about 10 cars the whole day, so we didn’t really understand the need to fix up the road. The ride to the pass seemed endless, but finally after a 1000 meter elevation gain we were at the top and apparently in Montana. There was no sign or anything, and the road changed to annoying gravel with lots of small rocks on top, Welcome to Montana! It was already getting quite late, so when a suitable camping spot appeared on the side of the road we stopped for the night.

Huckleberry Pie in St. Regis, MT

The annoying gravel road continued in the morning, but everything feels better after a good night’s sleep, and when we arrived to St. Regis we got our reward – two pieces of huckleberry pie, a recommendation from our friends in Avery. It got really hot later that day, so a swim in the Flathead river was very welcome. The scenery changed from forest to dry desert and the heat was intense. A toothless guy we met in a store that sold pretty much nothing warned us that there are no places to camp along the way, and that we were now in an Indian Reservation, so we probably shouldn’t try ninja camping.

Stamps at the smoke house

As we carried on a sign appeared and I prayed it to be a sign of a campground, but it was actually a smoked meat shop. We decided to stop and check it out and the owner was very friendly and chatty, and invited us to the shop which had air conditioning and gave us free samples. We bought her “smokies” – smoke sausages that were absolutely “to die for”. When we were getting ready to leave, since we still needed to find a place to camp for the night, she said that we were more than welcome to stay and camp in their yard. I felt like hugging her. Then she said that she has raspberry bushes and we could have as many as we wanted, some strawberries and a cherry tree. She did not need to say more to make us stay.

They left the smoke shop open for us, so we could use the bathroom and also gave us a tour of the facility and their big freezers. It took us a few hours to get our bearings, as it was so hot that day. When we finally started cooking, the mosquitoes were out big time, and eventually we took our food and ate inside the cool and bug-free smoke shop.

Along the shore of Flathead Lake, almost zero shoulder

The ride along Flathead Lake was not exactly as we expected it. The “quiet road on the other side” proved to be very busy on the Friday afternoon and with zero shoulders. However, this road was blessed with many cherry trees, both wild and orchards, and nice views of the lake, so it wasn’t actually too bad. In the morning the road was quieter, but we were still happy when we were done with it. We found a nice rail-trail that led us to Kalispell where we had lunch in a nice park.

Relaxing in Whitefish, at Henry and Essie’s house, who we met through Couchsurfing

Two hours later we were in the famous ski town of Whitefish. This time we actually arranged, through couch-surfing, to camp on Henry and Essie’s lawn. They weren’t home when we got there, but left us a note and an unlocked house so we could shower. Their lawn was just perfect for camping, and they also had the most amazing hammock which I immediately collapsed into.

Montana’s Ice Cream

Whitefish was a great relaxation spot, on the shore of Whitefish Lake, with its ski hill in the background, a few restaurants, and the cherry on the top, or should I say the huckleberry on the top, a great ice cream parlor. It seemed that in Montana there is an obsession with huckleberries and during our short stay in Whitefish we managed to have huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry pancakes with huckleberry syrup and huckleberry squares with huckleberry jam (made by Essie, our couch-surfing host). One of our relaxation days included an inflatable kayak whitewater trip in Glacier National Park. The class 2 and 3 rapids were made much more exciting by being in our small boat. We managed not to fall into the rough cold water, despite the waves and the unexpectedly strong wind we experienced that day.

Along the Great Divide Trail we suddenly started meeting cyclists

Leaving Whitefish seemed to be a problem, both emotionally and physically. Emotionally, since we again felt connected to this place, and we could easily imagine ourselves living there. The relaxed but active life style of this town appealed to us, with the ski hill right there, the bike trails, the lake and its surroundings. It was hard to leave physically since everyone we had talked to told us how bad the highway was out of Whitefish, or as the guy in the bike store put it: “it’s the worst road out there”. With no shoulders at all, blind curves, uphills and cars zooming by at 70 miles an hour, it did not seem appealing at all.

We ended up doing a huge detour on a dirt road  that bypassed the problematic section of the main road. We suddenly started meeting fellow cycle-tourers riding the Great Divide Trail, first an organized group by Adventure Cycling and then Christine, traveling by herself from Banff to the Mexican Border. When we reached the main road again, the traffic was calm, and after a while shoulders appeared too. We rode along the shore of the beautiful Dickey Lake, where we also scored the best camping spot, for free.

Cycling along Dickey Lake, back on Highway #93

Co-Motion PeriScope Trident Convertible

The next day, while cycling down a delightfully traffic free back road we came upon Shawn, Paden and Jase, a dad and two sons, cycling together on a bike with three seats. They have to all ride at the same pace, and it was inspiring to watch them working together in harmony. We cycled into Eureka, where we had hoped to find something of significance, but instead stopped at the supermarket to get bananas and yoghurt.

Crossing the Koocanusa Bridge

Later we arrived to the long and skinny turquoise Koocanusa Lake, a name derived from the combination of Kootenai, Canada and USA. We cycled along the very quiet road on the west side of the lake, where we camped one night and enjoyed a good swim by the Libby Dam. Soon after that we left the lake and started following the Kootenai River. In Libby we had a delicious lunch at the Libby Cafe, stopped to admire Kootenai Falls, and Maya came up with an icy solution to the oppressive heat: Huckleberry Slurpies!

Powered by Slurpees

We followed Highway #2 back into Idaho and turned north towards the Canadian Border. Here we encountered some of the worst riding on this trip: the road had no shoulders and lots of traffic. Later we had a close call: we could hear a truck behind us and there was a small pullout which we used to get off the road momentarily, just to see that the truck was carrying a wide load which would have hit us had we not moved over. Luckily we were able to escape to a smaller road later on, and were happy to cross the border back into BC, the Best Place on Earth (or so the license plates dare to claim). After crossing we noticed dark gray clouds above us and it started to rain, warm rain with big drops, just like tropical rain. It didn’t last long, and we climbed a hill into Creston just to find a perfectly situated splash park for kids right at the top of the hill. After a refreshing stop, we cycled over to our friends the Steenkamps, originally from Namibia, who we met last year when we were looking for cherries in Creston. We spent the night there, picked Rainier Cherries and finally got to try Idaho Potatoes with delicious salmon. It turns out that the secret to making good mashed potatoes is lots of butter and cream!

Rainier Cherries in Creston, BC

Cycling up to Kootenay Pass, 1,200 meters elevation gain

Our last cycling day was almost all uphill, to Kootenay Pass and down the other side, an elevation gain of 1200m. When we were leaving Creston we both hit a patch of sand on the shoulder at a high speed, and we could feel our handlebars swinging out of control and narrowly avoided a nasty crash. The uphill was long and hot, but there were many creeks where we’d wet our shirts completely, allowing us a half hour or so of comfortable riding.

The views as we approached the pass were views we more commonly associate with hiking trips in the alpine: steep rock faces above tree line. After a well deserved rest we hurtled down the other side of the pass, which is actually much steeper than the side we had come up. After 20km of fast downhill we turned left, and we rediscovered something that we had tactically not mentioned: the very last section was all uphill right to the car…

Almost the end of our trip at Kootenay Pass, 1774 meters

But we managed, and after riding 1,280 km we arrived happy to find that our car was there, although it was covered in bird shit and dried up sticky fruit from a nearby tree. Finishing a long cycle tour is often a relief: “we don’t have to ride tomorrow!”. The only thing that was left was the drive back to Vancouver, and picking lots of fruit in Osoyoos.

Picking apricots in Osoyoos

The first question people usually ask us about this trip, or any trip, is “Why?”, “Why Montana?”. Our answer is usually “Why not?”. The truth is that we are not sure. Indeed, why does anyone go anywhere? Usually we find that our trip ideas are some combination of random tidbits of information and whims of the moment, often starting out as one idea and evolving into something quite a bit different. When traveling, or perhaps even in life in general, people often fixate on some idea, a precise expectation for the future, and this holds them back in adapting to changing circumstances and conditions. Basically, stay flexible and open to new ideas, and you never know where you’ll end up and who you’ll meet along the way…

Up until now most of our trips to the US were to big cities like NY, Chicago, LA or San Diego. In NY I often noticed how people avoid human contact, trying not to look each other in the eye while riding the subway and in general everyone keeps to themselves. This trip was a great opportunity to get to know another side of America, a more innocent side. The rural countryside, where people are open, generous and kind.

On a personal note, for me (Maya) this trip was also a type of victory. After spending most of the winter injured I was really hoping I’d be able to do a longer cycling trip this summer, and while cycling I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky I was to be able to do it.

More photos

This entry was posted in British Columbia (and nearby), Cycling & Cycle Touring, Rockies & Kootenays, Trip Reports, Western USA. Bookmark the permalink.

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