The Okanagan Valley has two rail trail treasures — the spectacular Myra Canyon with its 18 trestles and two tunnels hanging on the edges of a deep canyon, and the new Okanagan Rail Trail which provides panoramic views along three of the Interior’s most beautiful lakes.
Both are so impressive that tens of thousands of local residents and visitors often stand in awe of their beauty and man-made accomplishments.
The pair also whet the appetite of outdoor enthusiasts for exploring other rail trails in Canada and the U.S. as well as spur the natural curiosity of how our marvels compare with others.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho, for example, was named one of the 25 top trails in the U.S. in 2012 by the Rails to Trails Conservancy and is rated one of the most spectacular rail trails in the western U.S.
Two aspects make it special: it is a 116-kilometre paved trail that spans the Idaho panhandle, plus the flat Harrison-to-Cataldo section in particular has water, lots of it, in large lakes and marshes for kilometre after kilometre, and often on both sides of the trail.
The thick asphalt means you can travel long distances without hills (we cycled 92 kilometres one day) but the asphalt and the gravel covering the sides also hide environmental problems caused by early miners.
Mine waste rock and tailings containing heavy metals were used for the original rail bed. In addition, the bed was contaminated with accidental ore concentrate spillage.
Signs warn users to stay on the trail and in designated picnic areas, to wash hands and face before eating, to remove dirt from clothes, toys, pets, shoes and equipment before leaving the area, not to let children play near shorelines or off the trail, and to carry water for drinking and washing (nearby water can’t be adequately filtered for consumption or other use).
Compared to the Okanagan Rail Trail’s three quiet lakes, the Idaho marshes are home to thousands of different species from the largest habitat for ospreys to a flock of hundreds of white pelicans to herons, hawks, songbirds, turtles and even moose cows with calves only a few hours old.
You can’t walk or cycle this trail without stopping numerous times for photos or just to observe Mother Nature’s creatures.
The other notable aspect is that this trail was created through a partnership between the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Union Pacific Railroad, U.S. government and state of Idaho. It is similar to the Okanagan Rail Trail partnership involving four local governments and the Okanagan Indian Band with a financial break from CN Rail and sizeable grants from the provincial and federal governments.
Now, pair the Trail of Coeur d’Alenes with the Route of the Hiawatha, touted as the crown jewel of rail-to-trail adventures, on the Idaho-Montana border.
It has seven trestles and 10 tunnels, including the 2.6-kilometre-long St. Paul Pass Tunnel, also known as the Taft Tunnel. The trail follows the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains.
The Trans Canada Trail through the Myra Canyon is free while the Route of the Hiawatha has a one-day trail pass for US$11 and the shuttle is another US$9 unless you want to cycle uphill more than 300 metres over 24 kilometres. Bike rentals could add another US$33-$39.
After cycling 70 kilometres of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in early June, we would definitely return to re-explore the two sections we completed and to explore the rest.
For numerous reasons — pouring rain, snow possible, 6 C morning temperature, fully-booked shuttles — we didn’t cycle the Trail of the Hiawatha.
A week-long trip also provided an opportunity to assess the rail trails in Republic, Wash., where we cycled east 20 kilometres on the paved Golden Tiger Multi-use Pathway, which turns into the gravel Ferry County Rail Trail.
On our way back to the Okanagan, we spent the night at Christina Lake and assessed the Trans Canada Trail both east and west.
The eastern leg was more than lumpy and bumpy in places and uphill although there were panoramic views of the lake and valley. When we cycled west, we wish we would have started there and gone further.
In the first three kilometres on a smooth sand/gravel trail, we crossed the magnificent Kettle River Trestle, then carefully crossed Highway 395 to find imp-ressive Cascade Falls (a short walk off-trail) and reached Cascades Trestle.
With the Okanagan Rail Trail and Myra Canyon alone, the Okanagan stands head-and-shoulders above the rail trail we experienced at Christina Lake. Coming home, we appreciate what we have even more.