Photo by N. Chrystine Olson
It’s road trip season. The top tier of a state associated mainly with potatoes offers wilderness, culture, wildlife and some of the most laid back camping in the lower 48. There’s a reason why I call this corner of the world home. Come see for yourself.
Legend holds that surveyors were in an alcoholic stupor when they delineated northern Idaho from Montana. Old timers still complain Idaho was robbed of significant acreage, including the towns of Missoula, Kallispell and Butte. Looking at a map, it’s not hard to imagine a drunken error. Idaho has a very odd shape.
Like many western stories, the tale of compromised map makers is just that. Congress determined how the territories would split following natural contours along the Bitterroot Mountains, curving south to the Continental Divide. The Panhandle has a high strength to weight ratio as far as road trips go. What it lacks in width it makes up for in natural beauty and rich history all the way to the Canadian border.
Vandals, Indian Ponies, and a Classic Hotel Bar
You know you’re in the northern tier of the Gem State when you set your watch back an hour to Pacific Time. U.S 95 is the primary highway running south to north towards Canada. Coming from the southern part of the state over the Snake River in Lewiston, head towards Moscow and the University of Idaho.
This is Vandal Country, so named due to the strong influx of Scandinavian farmers making the region home since the 1800’s.
Remember: the town’s name is pronounced Mos-co….with a long “o.” Locals will tell you there are no “cows” in Idaho, differentiating it from Russia’s largest city (despite what you may have seen on the drive in). Situated on the edge of the Palouse Prairie, Moscow is the home of Appaloosa horses, the preferred mounts of Indian warriors in most classic western films. This laid back college town doesn’t forget its connection to the land; grain elevators flank the city limits on each side.
A walking tour of the campus includes a lovely arboretum and botanical garden. Inexpensive motels lie between the university and downtown. Once situated for the evening, wander towards the historic Hotel Moscow for a drink in the Garden Lounge. This long established watering hole on Main Street is the best place to meet locals. Good Chinese food and a signature regional appetizer, pork and seeds, are available at the New Hong Kong Café.
After a good, cholesterol laden breakfast at The Breakfast Club (510 S. Main Street), move north past fields of winter wheat towards the Coeur d’ Alene Reservation. The non-native name for the Schitsu’umsh derives from the French, meaning Heart of the Awl, a nod by fur traders in the 18th century to the tribe’s expert trading skills.
If you are inclined for gambling and golfing, the Coeur d’Alene Casino and Raven Circle Golf Club is right off 95 south of Worley. If not, you can head on towards I- 90, heading east to Idaho Highway 97, the scenic way around the east side of Lake Coeur d’ Alene. Take the Wolf Creek Lodge exit towards St Maries.
About two miles in, Mineral Ridge Recreation Area offers a 3.3 mile loop trail where those traveling with a canine companion can stretch their legs and walk their dogs without a leash. The views from the top span over the lake, a gorgeous view any time of day, and spectacular at dawn or dusk.
Blue Highways, Secret Camping Sites, and Cycling Like a Kid
97 is a classic “blue highway,” bending with the lake’s shoreline. Hutton’s General Store is a great place to feast on wood fired pizza on the deck or to provision up for your trip. Camping awaits at Bell Bay, a jewel of a campground on the Idaho Panhandle Forest. Turn onto East Point Road, just past the fire station, following blacktop till it turns to gravel. This is an out of the way spot, taking you through green pastures, old weathered barns, and horses that will gladly canter to the fence line for an apple or carrot.
There are 15 campsites with views of the lake, hiking trails, and easy access to a swimming beach. The lower loop sites are prettiest. Best to come mid-week during the summer: “First come, first serve” no reservations taken. Tell John and Rosanne Lloyd, your campground hosts, Chrysser says “Hi” and that Beau and I will be by to see them soon. If there are clear skies, the lack of light pollution will make for lovely starlit nights around the campfire. Plan on spending a couple of days at least.
After a nirvana camping experience, backtrack to 97 and continue south to the fun little town of Harrison. Rent recumbent bicycles at Pedal Pushers for a spin down the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. This Rails to Trails stretch, once an EPA Super Fund site, was converted by the Northern Pacific Railroad and Bunker Hill Mining Company for the bicycling set.
Take a right on the path towards Chatcolet Bridge and riparian areas flush with nesting ospreys, yellow warblers, and cinnamon teals. In the early part of summer you may see baby grebes tucked on their mama’s back for a piggyback swim along the Chain Lakes. Binoculars come in handy. Riding one of these laid back cycles is the closest thing to being a ten year old riding your Schwinn Spider bike on a summer day.
Harrison is a full service community of about 500 souls. The Denise Oliver Gallery features local artists: the hand carved wooden bowls by Larry Ritter are affordable, elegant and practical, a perfect souvenir to bring back home. One Shot Charlies is a geographically desirable watering hole for a well deserved post-ride beer. For those with an icy sweet tooth, opt for an ice cream cone at the Creamery. Accommodation options include everything from a bed and breakfast or a motel, to coveted camping spots on the shore by the marina.
Coeur d’Alene, Silent Movies, and Ancient Cedars
Soaked in the small town Panhandle charm, continue moving on 97. At the junction with Route 3, loop back on the Interstate and head west to the burgeoning city of Coeur d’Alene. The town hops in the summer; the high rise construction surrounding Coeur d’Alene Resort testifies to the new found popularity CDA holds for the well-to-do. No matter; there’s plenty to do for those without deep pockets.
Motels book up early, so reservations might be a good idea. I am more than happy to put up anyone during their stay. Couch and loft available on Rathdrum Creek, a 20 minute drive from town. Save your cash for a flight around the lake, launching and landing on the water with a WWII pilot.
For the more terrestrial minded, hike up Tubb”s Hill to the left of the resort, or for the aquatically inclined, rent a sea kayak on the dock. Afterwards, munch on classic burgers at Hudson’s, a CDA institution since 1927.
Coeur D’Alene is walking and cycling friendly, and there are loads of shops, art galleries, and restaurants clustered together on Sherman Avenue. There’s also the local Coeur d’Alene Brewing Company, a block off downtown on 209 E. Lakeside Ave. Quaff, a huckleberry ale, is a wonderfully thirst quenching seasonal brew. Wednesday evenings in the summer, a good chunk of downtown gives way to the Kootenai County Farmer’s Market.
Art Walks happen the first Friday of every month, a relaxing way to enjoy some of the excellent wines produced in eastern Washington and hob knob with the painters and sculptors whose work is on display.
With your “city fix” satisfied for a day or three, work your way from I-90 to State Highway 41 on into northern Idaho’s forests and more freshwater lakes. Don’t forget an out-of state fishing license, available at most local stores in Priest River. Highway 57 directs you to Priest and Upper Priest Lakes.
Several state run camping grounds along the west side are available, all taking reservations online. These are prime locales for camping, fishing, canoeing, and if your timing is right, huckleberries. If you motor along the east side of the lake, don’t miss Lion’s Head, where silent film star and pioneer movie producer Nell Shipman created wildlife themed movies in the 1920’s. This is also the heart of grizzly country, so take proper precautions if leaving food behind in camp for any day trips. You can be ticketed by an State of Idaho park ranger if you don’t.
Finally, you can’t leave the Panhandle without exploring the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars. Some of the trees are over 3000 years old. Oh, the stories those weathered branches could tell– and probably do– when the wind is just right.
In a few short miles outside the cedar grove, Washington State awaits, as does Route 1, heading into Canada.
There is so much to see in northern Idaho. We had record breaking snowfall this winter, so rivers are running strong and the rapids wild and western. For more Idaho trip planning resources, visit www.visitidaho.org.
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
100,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
75,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points