Way off in the far reaches of the West sits a surprisingly forgotten state. With neighbors like Washington and Montana, it is (somewhat) easy to understand why people tend to overlook our 43rd state...but that is definitely a mistake. Idaho, especially the northern region, is teeming with dense forests*, crystal clear water, and lots (and lots) of adventure.
*in fact, the United States Forest Service holds about 38% of Idaho's land, the highest proportion of any state.
While most people will likely associate Idaho with potatoes (which is fair because the state produces ⅓ of all potato crops in the USA), it actually has a lot more to offer than just farming. It has the nickname, “The Gem State” for a reason. And no place shows off that beauty like the far northern area: the Idaho Panhandle.
Encompassing the state's 10 northernmost counties, this area is part of the region known as the Inland Northwest, which also includes eastern Washington (including the biggest city in the region, Spokane) and the far northeastern reaches of Oregon.
The Idaho Panhandle has a lot of adventures to offer, for all types of outdoors-men and women. Including, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, camping, canoeing, kayaking and skiing. Here are just a couple of the best adventures to be had in the Panhandle.
Lake Pend Oreille
Idaho’s largest lake, at 43 miles long with 111(!) miles of shoreline, and one of the deepest lakes in the nation (a measly 1,158 feet at its deepest), Lake Pend Oreille offers world-class fishing, camping, and even boat cruises. The name, according to legend, derives from a term that early French trappers used to describe the pendants that local Native Americans wore on their earlobes. Though others claim that the lake got its name because it is shaped like a long earlobe (either way, an earlobe was involved somehow).
You can enjoy the lake from a number of different parks, including Farragut State Park, which is located at the very southern tip of the lake and offers hiking, mountain biking, and camping, Garfield Bay County Park and City Beach, which is located in downtown Sandpoint and has awesome beaches, ball courts, playgrounds and more.
No matter where you go, the main thing is to just enjoy the beauty of the lake. Plus, with 111 miles of shoreline, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a quiet spot to sit back, take in the view, read a book and just marvel at the scenery.
French fur traders named the town, which means “sharp-hearted”, in respect for the tough trading practices of the local Native American tribes. Today, visitors can still see traces of the past Ice Age in the dozens of lakes that now encircle the area, which were formed by melting glaciers. The most prominent of them being Lake Coeur d’Alene.
To get a more up-close view of the area, and the lake especially, we recommend taking the Scenic Byway, which traces the shoreline of the lake and provides a striking view of the rugged Northern Idaho landscapes, including its lush forests. If you are looking to get out of your car (which is always a good idea) you can also hop on a scenic cruise, where visitors can learn about the lake and watch for wildlife, including deer, moose, and bears.
But if you are anything like us, you are going to want to head into the forest and away from the city - at least for a bit. Luckily, you have the option to bike along the Trail of Coeur d’Alene*, which spans 73 miles across the Idaho Panhandle. One of the best, and can't-miss spots along the trail is the Old Mission State Park, which encompasses 18-acres of woodland as well as the Cataldo Mission church, the oldest structure in Idaho (it dates back to the 1850's).
*this is one pretty biking trail, in fact, it was named one of the 25 top trails in the nation in 2010 by the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
Another can't-miss state park is also the oldest in the whole Pacific Northwest. Heyburn State Park, near the town of Plummer, contains nearly 6,000 acres of land and over 2,000 acres of waterways, including three lakes (Benewah, Chatcolet, and Hidden). A truly awesome park for hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, stand up paddleboarding and many other adventures.
One of the larger cities in the state, Sandpoint is home to a lot of the cute, somewhat kitschy stores you would expect from a tourist town. But, don’t let that turn you away. The town is located in an absolutely beautiful area, and because of that, has a lot to offer.
Including, being the endpoint of the International Selkirk Loop - a 280-mile-long scenic highway that loops around the U.S. states of Idaho and Washington, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. It got its name because it completely encircles the Selkirk Mountain Range. While you can drive the loop, an even better way to see it might be from the seat of a bicycle. Though it is on a “highway,” for much of the route you will be on backroads (exactly what we like to hear) and crossing smaller towns, riding along rivers and through stunning mountain valleys.
Besides the main route, you can also take a couple of stops and go for a hike (if you have the energy), cool off in the lakes and rivers and even go rock climbing. The area the Selkirk Loop passes through is home to the largest diversity of wildlife in the lower 48 states (including, more than 50 mammal species and 265+ bird species). So make sure to look out for deer, elk, and moose.
Other fun things to do in Sandpoint include mountain biking or hiking the Gold Hill Trail and exploring the Schweitzer Mountain Resort, which offers more than 20 miles of amazing alpine trails.
All along Northern Idaho, there are adventures to be had. From mine tours at the Crystal Gold Mine or Sierra Silver Mine, to visiting Kellogg, a historic mining town* with lots of culture and “charm” and home to Silver Mountain Resort, which claims to have the world’s longest single-strand gondola. Or consider heading even farther north, almost to the Canadian border, to check out Priest Lake State Park, home to one of Idaho's prettiest lakes and a popular spot for boating, kayaking, laying out on the beach, camping and hiking. Or heck, head a bit further west and check out Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America.
*make sure to check out these other fascinating towns in Idaho, including one that has a population of only 16 people.
Northern Idaho is a true hidden gem (no pun intended). It has everything you would need for a fun, exciting, and adventurous trip: hiking, mountain biking, fishing and even a couple of cute scenic towns. So next time you are looking to escape to the mountains, or just away from people in general (hello social distancing) maybe consider the Idaho Panhandle, where you are sure to be amazed.