European Vacation in Idaho – Scenic Byways of the North

For your next trip, consider heading to the little-traveled scenic byways of Northern Idaho.

Gail Newbold Aug 6, 2012

If a trip to Europe isn’t in the budget this year, consider heading to the little-traveled scenic byways of Northern Idaho. You’ll see Ireland’s green rolling hills, Germany’s Rhein River in miniature, France’s rustic religious sites a few centuries newer and much more — for a fraction of the cost. A phrase book and crash course in Italian are not required since most of the locals speak very good English. A guidebook is always nice, but not necessary as long as you have a map or are willing to ask locals for directions.

Coeur d’Alene

What’s more European than starting your adventure in Coeur d’Alene, a city named by French explorers and fur traders that sits on the shore of gleaming Lake Coeur d’Alene, a body of water that rivals the beauty of France’s Lake Geneva.

It would be easy to spend an entire week in Coeur d’Alene with its abundance of indoor and outdoor activities such as boating, golfing, hiking on Tubbs Hill, shopping, eating and sightseeing. To get there from Salt Lake City, fly into Spokane, Wash., rent a car at the airport and you’ll be in Coeur d’Alene in 40 minutes.

Old Mission State Park

A breathtaking side trip, especially on a rainy morning in early June, is the Cataldo Mission — the oldest standing building in Idaho located in Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park. The drive alone is worth the trip, which passes by pine forests, abundant meadow grass and moss, and sparkling lakes as you head east on Interstate Highway 90.

Fields of lupine dot the serene grounds, perfect for a leisurely stroll. Jesuit Priests and the Coeur d’Alene Indians built the historic Sacred Heart Mission Church in the early 19th century. Their attempt at imitating the eloquence of European cathedrals is oddly touching. Interior walls are decorated with hand-painted newspapers and fabric. Chandeliers crafted from tin cans hang from the ceiling. Gilded crosses were carved from local pines.

Route of the Hiawatha

This awe-inspiring 17-mile bike trail in the remote Bitterroot Mountains is said to be a family-friendly adventure because most of the route is on a slight downward incline (2 percent grade) with a shuttle bus waiting at the end. These things are indeed comforting. However, the Route of Hiawatha’s 10 cavernous train tunnels are not. In the beginning, they’re nothing short of terrifying. Oh, and if you have a fear of heights, the seven train trestles spanning deep pine-covered gorges might send you over the edge, metaphorically speaking of course.

Bikes are available for rent in the town of Wallace, about an hour’s drive east from Coeur d’Alene. Each is outfitted with a headlamp, ostensibly so you can make your way through the tunnels. But the beam is so short and narrow a lot of chutzpah is required to ride with any amount of speed through the inky darkness. You’re afraid to pick up speed for fear of running into one of the walls, but go too slowly and the bike wobbles. I’d advise bringing your own light.

During my visit, the ranger warned us that the first and longest tunnel (1.7 miles) could be disorienting and to get off our bikes and walk for awhile if that happened. Good advice. Although the temperature inside the tunnel was probably a frigid 40 degrees, I didn’t feel it. Euphoria hits upon emerging. One awe-inspiring scene after another greets you, and in early June there was hardly a soul in sight — only broad expanses of mountains, moss, flowers, gushing waterfalls, deep gorges, pines, rivulets of water, streams and rivers of all sizes. We stopped often to drink in the beauty. We were told the trail could be biked in 45 minutes, but we were in no hurry and spent three hours. Biking the Route of Hiawatha ranks as one of the top 10 coolest things I’ve ever done.

Leaving Coeur d’Alene

If you like hot dogs, try Dangerous Dogs (108 N. Fourth St.) in Coeur d’Alene, where we had a Blue Demon (an all beef hot dog with Bleu cheese dressing, celery, carrots, Gorgonzola cheese and buffalo sauce) before heading south on U.S. Route 97, the Lake Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway. Lake and pine views abounded.

The byway ends at state Route 3, where the White Pine Scenic Byway begins and eventually turns onto state Route 6. In June following a wet spring, the meadows were storybook lush and streams were high. The scenery was remote and mesmerizing as we passed horses, tiny towns with names like Emida, and country stores selling Idaho Ice bottled water, raspberries and deviled eggs. We stopped frequently to breathe the fresh smell and stretch our legs.

From Route 6, we left the White Pine Scenic Byway to head south on state Route 9, which landed us in the tiny town of Kendrick. A local advised us to head back north for a minute and take Highway P-1 instead of U.S. Route 12 to the town of Orofino. “It’s 20 minutes shorter,” he said. “But don’t miss the bridge or you’ll be in no-man’s land.”

This stretch of highway, not designated as scenic, was perhaps the most beautiful stretch of road we’d passed to that point, with mountain and valley vistas equal to many in Switzerland, Ireland and Germany. A breathtaking view of the Clearwater River appeared as the road descended into Orofino, where we spent the night at the Best Western Plus Lodge at River’s Edge — located just where its name claims.

Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Before leaving the charming town of Orofino, we bought homemade doughnuts and huckleberry scones from a local bakery to eat while driving alongside the Clearwater River on the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. At the town of Stites, we stopped at a tiny grocery store and ended up buying a Styrofoam cup of steaming homemade chili. Cost $1.50, prepared that morning. Soda crackers free.

“You live in a beautiful part of the country,” I said to an older man sitting by the chili. “I used to drive trucks all over the U.S.,” he said. “I could hardly wait to get home.”

From Grangeville, we took U.S. Route 95 to McCall, another stretch of road not designated as a scenic byway, but another that should be. It felt like we were driving through a painting. Ravines crisscrossed the lush landscape that appeared almost manicured. It felt like we were driving through a painting as we saw fingers of mountains decorated in every shade of green.

There wasn’t a barren or ugly stretch of scenery anywhere between Coeur d’Alene and McCall, where we ended our trip with two nights at McCall’s Shore Lodge on beautiful Payette Lake before driving straight back to Salt Lake City feeling relaxed and inspired.

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