Passage Into the Panhandle – Part 2
A Tale of Two Towns
Part 1 of this article, published in our January/February 2019 issue, focused on Priest Lake, the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars, Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge and more. In this article, we head farther south in the Panhandle.
If you squared up the Idaho towns of Wallace and Coeur d’Alene in a beauty contest, you’d be hard pressed to pick a winner. Both are stunners but in very different ways.
The modest mountain town of Wallace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means nearly every building is a gem. The town is made even more picturesque by a steep backdrop of pines.
Fifty miles away is upscale Coeur d’Alene, located on the shore of its namesake lake. Considerably larger than Wallace, the city attracts visitors from around the world drawn to the posh Coeur d’Alene Resort with its famous floating golf green and the town’s thriving cultural, dining, outdoors and shopping scene.
These two disparate towns serve as base camps for exploring the lower half of the Panhandle. Stay in one or stay in both. They’re only 50 minutes apart, which makes it easy to pick just one if you like. The drive between the two towns along Interstate 90 through mountains, shimmering lakes and past a former Jesuit Mission is a destination itself.
The Town That Was Almost Destroyed
For 21 years, the feisty citizens of Wallace fought the government’s plan to destroy their town with a freeway slated to run through its midsection.
“This little town with less than 1,000 residents engaged in bureaucratic judo,” says Wallace Chamber of Commerce Coordinator David Copelan, about the fight that started in 1967. “All 3,000 miles of Interstate 90 were built except for the section by Wallace while the town sued. Eventually … the entire town (was) listed on the National Register of Historic Places and ended up beating the combined forces of the federal and local government to survive. People here are tough.”
Thanks to those early fighters, the rest of us can enjoy its charms. Set off on foot so you have plenty of time to admire and photograph the historic moldings, doors, signage, shops and colorful Victorian homes.
If you have a strong heart, try climbing one or all of the 12 South Hill Stairways starting on 5th Street and Bank, built for residents living on the steep hillside. Hiking the nearly 800 steps is the equivalent of climbing the stairs of a 46-story building. Do it for exercise or do it for scenic vistas and a glimpse of this historic neighborhood.
You’ll be hungry after all that walking so stop for dinner at the Blackboard Café with possibly the best Italian food you’ll ever taste stateside. We got the chicken piccata made with linguini pasta, lemon, capers, parsley, butter and a chicken breast; spaghetti with meat sauce made from scratch using Italian sausage; and steak alfredo using grilled filet mignon and wild mushrooms tossed with orecchiette pasta and parmesan cream sauce.
Rob and Luanne Wuerfel are the café’s warm and welcoming owners who moved to Wallace a few years ago and fell in love with the town and its people. Rob’s background as a chef started with a classic French background and evolved from his time working in Europe, Alaska, the Caribbean and the West Coast.
A great place to stay is the Wallace Inn, with a beautiful glassed-in pool area seen from inside the lobby and spacious rooms. It’s perfect if the Route of the Hiawatha is on your itinerary because Wallace is the closest town to it.
Route of the Hiawatha Scenic Mountain Bike Trail
If you were to do nothing else in the Panhandle except bike the remote and spectacularly beautiful Route of the Hiawatha Scenic Mountain Bike Trail, you’d go home satisfied. This top 10 bucket list experience is surprisingly accessible for all ages and abilities. If you can ride a bike, you can do it. If you can’t, rent a recumbent bike. They’re comfortable and well worth the slightly higher price. You can even walk the trail.
More than 15 miles of railroad track was converted into a gentle downhill biking trail that passes through 10 dark tunnels and seven trestle bridges up to 230 feet high. Unobstructed mountain views, waterfalls and wildflowers greet you after exiting the first and longest of the tunnels.
Riders begin at Lookout Pass Ski Area where mountain bike rentals, including helmets, lights and optional return shuttle passes are available. Lookout Pass is located alongside Interstate 90, Exit 0, 12 miles east of Wallace. This is a popular trail so if you want it to yourself, arrive at Lookout Pass when it opens at 8 a.m. and start your ride by 8:30 a.m. when the trail opens.
Sierra Silver Mine Tour
Experience the methods of hard-rock mining with a retired miner as your guide on the approximately one-hour Sierra Silver Mine tour. It begins in downtown Wallace with a short historic trolley ride to the mine.
Our guide was a fourth-generation miner who had clearly loved his career, and now enjoyed the opportunity to share his knowledge along with a stream of jokes. “What kind of rock is this?” he asks. “It’s called lever-right. That means ‘leave ’er right there.’”
Pulaski Tunnel Trail
During the disastrous wildfires of 1910, Ranger Ed Pulaski saved the lives of all but six of his 45-member firefighting crew by herding them into an abandoned mine tunnel and threatening to shoot anyone who tried to leave.
Hike the 4-mile round trip Pulaski Tunnel Trail into a thick spruce and fir forest alongside Placer Creek to an overlook of the tunnel. Brightly colored interpretive signs detail the dramatic story of the fire and the lives lost.
We set off on the trail near the end of August a few hours before the sun set and were stunned at its beauty so late in the summer. Brilliant layers of green unfolded on all sides; rocks and moss formed endless patterns in the creek.
Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park
The spirit of the Catholic Jesuit priests and the Schitsu’umsh Tribe of Native Americans who recruited the “blackrobes” to Northern Idaho still lives on the peaceful grounds of Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park.
The crown jewel of all the structures in the park is the Sacred Heart Mission — a touching collaboration between the Native Americans and Jesuit Priests using materials on hand in 1880s. Hewn timbers are held together with wooden pegs. Father Antonio Ravalli’s paintings and hand-carved statues and alter adorn the church. Paint is cleverly used to mimic marble. Chandeliers were made with tin cans, wallpaper created from painted newspapers, and huckleberries were used to dye the ceiling.
Take time to stroll the peaceful and beautiful grounds. The setting is idyllic, dotted with fir trees and overlooking the Coeur d’Alene River. Enjoy the visitors center, two small cemeteries, walking trails, Parish House, Parsonage and more.
With beautiful Coeur d’Alene as home base, it’s an easy drive to the above spots. Traveling east on Interstate 90, Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park is just 26 miles away, Wallace is 49 miles, and the Route of the Hiawatha is 68 miles. You’ll find plenty of places to rest your head in this city by the lake. But if you want to swim, hike, boat, Jet Ski, golf, eat and lounge without walking more than a few minutes, book a room with a view of Lake Coeur d’Alene at the renowned Coeur d’Alene Resort.
Golfers go gaga about the resort’s famous floating green. Couch potatoes appreciate its gorgeous infinity pool perfectly positioned at the edge of Lake Coeur d’Alene. What makes the pool even more fun is getting there. You catch a ride on the resort’s mahogany speedboat from what’s said to be the longest floating boardwalk in the world.
Just off the grounds of the resort is Tubbs Hill Nature Trail that winds along the coast of Lake Coeur d’Alene and through trees. It’s short at only 2 miles round trip, but long on views.
The resort also rents out paddleboards, boats and jet skis. But if you prefer your watercraft piloted by someone else, book a lake cruise. There are day cruises, evening cruises, dinner cruises and more.
Off property, walk to Coeur d’Alene’s charming downtown area of shops and restaurants, bike the Coeur d’Alene Parkway that circles the lake, visit museums and more.
Sometimes when staying at a gorgeous resort, the best thing to do is nothing. Too often you’re so busy hiking, biking, boating and exploring that you’re only there to sleep. Sit on the balcony and gaze at the lake. Relax in your spacious room. Wander the boardwalk. Take the elevator downstairs for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Dive into the indoor pool then soak in the hot tub. Enjoy some spa pampering. Even the lobby is fun — stare at the massive fish tank, shop for local products in the Resort Logo Shop and admire the fresh flowers.