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Passage Into the Panhandle – Part 1

A Priestly Lake and a Reverential Forest

Gail Newbold | Photos by Kevin Kiernan Jan 9, 2019

Pristine lakes. Remote hikes. Cascading waterfalls. Ancient cedars. Isolated beaches. Gold and green wetlands. Quaint towns. Huckleberry everything.

Idaho’s Panhandle is all that and more. Big on beauty but small on people. You’ll never wonder how you ended up at nature’s version of Disneyland. You won’t stand in a line or fight for a spot to snap a picture. The roads are clear and the people friendly.

This northernmost region of Idaho sits on about 25 percent of the state’s land and is occupied by approximately 20 percent of its residents. Bordered by Montana, Washington and a sliver of Canada, it even has a different time zone than the lower half of Idaho. (The north is Pacific Time; the south is Mountain.)

It’s always risky to write about a place you love for fear it will become overrun, but we’re throwing caution aside. In the first installment of this two-part article, we’ll disclose some of the most beautiful and soul-satisfying spots Northern Idaho offers.

It doesn’t matter where you start and end your passage into the Panhandle. The quickest way to get there is by flying into the Spokane International Airport in Washington and renting a car. But if you’re up for a longer road trip, the drive from Salt Lake City to Coeur d’Alene (a central point in the Panhandle) is about 10 hours. From Boise, it’s about seven. The outline below follows our journey and includes approximate driving times between sites.

small waterfall with rocks and fallen logs
Granite Falls
grove of really big trees in the forest
Grove of Ancient Cedars

Albeni Falls Dam Visitors Center

Stretch your legs en route to Priest Lake from the Spokane airport at the picturesque Albeni Falls Dam Visitors Center on Idaho State Highway 2. Learn the dam’s history at the visitors center, take a tour, stroll the grounds or simply use the restroom.

Priest Lake

First came the Elkins, then came the Hills. Both families built resorts on the shore of Priest Lake — the Elkins in 1932, the Hills in 1946. Surely the perfect setup for a Hatfield-McCoy type feud. Yet the owners of both resorts have always been remarkably amicable, even helpful. “We all benefit when people come to Priest Lake,” says Teri Hill, the marketing and events specialist whose parents started Hill’s Resort.

A two-hour drive north from Spokane, Priest Lake is considered one of the state’s most pristine and least developed lakes. It offers the usual watersports, summer swimming, forest and beach hiking trails, wooded golf course, fishing, and winter snowmobiling. But what really makes it beloved to annual visitors are the friendly people, artisan food, abundance of sandy beaches, hikes to some of the state’s most stunning scenery and lack of crowds.

Bob Davis, current owner of Elkins Resort, loves taking friends out in one of the 10-acre resort’s new Cobalt 21-foot runabout rental boats. His sweet spot is the 2.5-mile natural thoroughfare between upper and lower Priest Lake — a no-wake zone that forces boaters to slow down and enjoy the monochromatic palette of greens, from the crystal-clear water to the underbrush to the cedar, tamarack and white pine trees. This incredibly beautiful and peaceful stretch of waterway ends at upper Priest Lake, a protected area accessible only by boat or a 5-mile walk. Empty beaches with weather-beaten picnic tables beckon. Docking at one of them, we swat at flies while devouring a gourmet picnic packed by Hill’s Resort for the outing at Elkins. And we see no one.

covered docks at a lake with canoes
Elkins Resort at Priest Lake
wooden docks with hanging flower baskets
Elkins Resort at Priest Lake

Five-star Food with Small-town Flair

Food is a big deal at both resorts. “We serve top-notch food in a casual atmosphere,” Hill says. That atmosphere includes indoor dining with sweeping views of the lake and a beachside deck. Teri’s brother, Scott Hill, is the chef and creates such palate-pleasing appetizers as wild mushroom crostini, brie and garlic, and crab cakes with wasabi aioli and sriracha. For the main entrée, a popular house specialty is halibut with a pistachio crust and truffle crème. The homemade huckleberry ice cream (made with a crank ice cream machine) and huckleberry pie are musts for dessert. There’s even a fresh sushi night in the summer.

At Elkins, Davis has turned over management of the resort and its dining to his daughter, Tracie, and son-in-law, Mike Szybnski, who gets many of his ideas from Hawaii. “Mike is an artist,” Davis says. “He can wield a frying pan but also drive a backhoe.” Both resorts have won awards for their regional cuisine. Current executive chef at Elkins is Graham Bixby.

Davis’ favorite dish is steak with Elkins’ signature cracked pepper sauce — a creamy concoction so delicious you want to lick the remains off your plate. The ahi ceviche inside an avocado flower is as beautiful as it is tasty. For dinner, a miso-glazed salmon with lemon beurre blanc in a citrus soy reduction is perfection. Because no meal in Northern Idaho is complete without its prized purple fruit, order the warm huckleberry cobbler a la mode.

Don’t leave Hill’s before breakfasting on the best huckleberry pancakes you’ve ever eaten topped by the resort’s own huckleberry preserves. The huge, fluffy pancakes are packed full of berries and the thick, sweet preserves bottled for the resort are the perfect accompaniment. Buy a bottle in the gift shop to bring a little of Northern Idaho home.

woman standing by roots of a large fallen tree
Grove of Ancient Cedars
trees in the forest with green ground cover
Grove of Ancient Cedars

Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars and Granite Falls

It hits you a mere 10 or 20 steps into the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars — the feeling you’re in a different and better realm. Stop and enjoy the peace. You won’t find many quieter places on earth. Speak softly so you don’t break the spell.

Find this majestic grove of cedars on Forest Road 302 (the dusty gravel road is an extension of State Highway 57), about 40 minutes north of Hill’s Resort. A short trail from the lower grove leads to the base of Lower Granite Falls. A 1-mile loop trail from the lower cedar grove takes you to vista points of Lower and Upper Granite Falls. Continue another half-mile to the upper cedar grove where some of the giant trees are 800 to 2,000 years old.

Muskeegan Lake is just north of the cedar forest on 302, and an easy walk to the shore. Sit on a log and gaze at the pine-rimmed lake. Huff Lake, south of the cedar forest, is also worth a stop. Read the interpretive signs and savor the beauty from a viewing platform and boardwalk. The lake is an example of some of the area’s treasured peatland.

Located on the same road between the community of Nordman and Hill’s Resort is Hanna Flats Cedar Grove Nature Trail — another opportunity to revel in the quiet of a cedar forest. Ferns blanket the ground on all sides of this flat and accessible trail.

Visit with photographer Tom Holman at his Buena Vista Studio and Priest Lake Candle whose expansive grounds are as interesting as his gallery of Priest Lake photos. Antique cars, bathtubs, stoves and more serve as outdoor art. “We like old stuff,” says Holman with a smile. “And it kind of hides all our other old stuff.”

Hidden in the trees on the shore of Priest Lake, a short walk from Hill’s, is the fascinating Priest Lake Museum, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935-1936. Enjoy the replica of a lumberjack’s bunkhouse, an old Smokey the Bear stuffed animal and much more.

Warning. Don’t visit any of the above places if you like crowds. 

Sandpoint

The poster child for cute towns, Sandpoint elicits effusive praise from all who visit. You’ll find locally sourced artisan food, Sandpoint City Beach on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille, Cedar Street Bridge Public Market, river views, funky little shops and the beautifully restored Panida Theatre. The scenic one-hour drive to Sandpoint from Hill’s Resort follows the Panhandle Historic Rivers Passage for part of the way.

In Sandpoint, we recommend dining on the Spud’s patio overlooking the river followed by a stop at Panhandle Cone and Coffee for handcrafted gourmet ice cream. Try a scoop of Salted Caramel & Brown Butter Cookie and another of Pecan Pie & Bourbon. Spend time on and around Lake Pend Orielle — Idaho’s biggest and deepest lake — enjoying swimming, hiking, boating and fishing. Farragut State Park is at the southern tip. A variety of boat rides are offered by Lake Pend Orielle Cruises. A great place to sleep in Sandpoint is the La Quinta Inn with its spacious rooms and free breakfast.

About a half hour northwest of Sandpoint is Schweitzer Mountain Resort, offering a full slate of summer and winter activities from huckleberry festivals to hiking, biking, skiing, scenic lift rides and much more. 

view of a large covered bridge
Cedar Street Bridge

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge

The one problem with vacationing in the Panhandle is there’s more to do than you’ll ever have time for. From Sandpoint, drive the beautiful Wild Horse Trail Scenic Byway (Highway 95), a part of the International Selkirk Loop, north for about 50 minutes to the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge — a sort of wetlands on steroids. Stop at the Refuge Office for a free CD explaining the 4.5-mile auto tour that loops around the 2,774-acre refuge. Admission is free.

You’ll be awestruck at how different it is from other spots in Northern Idaho. Vast gold and green meadows are decorated with ponds of all shapes and sizes. Birds dot the peaceful and tranquil landscape. The Selkirk and Purcell Mountains surround the glacial valley where waterfowl feed and rest.

Allow time for contemplating its beauty and enjoying the four hiking trails. The spectacular 100-foot-high Myrtle Creek Falls trail is just across the parking lot from the Refuge Office. We also did a bonus 1-mile-roundtrip hike to Snow Creek Falls located a few miles off the refuge’s auto loop on forest service property. The cascading upper and lower falls are magnificent, and the vivid lime-green water at the base of the lower falls is striking. 

Bonners Ferry

If quirky stuff is your thing, don’t miss the Boundary County Museum in the historic town of Bonners Ferry — a half-hour by car from the Canadian border. Have fun gazing at historic birthing beds, elaborate chairs from the Order of the Knights of Pythias and their mascot — a skeleton named “Old Joe” in a black coffin. There’s a roomful of intricate Ned Dyer clocks and even a framed condom case.

Hanging flowerpots line the town’s charming Main Street. You can dine inside an oversized bird cage at the eclectic Under the Sun Café and shop for “useful gifts and goods.” 

Bird Aviation Museum & Invention Center

Part of the fun of this unique museum, located in the tiny town of Sagle, is getting there. Bird Ranch Road winds steadily uphill past a variety of Quonset hut-looking structures before finally ending at the Bird Aviation Museum & Invention Center. The only birds in this museum are airplanes. The bird in its name refers to Dr. Forrest Morton Bird, a biomedical engineer, inventor and pilot who completed three advanced degrees and filed almost as many patents as Elon Musk. He and his wife, Pamela, founded the museum, which celebrates aviators and innovators. Check out the Swarovski crystal mirror in the bathroom. Its sister mirror hangs in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

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