Tell someone you’re planning a trip to north Idaho and you might get a perplexed look in response. Many can’t imagine why you’d be heading there.
“What’s in North Idaho?” Well…I’ll tell you. Less and more! Less traffic, less pollution, less expense and less people.
And more trees, lakes, mountains, and wildlife along with more friendly folks! More space for adventure and more opportunities for it. Start your north Idaho road trip from the closest airport in Spokane, Washington, just across the border. We flew in from San Diego, picked up our rental car and started across Idaho’s panhandle.
Heading East to Wallace, Idaho
We decided to travel to our furthest point east and work our way back again. That meant making our way to Wallace, Idaho. But we did make one stop on the way at the Old Mission State Park. Here you’ll find the Cataldo Mission church, the oldest building in Idaho. You can tour the church and parish building as well as a Visitor Center with gift shop and a special exhibit called Sacred Encounters. You’ll learn about the Native Americans who lived here and the Jesuits who came, at their request, to teach and train them.
Arriving in Wallace
You’ll see immediately why this is a great place to visit – every single building in town is on the National Register of Historic Places. The history of Wallace was shaped by silver mining and the railroads, and there are museums for both, as well as a tour of a real silver mine.
Hike the Ed Pulaski Tunnel Trail to learn more about how Ed saved the lives of 50 firefighters during the Big Burn of 1910. It’s a moderately rated hike of about 4 miles round trip along a beautiful stream.
Visit the Melodrama Theatre for a little nostalgia and be sure to grab a tasty bite to eat. I recommend the Smokehouse BBQ, Blackboard Café, the 1313 Club — or the Red Light Garage for casual fun.
Stay overnight in Wallace, so you can have an early start to Lookout Pass. We stayed at Wallace Inn – a lovely modern inn with indoor swimming pool and Trailside Café Restaurant for a hearty breakfast before heading out!
Route of the Hiawatha
What used to be a luxury train railroad route is now a rails-to-trails route dedicated to cycling. You can rent your bikes and purchase trail passes at Lookout Pass Ski Resort. They’ll even loan you an auto bike rack for transporting the bikes to the trailhead. Drive to the East Portal (which is actually just across Idaho’s east border into Montana), park your car, and you’re off!
The Route of the Hiawatha is a gorgeous 15-mile downhill bike ride through train tunnels and across trestle bridges. The scenery is simply stunning! Ride a shuttle back at the end of the ride, and you won’t have to face that return uphill trip. Plan half a day for this adventure. You can even take a picnic with you or hike in the forest a little and make it an entire day’s adventure.
We opted to stay in Wallace a second night, to have more time to poke around and explore. Be sure to look for “the Center of the Universe” or climb the old hillside staircases.
Head to Coeur D’Alene, Idaho
From Wallace, we head to Coeur D’Alene, a city with a lake at the heart of it. It would be a crying shame not to really enjoy the beauty of that lake, so I highly recommend taking a power boat out to explore. But you can also rent kayaks, pontoon boats, jet skis, or stand-up paddle boards. We just couldn’t get enough, so we also took a sunset dinner cruise.
Coeur D’Alene was so beautiful and peaceful to dine on the boat deck as the sun set with its colors of pink and orange washing over the lake. The food is pretty amazing, too! Think salmon or steak, side dishes, salads and a most luscious berry cobbler, made with locally grown berries.
Another fun activity is hiking, and Coeur D’Alene has many beautiful areas to get your steps in. An easy hike on Tubbs Hill gives you views of quiet little coves, as well as occasional paragliders or seaplanes gliding across the lake. There’s also a 22-mile paved trail from the lake, along the Spokane River, all the way to the border of Washington, where you can walk or jog, cycle or skateboard. You can also walk on the longest floating boardwalk in the world, right at the Coeur D’Alene Resort.
If you’re up for a thrill, Timberline Adventures has an epic ziplining course in the tops of the trees on Coeur D’Alene mountain. Seven ziplines plus two suspension bridges with incredible views of the lake makes for a “Wow” experience. I hesitated to take my first step off the platform, but then I was soaring through the trees!
Another Mountain and Lake
The final leg of our road trip takes us to Sandpoint and Schweitzer Mountain. On our way, a little detour to Farragut State Park gives us our first glimpse of Lake Pend Oreille, the largest and deepest lake in Idaho. So deep, in fact, that during World War II, it was used for submarine training! There’s a museum in Farragut State Park that stands as a tribute to the training and war activities that occurred here (they even held German prisoners of war for a time), and the park is also a camping and hiking heaven.
Sandpoint is a quaint town on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille. A vintage downtown main street with shops, restaurants and street art beckons at least a stroll-through, if not some serious souvenir shopping. Cedar Street Bridge Public Market also adds its own historic flair to the shopping/dining venues. We enjoyed our lunch of savory crepes at the Cedar Street Bistro, as we enjoyed views of the river below us. Sandpoint’s City Park hosts a sandy beach, which is quite popular, and its own Statue of Liberty!
A Mountain Town Worth Exploring
Rising above Sandpoint is Schweitzer Mountain and its resort by the same name. In the winter, it is a top-notch ski resort with the state’s only high-speed 6-passenger chairlift. There’s a lot to do in the summer as well. We stayed in a beautiful condo at Selkirk Lodge and dined at the Chimney Rock restaurant. We also hiked on the Upper Grr trail, took a chairlift to the summit to enjoy huckleberry lemonade at the Sky House and take in 360-degree views of the valleys and Lake Pend Oreille below. A 2 ½ hour horseback ride with a guide who really knew and loved the mountain and was willing to share his stories with us capped it all off!
Heading Home From Our North Idaho Road Trip
From Sandpoint, it’s only about an hour and a half drive back to the Spokane airport. I hope you’ve enjoyed this north Idaho road trip. It’s an itinerary with plenty of room to add or subtract according to your own interests. One thing for sure is that wherever you go in north Idaho, you will be treated with fantastic views and friendly people.
Guest post written by Tami Wilcox.
Tami Wilcox is the mother of four and grandmother of 7, who has traveled her entire life! She hopes to teach you how to travel more with your family on whatever budget you have. Check out her blog at Postcards & Passports to see more tips and adventures!
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