Discover Northern Idaho's Impossibly Scenic Lake District

Before leaving home for my week-long tour of Idaho‘s Lake District, I polled a few of my friends to see what they knew of Northern Idaho.  For those that had been there before, their excited reply was punctuated by smiles and reverential tones.  But, for those that never had been to Coeur D’Alene (pronounced core-da-lane), the reaction was sure to include the quizzacle mention of two things – potatoes and tundra.  Personally, I was excited to discover a new place and couldn’t wait to hop on the plane bound for the unknown… well my unknown at least.

The scenic two hour flight from Denver to Spokane included picture-perfect views of both the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park, while the final approach treated passengers to portraits of Lake Coeur D’Alene’s blue waters and tree studded hillsides.  Once landed – the drive from Spokane to CdA (as the locals sometimes call it) passed by in an easy 45 minutes.

Northern Idaho Lake District Area Map

Northern Idaho Lake District Area Map

Get to know Coeur d’Alene and Idaho’s Lake District

CdA sits immediately along the shores of its’ namesake lake.  The population is just shy of 51,000 but its hard to imagine it being that big.  The waterfront of the city is busy but intimate and anchored by Coeur d’Alene Resort, Tubbs Hill “city park,” and the campus of North Idaho College.  Beach-goers keep the shoreline busy while float-planes, motorboats and cruise ships keep the people coming and going.

Lake Coeur d’Alene itself is one of the largest naturally occurring lakes in the U.S.  Coming in at roughly 25 miles long and 1-3 miles wide, it is the recreation hub for the region.  Cyclists, triathletes, waterskiers, power boaters, leisure boaters, stand up paddlers, sea-kayakers, hikers and more all come to the area to explore the endless recreational opportunities.

When it comes to climate, northern Idaho is much milder than most visitors expect it to be.  While Idaho’s northern panhandle is ‘way up north,’ the relatively low altitude minimizes the impact.  In fact, the northern latitude affords extra long summer days punctuated by blue skies and summertime temps that hover in the mid-80s.  Needless to say – I was unable to locate any “tundra” … nor any potato farms for that matter.

coeur d'alene, lake, resort

Downtown CDA, Coeur d’Alene Resort and the waterfront. Ph: Coeur d’Alene Resort

Thinking of going to CdA?  Don’t miss these core activities.

  1. While it’s hard not too miss Coeur d’Alene Resort, be sure not too miss Beverly’s restaurant tucked within it.  With a ringside seat overlooking the Lake, Beverly’s is famous for its’ massive 14,000 bottle wine collection – the largest in the Pacific Northwest.  Pro-tip – DO NOT miss the Ahi Tuna.
  2. Speaking of Coeur D’Alene Resort – if you’re looking for a simple, quality vacation, then look no further than here.  The resort is sandwiched between downtown CdA and the lake and can provide just about everything you need to relax near the water.
  3. While most water sports enthusiasts will opt for motorized forms of recreation, Lake CdA also sports some spectacular Stand-Up-Paddleboarding (SUP) and sea-kayaking.  Weather you opt for ‘circumnavigating’ Tubbs Hill or paddling upstream along the Spokane River, you’ll be treated to views of lush forests and calm waters.  If you paddle around Tubbs Hill, you’ll have plenty to keep you entertained as hikers will sometimes opt to ‘cliff-dive’ off many of the park’s giant boulders ringing its’ shore.  If you choose the Spokane River – be sure to bring a waterproof camera since bald eagles are known to populate the area.
  4. Road cyclists will find a new favorite ride with the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.  The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is one of the most spectacular paved trails in the western United States and was named one of the 25 top trails in the nation in 2012 by the Rails to Trails Conservancy. The 72 mile long trail is like riding on groomed asphalt and is perfect for road bikers, in-line skaters, walkers and is even wheelchair accessible.  Beginning in Plummer, ID and finishing in Mullan, ID – there are 19 trailheads and 18 scenic waysides along the trail.

Head further north to Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille

The Lake District continues in Sandpoint, ID.  Located roughly 50 miles north of Coeur d’Alene, the town of Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille come together to create another water-sports recreation hot spot, but with a different twist than the leisure-sports vibe of CdA.

Sandpoint, Idaho’s population hovers around 9,000 which may seem small, but the community supports a variety of options for shopping, dining, galleries, wineries, a distillery and two busy breweries.  The scenic waterfront town also sits on part of the Pend Oreille National Scenic Byway which itself is part of the International Selkirk Loop – connecting Idaho and Washington to British Columbia, Canada.

If Lake Coeur d’Alene wasn’t big enough for you, then Lake Pend Oreille should satisfy.  Lake Pend Oreille is the state’s largest lake being 43 miles long and just over 6 miles wide. It is also the deepest at 1,158 feet deep… there are only four deeper lakes in the nation.  There are even rumors of US Navy test submarines that are long since lost to the lake’s cold dark waters.

Overlooking Sandpoint, Idaho

Overlooking Sandpoint, Idaho and Lake Pend Oreille – ph: Charles Watkins

Getting Outside in Sandpoint

Outdoor recreationalists who venture this far north easily fall captive to the lake’s rugged beauty, endless shoreline, and legendary fishing.  Because the lake is surrounded by the public lands – the Selkirk National Forest, the Cabinet mountain range, and the Bitterroot mountain range, there are countless roads and trails for adventuring.

Outdoor recreationalists who venture this far north easily fall captive to the lake’s rugged beauty, endless shoreline, and legendary fishing.  Because the lake is surrounded by the public lands – the Selkirk National Forest, the Cabinet mountain range, and the Bitterroot mountain range, there are countless roads and trails for adventuring.

Trails of Sandpoint Idaho

Trails of the Sandpoint, Idaho Lake District

Anglers can opt for shore casting or fishing while on boats.  The lake’s underwater topography create homes for many different kinds of species.  Try out Mackinaw (macs), Large Rainbow Trout (Kamloops), Kokanee Salmon, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Perch, Crappie, Northern Pike and Walleye.  Note: being such a large lake, it is a good idea to be mindful of bad weather. The lake can become rough during adverse weather condition.

Looking east over the mountains of Northern Montana.  Ph: Charles Watkins

In the fall, hunters are treated to opportunities to try their skill against elk, moose, woodland caribou, mule deer, white tail deer, cougar, black bears, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep – not to mention waterfowl and upland birds.  If you go, be prepared for backpacking and backcountry camping since the areas are so vast and remote.

In the winter, skiers and snowboarders flock to the area to surf the pow at Schweitzer Mountain Ski Area located just 15 minutes from downtown Sandpoint.  Schweitzer’s ski-in, ski-out village sits near the top the mountain and sports a small community of its own. The 82-room Selkirk Lodge provides slope side luxury accommodations to skiers, who can also enjoy excellent restaurants and retail shops during their stay.  The ski area contains 2900 acres of alpine downhill terrain and 20 miles of Nordic trails for cross-country, snowshoeing and snowbiking.

In the summer, make plans for the Northwest Wine Fest at Schweitzer.  The laid back, casual affair hosts 2 days of music, tastings from 20+ regional wineries, a mountain bike race, a craft beer tent for those who just can’t make the switch, BBQ, arts and craft vendors, and a kids play area.  The mountain vibe allows you to explore the knockout wines from Idaho, Washington, and Oregon while talking with the very wine makers who work at each winery.  While you’re there, be sure to take the lift up to the summit of the ski area.  From there the views of rugged mountain peaks surrounds you, with scenic vistas in every direction for miles and miles.  All at once you can see east into Montana, west into Washington and north into Canada all from one place.