Mention Idaho and most people think potatoes—and the flatlands where they grow. But Idaho is the most mountainous state in the Lower 48, encompassing 80 mountain ranges. Shoshone Falls has a bigger drop than Niagara Falls, and Hells Canyon on the Snake River plunges deeper than the Grand Canyon. Idaho’s geographic quirks also include its Panhandle: the slender, northern neck of land bordered by Washington State, British Columbia and Montana. In this region of sapphire lakes and thick forests, wilderness mingles with sophistication.
People from North Idaho consider themselves different from their fellow citizens in the southern part of the state. They are, in fact, geographically isolated: only winding, two-lane roads link the Panhandle to Boise, the state capital to the south. It’s easier to head to Spokane, Washington, when they want to shop, catch an airplane, or take in a major sporting or cultural event.
Access to the Panhandle from the east or west is simple—a straight shot on Interstate 90. Driving from Seattle, my wife and I planned a one-week getaway packed with outdoor adventures.
After five hours of cruise-control interstate driving, we arrived in Coeur d’Alene in the late afternoon. Not wanting to miss a moment, we went directly to ROW Adventure Center, where our kayaking guide was waiting with the trailer, loaded and ready to go. Lenore, a recent graduate from University of Idaho and a lifelong outdoorswoman, drove us to a launch ramp, and within minutes we were gliding over the crystal waters of Fernan Lake, a hidden bay off Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Surrounded by dramatic forested mountains, we paddled into the fading light, filling ourselves with the pine-scented air. Lenore gave a brief history of the region including traditions of the native peoples and colorful legends about the early miners and loggers. As the sun set on the distant peaks, she produced a bottle of sparkling wine. We rested our paddles and shared a toast to the beauty of the moment.
Returning to Coeur d’Alene, we stopped at the historic Greenbriar Inn, which, in addition to providing accommodations, produces gourmet huckleberry products. Here, we learned that although Idaho is famous for potatoes, it also is home to these wild, untamed comestibles, which are the state fruit. This wilderness berry is often incorporated into jams, jellies, syrups, drink mixers, hucklebutter, port wine, lemonade concentrate, sweet and sour sauce, toppings, vinegar, scones and pancake mix, to name just a few manifestations. Huckleberries hold an iconic status in the Panhandle, where they flourish on steep mountain slopes. Part of their mystique comes because they cannot be farmed, and grow in the wild.
Having been put on notice, we made a point over the following days to seek out huckleberry dishes for every meal. By the end of the week we had consumed huckleberry-crusted salmon, huckleberry-glazed beef, huckleberry burgers and huckleberry ice cream.
We ended our first day with dinner at the Wine Cellar & Bistro, where we enjoyed a three-course meal for only $18. From the 400-label wine list, we added to our berry roster by ordering a Huckleberry Mead dessert wine.
“Do you have headlamps and warm jackets?” asked the outfitter, as we stood before him in sweltering heat. When he saw our surprised expressions—summer temperatures ran in the 80s—he explained, “You’ll be cold without warm clothing. And you won’t see your way without a light through the Taft Tunnel, which burrows for almost two miles under the Idaho/Montana state line.”
We were at Lookout Pass Ski Area, 60 miles east of Coeur d’Alene near the Montana border, where we wanted to rent bikes for our next adventure: riding the Hiawatha Trail. After getting fitted with comfort hybrid bikes, helmets, water bottles—and headlamps—we loaded our car and drove 12 miles to the trailhead.
The 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha follows a well-maintained 100-year-old rail bed that winds through 10 tunnels and over seven high trestles across the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. Much of the trail straddles the Idaho-Montana border—so much so that our cell phones kept flipping back and forth between time zones. The majestic scenery combined with the thrill of riding through tunnels and over 200-foot-high trestles makes this the crown jewel of any rails-to-trails route in the country.
At the downhill end of the trail, rather than opt for a shuttle ride back, we turned our bikes and pedaled up the gentle two percent grade to return to our car. By day’s end we were hot, exhausted, sunburned and out of water. But we knew how to cool down. We drove back along I-90 to Kellogg and checked into the Morning Star Lodge in Gondola Village at Silver Mountain Resort. (The resort allows RVs to park overnight in its lot, but there are no hookup services.) We lost no time putting on bathing suits and dashed to the cascading water slides at the resort’s recently opened Silver Rapids indoor water park.
Silver Mountain, one of the premier Northwest ski resorts, in summer is home to the region’s premier fat-tire playground. So today we traded in the well-graded rail-bed trails from yesterday to explore the network of single-track mountain trails. After ascending 16 minutes to the top of the mountain on the world’s longest gondola, we began a roller-coaster 3,400-foot descent back to the resort’s Gondola Village. Thanks to the bike’s double suspension system absorbing the jolts, we negotiated the rocky, rooted and rutted track with ease.
After three days of roughing it, we indulged ourselves with a massage at the Coeur d’Alene Resort and dinner at the Beverly Restaurant, which features a 1,200-label wine list and inventory valued at $2 million, one of the largest wine selections in the Northwest. We thumbed through 89 pages of listings until we found what we were looking for: a modestly priced 2008 Latah Creek Huckleberry d’Latah Riesling.
We set out this morning on a 20-minute drive north from Coeur d’Alene to Silverwood Theme Park, largest of its kind in the Northwest. The adjacent RV and camping facility offers 126 sites. Spread across 200 acres, the park is known for big rides: four roller coasters, a 140-foot Panic Plunge drop tower, the Thunder Canyon raft ride, and a 1915 steam train. We summoned the courage to take the two most high-intensity rides: the screaming Corkscrew Roller Coaster and the 65-mph Tremors Coaster, rated in the top 10 roller coasters in the country. For us, both white-knuckle rides define a whole new level of scary.
Although we could have lingered for days, we drove on to Sandpoint, a mountain town surrounded by the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains. At the City Beach Park Dock, we boarded Shawnodese, a 40-foot tour boat, for a cruise on Lake Pend Oreille. Formed 17,000 years ago by glaciers during the last Ice Age, Lake Pend Oreille is the largest lake west of the Mississippi and the fourth deepest in the country—so deep that the U.S. Navy uses it as a submarine base. The surrounding lake region is home to grizzlies, wolverines, caribou, lynx and cougars.
After the lake tour we stopped by the tasting room of Idaho’s northernmost winery, Pend d’Oreille Winery. For a tasting fee of $5, we enjoyed complimentary hors d’oeuvres with five glasses of featured wines along with live music. The eco-conscious winery allows visitors to bring empty bottles for refills of its award-wining Bistro Rouge blend.
We purchased a bottle of Huckleberry Blush Riesling to take to dinner at 41 South Restaurant, nestled along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. Dining outdoors on the waterfront terrace, we enjoyed once again the iconic berry wine of Idaho with our meal, which featured locally sourced organic produce.
We spent the day at Schweitzer Mountain Resort. It is the largest ski resort in the Northwest, and has morphed into a four-season destination offering accommodations, dining, shops and recreation activities—including 30 miles of mountain-biking trails for summer. There are no hookups, but RVs can stay overnight free in the Gateway parking lot in summer and must pay $20 for an RV day pass in winter.
We checked out two mountain bikes at the Activity Center and took them onto the Great Escape Express chairlift. Soon we were admiring 360-degree views from the top of Schweitzer Mountain: three mountain ranges, three states, Canada and dazzling Lake Pend Oreille.
We opted for the new, family-friendly Beargrass Cruiser route. The track zigzags through alpine meadows, old-growth forests, and alongside streams for seven miles in a 1,700-foot descent of the mountain. We stopped to picnic in a meadow filled with blooming yarrow, fireweed and beargrass. For dessert we picked, of course, tangy huckleberries as well as blackberries and blueberries that were just coming into season.
For our final night, we dined at the resort’s Chimney Rock Grill. To celebrate the end of our week’s adventures, we ordered a full huckleberry meal: huckleberry dressing on the salads, huckleberry condiments with the entrees, and dishes of huckleberry ice cream for dessert.
During our six-hour drive home to Seattle, we reflected on our week of kayaking, biking, hiking, boating and the wonderful cuisine and wine, all available within a region that offers so much scenic beauty. Best of all, we had enjoyed getting to know the people who live in Idaho’s Panhandle. They’re proud, friendly and display a fierce independence from the rest of the state. If you ask them where they’re from, they’ll respond, “North Idaho,” with an emphasis on North. With pride, they’ll tell you about their mountain ranges, enormous lakes, world-class resorts… and, of course their tasty huckleberries.
Peter Schroeder is a freelance adventure travel writer and photographer based in Seattle.