By embracing its wild beauty and colorful past, Northern Idaho is creating eco-friendly options for all of us.
When Rand McNally and USA Today chose Sandpoint, Idaho, population 7,300, as the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in 2011, cattle trucks and big rigs still hauled their loads through downtown. For small towns relying on tourist dollars, creating a bypass to allow heavy haulers and other traffic to circumvent the stoplights, often meant the beginning of the end. But in the case of Sandpoint, Kate McAlister, President and CEO of the the town’s Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t see it that way. “Getting the 18-wheelers out of the downtown core has been spectacular. It’s also quieter,” she explained. “More of those living within four to five hours from here are coming because the traffic has gotten better.” She’s right. As I drive into the Northern Idaho town, Highway 95 no longer makes a dogleg to the left, but leads across an elevated bridge along Sand Creek, giving me an extraordinary new view of Lake Pond Oreille.
Sandpoint is charming in every way, and provides the perfect showcase to Idaho’s outdoor charms.
I strolled through the town’s center as cyclists pedaled by in every direction. At MickDuff’s Brewing Company, I tried a few samples, and ordered a pint of Huckleberry Blonde Ale. Opened in 2006, MickDuff’s offers a wide selection of brews. As testament to the growing craft beer movement, more microbreweries are opening in the area, and innovative brewers are sourcing hops, huckleberries and other ingredients locally.
A few doors down at Northwest Handmade, nearly 90 regional artists display fine art and custom rustic furniture, all inspired by the Panhandle’s wildlife and natural beauty. Images of moose, bears and eagles appear in headboards, quilts,and paintings.
Sandpoint is returning to its roots. Highway 2, which still runs through downtown, is slated for future rerouting. Adding trees, more bike paths and wider sidewalks will help to recreate the original Sandpoint documented in vintage photos. McAlister envisions an idyllicBedford Falls, the town from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.
“It’s real moosey in here,” says Randy Dingman, a guide for ROW Adventures, waving at a large marsh as we head east from Coeur d’Alene. A break in the clouds lights up a stand of yellow aspens on the far side, and I want to stop and look for moose, but we’re on a mission: We’ve come to fish.
Dingman grew up in Coeur d’Alene, and knows every undercut bank where brown trout rest, and what they want for dinner. On the lawn near a riverside campground, Dingman demonstrates casting techniques. Freezing mid-cast, he whispers “Look,” and points toward the forest. A huge bull moose ambles toward the trees, pausing momentarily when Dingman’s moose call catches his attention.
The morning’s fishing is successful. My casting has improved, and even though I only caught one small brown trout, we’ve had a good time.
The next day, I follow the Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway, stopping at Old Mission State Historic Park, at Cataldo. Built in 1842, the mission is the state’s oldest building. At the visitor center, a new exhibit tells the stories of the mission and the native Coeur d’Alene people. Recorded songs and the voices of tribal elders follow me through displays of beadwork and mission artifacts. The hilltop provides a clear 360-degree view, and I can see Dingman’s “moosey waters,” a mile away.
Rails-To-Trails Hall of Famers
In Wallace, south of the Coeur d’Alene National Forest, I meet Rick Shaffer, the town’s Prime Minister, and my guide for a bike ride along the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The old rail bed runs across the state for 73 miles, and was a Rails-to-Trails (RTT) Conservancy Hall of Fame pick in 2010. Shaffer and I pedal along the Coeur d’Alene River, waving at anglers and admiring the scenery. Near the trail, a cow moose and her calf are bedded down in the grass near a small pond. The pair are a common sight, and we see them feeding in the pond on our way back.
The next morning, my huckleberry pancakes arrive with a smile. The 1313 Club Historic Saloon & Grill is packed with funny photos and mining camp humor. Local sports uniforms and fishing gear dangle from the rafters, and a stuffed beaver swims across the front window. A jackalope poses above the door, and antlers, steelhead, mountain goats and elk line the walls. A shelf of plastic “stope rats” hold hard hats and mine lamps as they flashlarge, toothy grins at customers.
Full of pancakes, Shaffer and I set off for the Trail of the Hiawathas, another RTT Conservancy 2010 Hall of Famer.
The old Taft tunnel is 1.6 miles long, and just wide enough for the Milwaukee Railway’s Hiawatha trains that pulled passengers through one of the most scenic stretches of railway in the country. I zip up my jacket, click on my bike light, and enter the tunnel. The 15-mile route cuts through the Bitteroot Mountains with eight tunnels and seven trestles, reducing the steep slopes and deep canyons to an easy two-percent grade. As I exit the tunnel, the only sounds I hear are wind, waterfalls and the cry of ravens cruising overhead. I’m surrounded by wilderness as far as I can see.
The Center of the Universe
During the 1880s and ‘90s, Wallace was the center of the world’s richest silver mining district, and five brothels operated in town. The last bordello, the Oasis, is now a museum. Early ’70s décor, and vanities covered with makeup remain as they were left in 1973, when it closed forever.
A vintage trolley shuttles me and a tour group up a narrow road to the Sierra Silver Mine. As we adjust our hard hats, a retired miner explains how silver-bearing ore is drilled, followed by a very loud demonstration with a high-pressure stope drill. We learn about blasting patterns and mine safety, and the tragedy at the nearby Sunshine Mine that led to improved safety procedures for mine workers around the world.
The 800 or so folks who live in Wallace struggled for 17 years to get I-90 rerouted around town. Getting the entire town listed on the National Register of Historic Places helped, as did putting up the only stoplight between Seattle and Boston. These days, the bypass keeps the town intact and quiet. There’s still plenty of treasure in those mines, but the lasting treasure is outside, in the deep lakes and dark forests of Northern Idaho, and in people who value their small town culture more than the quick flash of silver. By celebrating their history, giving their guests local products and sustainable recreation, they’ll continue to attract visitors eager for experiences not found anywhere else.