Last Updated on September 20, 2021 by JaimeSays
A few years ago, when my husband and I would tell friends that we were honeymooning in Idaho, people would give us a strange look. It was as if we had surprised them with our lack of exotic locale. Once we returned from our trip, we shared photos and podcasts, and the incredulousness was gone. The majesty of Idaho spoke for itself, and we’ve now had numerous friends and readers visit the Gem State. While we trekked over a thousand miles of Idaho scenic byways, our Northern Idaho visit really captured my heart. That’s why I decided to go back and visit Northern Idaho a second time. This time, I brought my mom and brother. We visited in late summer and did I find even more fun things to do this time around.
Enjoy Both the Mountains and the Beach
A poll I often see on social media asks what do you prefer, the mountains or the beach? If you visit Northern Idaho, you can have both! As an added bonus, neither are in short supply. On the Eastern border of the state, you’ll discover the Bitterroot Range, a section of the Rockies. With the guidance of Sacagawea, American explorers Lewis and Clark successfully crossed these mountains in their quest to head west. This mountain range’s name comes from the Bitterroot flower, a small pink wildflower native to the area, and the state flower of Montana! Within the Bitterroot Mountains are the Coeur d’Alene Mountains. Just north of that, the Purcell Mountains extend into the Idaho Panhandle from British Columbia.
The Selkirks pepper the West end of the Idaho Panhandle. These are distinct from, and actually older than, the Rocky Mountains.
Within the Selkirk and Bitterroot Mountains of Northern Idaho, alpine lakes are plentiful. Priest Lake, Lake Pend Oreille, Hayden Lake, and Lake Coeur D’Alene are the largest and most popular lakes to see when you visit Northern Idaho. With public beaches, restrooms, and well marked trails, these lakes offer watersports, recreation, and relaxation. Surprisingly, Sandpoint is a location that also has a replica of the Statue of Liberty. You may recall that I encountered my first Lady Liberty replica in Alsace.
Selkirk Loop Trail
Anyone you meet in Northern Idaho will encourage you to give the International Selkirk Loop a try. The outdoorsmen may encourage a multi day bike trip, but if you are strapped for time, this 280-mile loop of road is doable in a couple days. Winding through Northeast Washington, Northern Idaho, and Southeast British Columbia, the scenic byway allows you to enjoy a “Two Nation Vacation!” While Covid-19 restrictions mean the border is currently closed for non-essential travel, this loop is one that is not to be missed. The US starting points are in Sandpoint, Idaho, and Newport,Washington.
If you have ever lived in the flatlands of the Midwest, you’ll know that winter is rough on the waistline. The exception? Northern Michigan. I hate cross country skiing, and besides walking, there isn’t much to do outside. This is not the case for Northern Idaho. The mountains that are so picturesque in the summer really come alive in the winter!
There is one magnificent ski mountain in Northern Idaho and that is Schweitzer Mountain. As the largest ski resort in Idaho and Washington, Schweitzer is prepared to welcome visitors to participate in a plethora of outdoor activities. Tubing, guided snowshoeing, downhill skiing, Nordic skiing, kids camps…you name it, Schweitzer’s got it. This independently owned ski mountain has all the amenities of America’s most renown mountains with fewer crowds and friendlier people. Seasonal snowfall averages around 300 inches with a 100 inch base at the summit. Groomed trails, lifts, and concessions mark both the front and back sides of the mountain. Additionally, Schweitzer added two new lift chairs last year and maintain a steady flow of riders without excessive waiting.
As of the time of this writing, there are managed units at Schweitzer Mountain that are owned by private individuals and rented out through the Schweitzer website. New construction is underway for Schweitzer’s own 30 unit boutique hotel, set to be completed in 2021-2022.
When I had the pleasure of visiting Northern Idaho a few months ago, I got to catch up Schweitzer’s Marketing Manager, Dig Chrismer. In order to ensure patrons’ safety, Schweitzer Mountain will require a face covering anytime visitors come in contact with employees. Social distancing and additional safety separators within indoor enclosures are also in use.
Additionally, for anyone who is taking advantage of remote work and looking to relocate for the winter, Schweitzer offers mountain passes in exchange for as little as one day a week of work. Learn more here!
Summer Fun in Northern Idaho
If winter sports aren’t your thing, plan your visit in the summer. Summer in Northern Idaho really cannot be beat. With a latitude between 47º-49º, summer days last between 16-17.5 hours, including twilight. Some of my favorite things to do are highlighted in my things to do in Sandpoint, Idaho this summer article, but there are many more activities outside of Sandpoint.
Fishing and Floating
My most recent trip to Northern Idaho included a first time activity for me: a river float. I discovered Longdrift Outfitters through the Visit Sandpoint website and opted for a leisurely float. Aaron Gordon, owner of Longdrift Outfitters, has spent the past decade calling Idaho home. When he is not teaching music at the local public school, he runs Longdrift Outfitters. A skilled fly fisherman and rower, we spent a half day on the Montana/Idaho border. We encountered exactly one other boat, and had a fabulous lunch on a tiny island in the middle of the river.
Recommendation: If you are not a fisherman but are looking for an easy ride on the river, opt for a float. If you prefer more action, fly fishing may be up your alley! Longdrift Outfitters offers both. We had never fly fished before so we chose the float and were very pleased.
Mountain Biking, Hiking, Huckleberry Picking, Mountain Climbing
Hiking: I highly recommend hiking everyday if you have a chance to do so. Northern Idaho mountains are not as high as Colorado’s, and are much less trafficked. They truly are serene, but don’t forget the bear spray! You can use AllTrails.com to find trails around Bonners Ferry, Coeur D’Alene, Priest Lake, or wherever your heart takes you.
I do recommend bringing these lifesaving TP Kits for your hike, no matter where you end up going. With biodegradable toilet paper and wet wipes, you are all set. They take up very little space in a purse or bag, and were utterly essential for this trip! We used them on our float trip, in Montana, and back in Idaho again.
Huckleberry Picking: For about six weeks from Mid-July to Mid August of any year, you will stumble upon huckleberry season. They are at knee height or lower on basically any trail on a mountain.
Biking: Mountain biking in the mountains is a beast. If you are wanting to scale mountains up and down, I recommend an e-bike or something with pedal assist. If you are just planning on riding downhill, a bike with well maintained shocks and designed for the mountains is crucial. Here are some places you can rent bikes during your trip.
Coeur d’Alene: Bike Rentals | Sandpoint: Bike Rentals
What to Pack for a Trip to Idaho : An Idaho Packing ListRead the Post + Infographic
Mountaineering: I have never mountain climbed in my life, but I did see people doing such things on a recent trip to Idaho. Check out the Idaho Climbing Guide for more information.
Pick Your Pleasure: Small Towns or Larger Cities
One of the things I love to do when I visit Northern Idaho is to really get off the grid. I like that my phone service is spotty in the mountains, and that I can really unplug. For people like my brother, that’s a little too off the grid. That’s why this time around, we spent some time in Coeur d’Alene, a city of 40,000 people. Mid-rise buildings, a university, industry, and loads of restaurants and shops characterize Coeur d’Alene, all while nestled on Lake Coeur D’Alene within a gorgeous valley of mountains. There is a heavy presence of Californians with lake homes in CDA, and often celebrities. As such, it has much of the glitz and glamour of a cosmopolitan mountain town. Check out the official site of Coeur d’Alene for more information about the community.
In terms of the small towns to visit in Northern Idaho, here are a list of some of my favorites:
Hit Montana, Washington, and Canada While you Visit Northern Idaho
The Idaho panhandle is a slice of land that is 45 miles wide and 70 miles long. While there are a finite number of roads, it is easy to visit three states and two countries while you visit Northern Idaho.
Unless you are driving, the quickest way to reach Northern Idaho is by flying into Spokane, airport code GEG. As the second largest city in Washington, Spokane and the surrounding areas have loads of things to do. Restaurants, wine tastings, biking the Centennial Trail, parks, museums, and history are everywhere. You could easily spend a day or three enjoying Spokane while you visit Northern Idaho.
Right next door to the Idaho panhandle is Western Montana. If you prefer a more scenic route to or from Northern Idaho, flying through Kalispell or Missoula are other great options. Along the drive, you can stop at Kootenai Suspension Bridge for a hike and beautiful views. Above all, make sure to give yourself time to enjoy the ride.
If you choose to continue on into Montana, I highly recommend visiting Flathead Lake, Whitefish, and of course, Glacier National Park!
If you’d like to visit Canada while in the area, I recommend the Selkirk Loop, mentioned above. For overnight stays, try the Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort.
Visit Northern Idaho Wineries and Breweries
Wine in the Idaho Panhandle
If you are a first time reader, you may not know that I am obsessed with Idaho wine. Furthermore, I have thrown an Idaho blind wine tasting party at home in Illinois with the winners getting a two night stay in Boise and tickets to an Idaho wine event. They explored the Sunnyslope Wine Region and got to experience Boise firsthand. But, the Boise region isn’t the only Idaho wine region in the state!
In Sandpoint, you can enjoy wine flights and delicious bites at Pend d’Oreille Winery. In business since 1995, Pend Oreille Winery offers wines with grapes sourced from Washington as well as Idaho, all crafted in Idaho. The diversity of varietals is great, with wines such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot.
What I love about visiting the tasting room, besides the Frank Lloyd Wright vibes, is that it is so welcoming to outsiders. I’ll be honest: I struggle with imposter syndrome in the wine world. On top of that, some wine regions’ aren’t the most welcoming to average Midwesterners. That is not the case at Pend Oreille Winery’s tasting room. Staff are friendly and will help you pick tastings based on your preference. I adore the build your own tasting flights. With frequent live music, this is the place to grab a glass of wine and enjoy an evening.
If you are in Coeur d’Alene, Coeur d’Alene Cellars is the only winery in CDA. Using fruit from Eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley, all fermenting and bottling is done in Idaho. They have a lively tasting room with light bites and live performances. Technically, CDA is not part of Idaho’s Panhandle, but for cohesive purposes, I’ve included it here.
Breweries in the Idaho Panhandle
Every local we spoke with could not stop singing the praises of Matchwood Brewery! Celebrating its second anniversary in October 2020, husband and wife team Kenneden Culp and Andrea Marcoccio reinvigorated a former town co-op to create this lively community space. What was once a functioning grain mill, molasses silo, and agricultural supply store is now a welcoming tap room and brewery. It is very family/kid friendly, and animals are allowed in certain restricted spots outside. Of course, service animals are always welcome.
When asked about the name, owner Andrea Marcoccio states, “In the early 1900s, Matchwood, a small railroad siding and community located just North of Sandpoint, was home to beautiful old growth, Western White Pine forest. Timber barons fell and transported by rail America’s straightest grain wood to create high quality, handcrafted, wooden matches. These matches brought warmth, light, and fire to our communities.”
At Matchwood Brewery, we seek to match the hard work and quality product served in a neighborhood brewery where locally crafted brews spark dialogue, laughter, and community.Owner, Andrea Marcoccio
Other breweries I really enjoy in and around Sandpoint are Mickduff’s and Utara. Mickduff’s has a both a full restaurant with Tuesday trivia and a beer hall with live music and an outdoor patio. Near CDA, give Tricksters a try.
Enjoy the Ultimate in Social Distancing Possibilities
If you are accustomed to city living or suburban living adjacent to a city, crowds, lines, and traffic are expected. That’s not the case when you visit Northern Idaho. With 10 counties and a population of just a touch over 330,00 at the last census, Northern Idaho is vast and people are well spread. Of course holidays and festivals can be busier, but nothing like city dwelling. While having a home in Northern Idaho may be more challenging than living in a larger community–– limited internet access, hoping to strike water for a well–– visiting allows you to appreciate the best of Northern Idaho without any of the headaches.
Northern Idaho Loves America
As an outsider visiting Northern Idaho, one thing is for certain: this is a land of liberty. Patriotism is on display with American flags, respect for history, and good old American values. No matter who is in power, it appears that people in Northern Idaho love their country. While historical relations with Native Americans include punitive exile, today the region is home to the largest celebratory Powwow of the Northwest, Julyamsh. Put on by the Coeur d’Alene tribe, the beauty and tradition of these indigenous peoples are celebrated by all who attend. In a time when neighbors attack neighbors, the civility of Northern Idaho is a very welcome pill.
If you have any questions about Northern Idaho, leave a comment or email me!
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