The Idaho Panhandle and Montana: Land of Mountains.

Far warning, this is gonna be a long one! If you read until the end, I appreciate you and thank you!!!


Prelude

Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho (pronounced: pond oh-ray. It’s French).

Hello everyone!!! Long time, no blog 🙃 Well, this has certainly been a year, hasn’t it? Last year, I sort of lost my drive to write, as I was terribly busy mothering, working, going to school, traveling, and focusing on fitness. Unfortunately, writing fell to the wayside, and although I had trip write-ups lined up, I just could not find the inspiration. But no worries! As 2019 came to an end, I knew coming up in 2020 I had 4 big trips planned and would get that writing bug back. I was going to Jerome and Tombstone, Arizona at the beginning of March, then immediately turning around and going on a free (yes, free) week-long cruise to Mexico with my family the last week of March, after which was a trip in May to Illinois to visit more family, then driving to Florida with friends for a few days and embarking on a weeklong cruise to the Bahamas, and finally, in July, a family reunion in Breckenridge, Colorado. Whew.

If you have been alive and breathing at any point in 2020, you already know none of these trips happened.

I thought 2020 was a total wash when it came to trips; however, I was offered a golden opportunity to accompany my pregnant friend on a road trip to Idaho, so she could hide away for a month as the world fell apart, health-wise and socially. This was in the beginning of June when the world was still unsure about Covid, but nonetheless, both of us had been religiously social distancing (I can’t believe I’m writing that phrase in my blog; had anyone asked me what “social distancing” was when I began this blog, I would have looked at them like they had 3 heads), so we figured it was a safe trip to make. Plus Idaho, the state we would be spending 90% of time in, had an exceptionally low positivity rate at this point (not anymore!).

Beautiful Montana.

After surviving the Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020, we started our journey. We went through 4 states before arriving at her family’s cabin: Arizona, Utah, Montana, and finally Idaho. I made the trip to Washington solo a day later, but most of our time was spent in Idaho and Montana, so that is what most of this blog will be about. I will touch on my day trip to Spokane, Washington, as well our drive through Arizona and Utah. I was a crabby zombie throughout most of the drive due to being up almost 48 hours, so unfortunately the pictures are lacking. I will do my best to describe it!

Beautiful Idaho.

Arizona

US-89; near Bitter Springs, Arizona.

As someone who has made the bold proclamation that Sedona, Arizona is my *most favorite* place on earth, I was rather disappointed with how…. empty… the NorthEastern section of Arizona was. I knew Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend were up this way, and those are two beautiful places I dream of visiting, so imagine my chagrin when most of what we experienced was empty plains of flat desert with the occasional rocky hill in the distance. In a nutshell, I was expecting more Monument Valley and less Sahara Desert.

Please don’t get me wrong, if you are a desert lover, you will enjoy this area of the country. Yet… I consider myself a desert lover and I was less than in love with it. It was beautiful, but there are simply more majestic areas of Arizona to visit (Sedona, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Munds Park, Superstition Mountains, etc). The real beauty did not start until we entered Utah.


Utah

The first part of the drive through Utah was breathtaking. Sadly, I did not get pictures since I was driving a good chunk during this leg. This part of Utah is on Route 89. It takes you up through Page, Arizona (think: Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend area), towards Monument Valley and Zion National Park. If you want to go to MV, you break right after entering Utah. Zion is to the left. We did neither, as both require an all-day time commitment which we could not do, since my friend had to work in a couple of days (she worked from home). So these two places are still firmly on my “to-do” travel list.

The drive on Route 89 throughout SouthEastern Utah is splendid. It takes you on a narrow, 2-lane highway through picturesque mountainous forest land and into small towns. But alas, all good things must end, and eventually Route 89 spit us out onto a monster highway, Highway 15. This is the same Highway 15 that is “the 15” in California that starts in San Diego and goes all the way up to the border of Canada in Montana. After this, our drive through Utah became very mundane and boring, just endless freeway packed to the gills with rude drivers and invasive truckers, and the picturesque mountain scenery was but a distant view.

I-15; near Kanosh, Utah.

Highway 15 goes up the dead middle of Utah, hitting all the major Utah cities including Provo, Ogden, and of course, Salt Lake City. This highway runs right through SLC, so don’t be like us; plan your trip to not hit at the 5pm rush hour. This was by far the most unpleasant part of the entire drive. We could not even see the Great Salt Lake. Boo.

Apparently Utahns have issues with how to use the toilet.

Once we pushed our way through the cattle crawl that is rush hour in a major city, we stopped in Logan, Utah for a quick bathroom break and then went on towards the Idaho border. Our final stop of the day was Pocatello, Idaho, which is about an hour past the border. At that point, we would have been driving for 13 hours. Absolutely would not recommend on a bad nights sleep.

The way the route is set up, we came into Idaho briefly the first day, just to stay the night, and then left the second day and drove through western Montana for most of the day, finally looping at the end back into the Idaho panhandle. So, I will be talking Montana first, and then Idaho, instead of breaking Idaho up into two different sections.


Montana

While Sedona is still one of my favorite places on the planet, Montana is by far my most favorite state in the country. It used to be Vermont, but Montana puts Vermont to shame (sorry, Vermonters). Montana gave me everything I ever wanted and expected, and it is a drive I will jump at the chance to take again any day.

After staying the night at the Red Lion Hotel in Pocatello, Idaho (I would recommend, it’s not bad – we were also basically the only guests at the time, and the place is huge), we resumed our journey early the next morning. The way the route takes you, you’re in Idaho for about 2 hours before entering into Montana, traveling through the entire western half of the state for about 5 or 6 hours, and then finally up into the very tip-top, skinny little section of Idaho known as the Panhandle, for another hour or so. 

While the drive was done mainly on a major highway (Highway 15 again), it was nothing like Utah. Travel is light in this area of the country, and it is glorious. We went past small Montanan town after small town, as well as through the “big” cities of Butte and Missoula.

The wildest thing about our drive through Montana was the weather. As we approached the Idaho/Montana border, a freak snowstorm decided to hit. In June. I don’t know what it is about freak snowstorms and my friend and I, but this oddly is not the first freak snowstorm we’ve been caught in together during a summer month. The first happened at the end of May/beginning of June in 2019 near the Grand Canyon, as you’ll recall from my “Northern Arizona; The Land of Freak Snowstorms” blog, if you’ve read it.

Deer Lodge, Montana.

Unlike our trip to the Grand Canyon that we were forced to abandon due to snow, we did not have that luxury this time. We had no choice but to push on, as turning back wasn’t an option and stopping on the side of a snow-covered highway with zooming big rigs was also certainly not an option. As we tracked the storm on the weather app radar, we pushed through, saying silent prayers as we drove 45 miles per hour on the highway.

Eventually the snow just… stopped. We had outrun the storm and after briefly stopping in the snow-drenched town of Deer Lodge for gas (known as the home of the historic Montana State Prison), we carried on and soon popped into a different dimension where the snow ceased to exist, just like that. Mother Nature is bizarre.

Once we were firmly away from the storm, it was like a different world. We were in the same state as Snowmeggadon, but you’d never know it. It was so bright, sunny, warm, and welcoming, a far cry from the winter “wonderland” we had just escaped from. This is the Montana I had always pictured in my thoughts and dreams, an exact replica almost. There were mountains, deep bluish green rivers and streams, and royal blue skies with beautiful fluffy clouds. I finally understood why Montana markets itself as “Big Sky Country”, because that is exactly what it is.

The only place I’ve ever been that can rival the beauty of Montana (and the Idaho Panhandle, as they’re so close geographically, I lump them together in my mind) is the country of Norway.

The Montana of my dreams 😍

Ross Creek Cedars

I love visiting geographic wonders and have a tremendous love for hiking, so one of my life goals is visiting all the National Parks, as well as all the giant trees in America. I’ve been to the sequoias in Central California (blog on that coming up!), and would desperately love to visit the redwoods in Northern California. So, visiting the cedars in Montana was a must for me. The cedars are not as tall or as large as the sequoias or redwoods, but regardless, these suckers were BIG. I had never seen trees this large in my entire life, as I had yet to visit the sequoias, and was in utter shock and amazement by them.

Located at NF-398, Heron, MT 59844 (per the USDA website: “located 29 miles south of Troy off Hwy 56 on Ross Creek Rd 398“), Ross Creek Cedars is part of the Kootenai National Forest, named after the Kootenai Tribe of Native Americans. It was established in 1907 under President Roosevelt, a man well-known for his historic expansion of the National Park system. Per the U.S. Forest Service website, “The Kootenai National Forest is located in the extreme Northwest corner of Montana and Northeast Idaho, and encompasses over 2.2 million acres, an area nearly three times the size of Rhode Island”. It’s pretty darn big.

Not only were the trees monstrous, but many are over 1,000 years old, which is petty mind-blowing. The main “hike” around the trees is very pleasant and doable. I put hike in quotes because it’s more of a leisurely stroll than a hike. My 7-months- pregnant friend was easily able to do it, although she did have to stop for breaks along the way. I believe this was 100% due to her being pregnant, and not because of the nature of the trail. The path is very wide, flat, and well maintained, albeit wet and kind of mushy. I don’t know if this is a normal atmosphere for that area of the country, but it was certainly very damp (think: the geographical location of Twilight for all those Twihards out there).

Not only is there a nice little trail, but there is also a creek that is very wide and rapid in some areas, and small and placid in others, as well as numerous benches along the route to stop and rest.

Oh, and you can also climb onto the trees, which is always fun but also can be kind of dangerous, as I learned 🥴.


Kootenai Falls

Located at Kootenai River Rd, Libby, MT 59923, about 20 minutes past Ross Creek Cedars, is majestic Kootenai Falls. This is not a waterfall like Niagara Falls, but boy is it powerful. These falls are more like whitewater river rafting falls than huge, view-from-a-packed-boat-like-sardines-in-a-can falls.

The beauty is almost impossible to describe, but I will try. Be forewarned, my words cannot and will not do it justice, and I strongly suggest visiting if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods. I don’t feel like I am being dramatic, I’ve seen Niagara Falls, Horseshoe Falls, the Seven Sisters Waterfall in Norway (plus many, various Norwegian waterfalls), as well as waterfalls in Tennessee, Illinois, and California. None compare to the beauty and tranquility of these falls. Perhaps Niagara did, long before the masses came and industrialized it, devaluing it into some expensive tourist trap surrounded by large skyscrapers and 21st century noise and pollution.

Luckily, Kootenai Falls and this area of the country has not yet fallen prey to industrialization polluting it into a shell of its former self. It’s very rural, with the nearest town being Libby, Montana, about 17 miles away, with a population of about 2,700.

The Falls are not the only attraction drawing people to Kootenai. There is also a gigantic and very scary suspension bridge. Originally built in 1948, it was rebuilt even stronger after being destroyed by a major flood. It’s utterly terrifying. It is awfully long, bridging a wide gape of a relatively calm section of the Kootenai River, and is also very swingy. If you’ve ever been on a suspension bridge, you know exactly what I am talking about. If you have not, this is not a bridge that is stationary or will stand still as you walk across it. No LOL, the thing moves, it swings, it jars you from side to side, especially if you attempt to walk across as someone else walks across from the other side. In fact, this bridge is almost not wide enough for two people to cross at the same time, but the rude people do it anyway. Most people are polite (or just terrified themselves) and will wait to cross one at a time. If you are like me and insist on getting that picture from the middle of the bridge, better hope there are polite people who will wait to cross because otherwise that phone is likely going straight into the river, unless you’ve got Iron Man’s grip.

When you first arrive at the Falls, there is just one giant grey slab of parking lot. There are no lines or actual parking spaces and everyone kind of just wings it the best they can. Right up front is a small concession stand selling the typical “American” food likes cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and French fries (the irony), as well as handkerchiefs, sunscreen, headache medicine, etc. Close by are a couple of port-a-potty style bathrooms, a water fountain, and a large sign describing the area and the history.

After a short walk down, you will come to a T. Left goes to the suspension bridge and right goes to the Falls. Both can be done very easily in one day, nay, just a couple of hours, if all you are there to see are the Falls and the bridge. If you choose to hike further, it will of course be a longer day for you.

The hike to the Falls is reasonably easy and simple, with a well-worn and maintained path that is only slightly rocky in some areas. After hiking for probably .25 miles, if not less, you come to a cliffside of sorts, just a rocky shelf that you can walk on and inch yourself towards the Falls. The rocky shelf is pretty flat and stable; however, I can see someone very clumsy and fall-prone rolling down like a bowling ball. It would be difficult, but achievable.

I hung out on this rocky shelf just marveling at the power of the Falls for probably 30 minutes. After taking a few pictures for some fellow hikers, I set up my phone to self-take pictures and snapped a few. After that, I just… sat. Sitting in nature, thinking, reflecting, basking in it, is something I really enjoy doing, especially since I live in southern California, constantly surrounded by people, things, and noise. My favorite place to do this is still, you guessed it, Sedona (Sedona and its vortexes drown out sound somehow). If you are like me, then Kootani Falls is a perfect place for this.

I am unsure if I just got lucky or if it is normal, but there were just a few people there. This was in June, so perhaps the pandemic had something to do with it, but either way, it was wonderful. (Edit: after reading this blog to my friend, she said this was likely due to me going on a weekday. She and her husband went on a weekend a few days after I went, and she said there were definitely more people than when I went. So, plan accordingly!)

**I added a couple of videos to show slightly different angles of the rocks, waterfall and rapids!

Video 1.

After I did all the thinking and self-reflecting I could, I moved on towards the suspension bridge. The hike to the suspension bridge is notably more difficult than the hike to the Falls. Probably around .5 miles, it is a much more strenuous and rockier walk. In fact, at one point, you have to Spiderman your way down a slight, rocky hill with loose dirt. There are no stairs or handrails, and there is no smooth trail. I am unsure why this is still part of the trail like this, but it is.

Once you make it down that, you must climb down 3 sets of stairs, which takes you over train tracks. Then it’s on to a fairly easy hike; however, there are parts that are tougher and more tiring than others. There are many opportunities to jet off the trail along the way and make your way to different viewpoints of the river; however, I did none of them for 1) safety reasons and 2) time reasons.

Video 2.

Once I reached the bridge, there were about 6 or 7 people on one side and 5 on the other. After waiting for my chance to walk to the middle and take some pictures, I got the heck out of dodge. I am deathly afraid of heights, but more so I was deathly afraid of dropping my iPhone into a violent river, never to be seen again.

I never made it to the other side, something I regret not forcing myself to do, but I do not think there is much over there as I’d watch people walk over, piddle around for a bit, and then walk back.

After leaving Kootenai Falls and making my way back towards Hope, I stopped along the way numerous times to take pictures. There was one photo opportunity that I had mentally bookmarked on my way to the Falls. I was able to find it again and snapped one of the best scenic pictures I’ve ever taken (please see below). As I was framing and snapping these pics, a truck drove by, and then stopped about 50 feet away, slowly turned around, and came back towards me. I thought “Great. I’m about to be featured on an ID channel show or some true crime podcasters weekly podcast”. However, luckily for me and my life, it was just an elderly couple wanting to make sure my car hadn’t broken down or that I needed help. I constantly met super nice and helpful people like this up in Montana and Idaho ❤️.


Idaho

Before I ever visited Idaho, I always pictured it kind of like Iowa or Ohio, for some reason. Just flat, nothing, potato land. Pleasantly surprising, Idaho is none of that, at least not in the areas we went to. As mentioned above, on day one we drove from the Utah border approximately 2 hours north to Pocatello. On day two, we drove another approximate 2 hours north on Highway 15, past the cities of Blackfoot, Idaho Falls, and Dell. Then after a rather long intermission through Montana, traveling through the tiny, charming towns of Thompson Falls, Trout Creek, and Noxon, we finally crossed over into the Idahoan Panhandle.

While I can only speak for the very eastern part of Idaho, as well as the Panhandle, the parts I did see were amazing, particularly the Panhandle. The eastern part of Idaho is rather “meh”, aside from some pretty parts near the Utah border and a really cool lava field called Hell’s Half Acre Lava Field that you drive right past on Highway 15, located about 30 miles north of Pocatello.  

But the Panhandle, oh the Panhandle. Breathtakingly beautiful. Unreal. This is an area that rivals the majestic Norwegian Fjords, with mountain after mountain jetting up from the ground, in a large row. We stayed at my friend’s family’s cabin, located right on Lake Pend Oreille. The address is in a “town” called Hope, but there really is no town. It is sandwiched between the two closest human civilizations in the area, with Clark Fork to the east and Sandpoint to the west. The former is more of a village, while the latter is large enough to earn itself a Walmart.

While there are a good number of homes in Hope, there is no town or village. There are 2 restaurants and a gas station that doubles as a limited convenience store. That is about it. Oh, there is also a large marina and boat dock, so it is a perfect place to store your boat.

Regardless of the no-town part, it is a gorgeous place, and I am not at all perplexed why someone would choose to call it home. Hell, if I could afford a vacation home, this would be a top-of-the list contender. It’s so serene and peaceful, very quiet aside from the occasional motor of a boat whizzing by or train charging through across the lake.

Our friends at the cabin. They were around a lot. I even came face to face with one when leaving the laundry area beneath the cabin.

However, it is very rural, and with rurality comes darkness. If you are afraid of the dark or afraid of being somewhere at night where you cannot see out past 5 feet, I’m not sure this is the place for you.

My friend had to work a few days that we were there, so it was up to me to entertain myself. One day I went to Kootenai Falls, another I went to Schweitzer Mountain, near Sandpoint. Another was my day trip to Spokane. The day I went to Schweizer, I also drove around Idaho near the Montana border, just looking for scenic places to stop at and photograph. I will break these down into their own subsections.


Schweizer Mountain

Disclaimer: Speaking of the ID channel, sometimes I think I should not hike alone again, as I’ve seen way too many shows about animal and sociopath attacks on innocent solo hikers, particularly females (for the psychos, not the animals). I’ve hiked alone in Sedona and again at Schweitzer, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d suggest or encourage anyone to do, especially a woman. If you do go alone, please make sure someone knows exactly where you are going, what time you plan on being back, share your location via phone, and carry with you a knife, pepper spray, or a taser/stun gun (preferably all 3 together). If you are in a gun-friendly state, and know how to use one, that’s even better.

Ok, with the disclaimer aside, moving on. The drive to Schweitzer Mountain starts in the town of Sandpoint and takes about 30 minutes. It is not the most curvy or nauseating mountain drive I’ve ever done (that honor goes to Sierra Nevadas near Sequoia National Park), but it is still a mountain drive, so if you get easily sick from a winding road, be prepared.

It is a decently pretty drive, but you really don’t get the full beauty until you’ve reached the top. One super cool thing that happened to me is I saw a moose! I was just driving up the mountain, turn a curve, and there’s a freaking moose. Traffic was almost nonexistent, so I was able to stop the car and take some pictures. It’s trivial in the grand scheme of things, but seeing a moose in the wild is cool, I don’t care what anyone says.

At the top of Schweitzer is a small ski resort, complete with winter homes and a large common area that was a ghost town due to the pandemic. Well, and the fact that there was no snow.

Important Note: if you need a bathroom, good luck. If the little shopping center thing is not open and operating, finding a bathroom is almost impossible. I had to enlist the help of a random construction worker (shout out to you, awesome construction worker) to go on a literal treasure hunt with me to find a freaking bathroom. So, just FYI.

The trails around Schweitzer are easy, very well-worn, and easy to follow. You can start off on a wide road and just keep to that, or you can veer off onto a smaller trail and work your way up the side, where it eventually ends on a large, ATV-style trail. From there you can continue walking on the large, ATV trail, or take one of the smaller trails up through the trees, even higher. After walking up the smaller trail, I decided to remain on the larger, ATV trail for safety purposes. I’d love to have continued hiking upwards, on the smaller, more hidden trails, but for safety reasons that was not the wisest choice.

I was able to hike my way up high enough to see out far, way out into Lake Pend Oreille and the numerous islands and peninsulas jetting out into it. Again, being out in nature is so peaceful and relaxing, I didn’t want to leave. 


Various areas of the Idaho Panhandle

After making my way down the mountain, and stopping by the cabin to shower and change, I still had a couple hours to kill before my friend was off work. I took this time to go explore the various riverfront areas on the highway between Clark Fork and the Montana border.

Fortunately, there are numerous areas to park off the highway and appreciate the beauty of the river and get some amazing shots. I stopped at a few random areas and snapped some pics, before eventually finding a place called Cabinet Landing. It is a place known for having a settlement camp in 1882 of about 4,000 Chinese railroad workers that was gone just a year later in 1883. Those who know the history of this country know that the Chinese railroad workers were not treated exactly well.

Sound on and up to hear how peaceful and quiet it is.

There is a historical plaque, briefly outlining the history of the area, including the railroad, an old schoolhouse est. in 1922, and the “Cabinet Gateway Suspension Bridge” that I was unable to locate. There is also a couple of picnic tables and numerous areas to fish, if that’s your thing. For me, just being able to snap shots of the beautiful, blue-green river was enough.

 A lot of my time during these “down days” was spent just driving around the area, snapping photo after photo of all the beautiful things I saw. I don’t fancy myself a “photographer”, but I like to play around as one, trying to find that “perfect shot”.


Washington

**Unfortunately, I took no photos of Washington or while in Washington (I was alone, plus it was a whirlwind day), so please enjoy some various photos from Idaho!**

One of the cabins resident deers. These guys were around all the time.

Last but not least…. Washington. This section is going to be kind of a letdown and for that, I apologize. I’ve been to Seattle years ago, at age 15, and it was pretty cool. I remember seeing the huge Mount Rainier and being able to see mountains for miles at the top of the Space Needle. Eastern Washington, comparatively, is a letdown. I’m not sure what I was expecting out of Spokane, perhaps far more mountains and for it to look more like Idaho and Montana. It didn’t, and it was just another congested city that reminded me more of a Midwest city than a Pacific Northwest city. Plus, Spokane looooves one-way streets, but like 3 lanes across, so if you don’t know where you are going, you can be easily screwed.

I went to Spokane for numerous reasons, I needed certain things, I needed to find a Staples, as well as to fill a day. Plus, I hadn’t back to Washington in 14 years and had never been to Spokane. Just one more thing to mark off the bucket list!

I did not spend a lot of time there, since I had googled it extensively beforehand and, quite frankly, couldn’t find anything to do that really piqued my interest or tickled my fancy. Plus a lot of things were closed due to the Pandemic. There were a lot of art museums and other art-type of installations, and that just isn’t my thing. I did stop by a Mexican restaurant to eat, but after that, just headed back. I had seen enough of the city to get a feel for it.

I’m definitely not trying to discourage anyone from visiting Spokane, and I don’t want to offend anyone who might be from there or have family there. I just wish I had gone with someone who knew the area and could show me the “hidden gems” that I’m sure exist. I’d like to go back one day and give it another go, but this was just my personal experience with the city.


Summary

Overall, this was one of the best trips (and road trips) I’ve taken in a very long time. All the states and sights were brand new to me, including all parts of eastern Arizona that were past Flagstaff. I’m forever grateful for my friend for asking me to go with her (if you’re reading this, love you!), and I really hope for the opportunity to take another road trip up this way, but this time to Glacier National Park in Montana and Yellowstone in Wyoming. We’ll see what 2021 has in store!!!! 🙏🏼🤞🏼

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