Before I visited Idaho, I always pictured it like Iowa or Ohio – just flat, nothing, boring, potatoland. Pleasantly surprising, Idaho is none of that, at least not the areas we went to. We drove through the entire eastern half, south to north, starting at the Utah border and driving approximately 2 hours north to Pocatello, Idaho. After spending the night at a hotel, we continued on for another 2 hours north on Highway 15, past the Idahoan cities of Blackfoot, Idaho Falls, and Dell. Then after a long intermission through Montana: The Most Beautiful State in America., we finally crossed back over into the Idaho Panhandle.
While I can only speak for the eastern half and panhandle of Idaho, the parts I did see in the panhandle were amazing. The eastern half of Idaho is rather “meh”, aside from some pretty parts near the Utah border and an interesting looking lava field right off Highway 15 called Hell’s Half Acre Lava Field, located about 30 miles north of Pocatello.
But the panhandle! Breathtakingly beautiful. Fairytale status. This is an area that rivals the majestic Norwegian Fjords and Montana, with mountain after mountain jetting up from the earth, all in a large row. We stayed at my friend’s family cabin, located right on Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced: Lake Pon-der-ay. It’s French). The address was in a “town” called Hope, which 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 actual town, or even village. You will find only 2 restaurants and a gas station that doubles as a limited convenience store. 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’s a gorgeous place, and I am not perplexed as to why people choose to call it home (either full time or part time). Honestly, if I could afford a vacation home, Hope would be a top-of-the list contender. It’s serene and peaceful, extremely quiet aside from the occasional motor of a boat whizzing by or train charging through across the lake.
However, it is very rural, and with rurality comes darkness. If you are afraid of the dark or afraid of being somewhere at night you cannot see out past 5-feet, please be advised. (Star gazing is great, though!)
My friend had to work a few days that we were there, so it was up to me to entertain myself. I went to Kootenai Falls and Suspension Bridge in Montana, Schweitzer Mountain, Cabinet Landing, and Spokane, WA (no blog on Spokane, it was a bust).
Read below for Schweitzer Mountain and Cabinet Landing!
✨Disclaimer: I’ve hiked alone in Sedona (I Left my Heart and Soul in Sedona.) and again at Schweitzer, and I’m a strong believer in if you do go hiking 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 some form of protection.✨
The drive to Schweitzer Mountain starts in the town of Sandpoint and takes about 30 minutes. It’s not the most nauseating mountain drive I’ve ever taken (that horrible honor goes to Sequoia National Park: Largest Trees in the World.), but it’s still a mountain drive, nonetheless. If you get easily sick from a winding road, please be advised.
It’s a decently pretty drive, but you don’t really get the full beauty until you reach the top. One super awesome thing that happened to me – I saw a moose! I was just driving up the mountain, turn a curve, and there’s a juvenile moose on the side of the road. Traffic was basically nonexistent, so I was able to stop the car and take some pictures. Things like this make life fun.
At the top of Schweitzer is a small resort ski-town of the same name, complete with a large common area that was a closed-up, ghost town due to the pandemic (and time of year – no snow… but mainly the pandemic).
Important Note: if you need a bathroom, and the town is all but shut down like when I went, good luck 😬 Since the little shopping center/common area was not open and operating, finding a bathroom was nearly impossible. I had to enlist the help of a construction worker (thank you so much awesome construction worker!) to go on a treasure hunt with me to find a dang bathroom. We found it, but it was difficult. This was 2 years ago, so it’s likely different now, but just an FYI.
The trails around Schweitzer are easy to traverse, well-worn, and easy to follow. You can start off on a wide road and keep to that, or you can immediately veer off onto a smaller trail, and work your way up the side, eventually ending on a large, ATV-style trail (what I did). From there, you can continue walking on the large ATV trail, or take one of the smaller trails up through the trees and go even higher. After walking up from the smaller trail, I decided to remain on the ATV trail for safety purposes.
Using the ATV trail, I was able to hike high enough to see out far, way out across Lake Pend Oreille and see the numerous islands and peninsulas jetting out into it. It was so peaceful and relaxing, I didn’t want to leave, and wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for the immense fear that a bear would appear at any moment. 😅
I also took this time to explore the various riverfront areas along the highway between Clark Fork and the Montana border. I stopped at a few random areas and snapped some pics, before eventually finding a place called Cabinet Landing. It’s known for being the location of a settlement camp in 1882 of about 4,000 Chinese railroad workers that was gone just a year later in 1883. Legend has it that many of the Chinese workers went missing, and or died in mining accidents, and their remains are encased in one of the concrete side walls holding up a mountain slope between Sandpoint and Hope.
There is a historical plaque, which briefly outlines the history of the area, including the railroad, an old schoolhouse established in 1922, and the “Cabinet Gateway Suspension Bridge”, which I was unable to locate (I’m unsure if it still exists). There are also a couple of picnic tables and numerous areas to fish. For me, just being able to snap shots of the beautiful, blue-green river was enough.
Overall, although I spent almost a week in the Idaho Panhandle, I do not believe that I got to experience it in all its glory! I’m constantly asking my friend when we can go back up there, because I’m just itching at doing some more exploring. It’s a tremendously beautiful and relaxing place, which I really don’t believe many people know or can truly understand until they’ve been there themselves. So, if you’re looking for a peaceful, gorgeous mountain vacation spot away from the hordes of other vacationers, look no further!