By land, lake, and air: Scratching the surface in Idaho's Priest Lake region
I come from a small island in the middle of the Pacific. I blame my upbringing for my love of remote places, hidden gems, and wanting to go to the places where fewer footsteps roam. Road trips to find such places have become a regular part of my life traveling with outdoor photographer Travis Burke in his adventure van. Late August found us crossing into Idaho for the third time in one year, intrigued by the network of lakes and forests in the panhandle of northern Idaho which no one in our well-travelled circle of friends ever seemed to explore.
Aside from camping, our home base for the week is a spacious cabin at the family-owned and operated Hill's Resort on the western shore of Priest Lake. The deck is so close to the waterfront that as I'm sipping my tea in the wee hours of our first morning I see our float planes show up. I'm giddy, hopping up and down in an effort to shove my boots on while running down to the dock. This is the first (and let's be quite honest possibly the only) time a float plane will be arriving at my doorstep. The owner of Hills Resort knows the pilots and it's only through that connection and a lot of kindness on their part that we're able to go up this morning. Bucket list item – check.
Once airborne our four planes fly north in loose formation up the lake. It's such a treat to get an aerial lay of the land. We swoop low over small islands dotting the lake's surface. Some, like Kalispell island and Bartoo island, even have forest service approved campgrounds (reserve here). The lake narrows dramatically and we fly over Upper Priest Lake, much smaller than its main counterpart, but incredibly scenic and infrequently visited. The clarity of the water and its deep blue hue are so inviting that we land the plane briefly just for fun. From here we are less than 20 miles from the Canadian border. My pilot points out the start of the Selkirk Mountain range which joins the Rocky Mountains to run all the way north past Revelstoke 300 miles away in British Columbia. I can imagine the perfection of these peaks in winter and I'm already brewing excuses to come back for a snow season.
One ridge in particular stands out to me and I ask the pilot if the sheer granite face has a name. “Mount Roothaan and Chimney Rock,” he tells me adding that at this time of year there's a hiking trail to the summit popular with climbers. As we bank back towards our cabin he points out Hunt Lake, a beautiful alpine lake tucked at the base of Gunsight Peak. It is yet another gorgeous and secluded spot, one of 176 sites in the area, this one open to camping and fishing. My brain is struggling to take notes while being overloaded with such beautiful scenery.
Conveniently there are extensive trail maps and guides available for free in many areas around the lake as well as online. Using the dirt forest service roads we take a scenic drive through a small mountain pass and over to the other side of the lake. The trees have their first hints of fall colors and the light rays of early afternoon beam through the tall pines turning the world a hazy honey color. We wander through the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars, feeling dwarfed among their 2,000 year-old presence. The silence of the one mile forest loop intertwines with the cascading stream below. It's incredibly relaxing. Lost in thought I'm startled, not by people, but by a doe grazing not 10 feet from me on the trail. Our cameras are in our backpacks so we stand hypnotized as she blinks her big eyes and walks into the virgin forest. I feel like a kid again just discovering a new playground.
The next day we park at a random trailhead and hike up the river to see what we will find. A swimming hole surrounded by a series of small waterfalls greets us. The water is quite chilly, but so crystalline that we can't help but jump in. We lay on sunshine warmed rocks laughing at our luck, then race back just in time to canoe at sunset, the sound of our paddles sluicing the gold gleaming water.
Evenings are spent stargazing by our fire pit (each cabin has their own) or, on a particularly lazy day, laying on a blanket while the resort projects “Little Rascals” on a screen at the beach. We join in on their festive weekly sushi night where fresh fish and other delicacies are flown in especially for their menu. On nights we're feeling more lively we take drives around the lake and find small beaches or side roads to explore. The Milky Way juts up into the sky above the lake and we marvel again and again that we are the only ones around. Back in the cabin I fall asleep on the living room floor next to the crackling fire, exhausted and content, dreaming of the next day's adventure.
For our last day I feel it only fitting to hike Mount Roothaan to stand on the crest I saw from the air. The dirt road to the trailhead is rutted and steep, taking about an hour and a half and demanding every inch of high clearance we had to offer. After two miles walking up a moderate incline the views start to open up. Scrambling another half mile across the talus field takes us even higher to 7,300 ft and I hold onto trees to hoist myself up the granite face. I am out of breath and elated. We sit on the edge of a thousand foot drop-off admiring the panorama. Interlocking slabs of rock create a cresting wave of a wall which snakes towards Chimney Rock, the iconic spire of the Selkirks. I'm still surprised I'm seeing this view in Idaho. The dizzying drops and vast landscape remind me of backcountry trips in Yosemite mixed with the endless forests in Oregon.
There's such a diversity of landscapes here and so many trails that even exploring by plane, by foot and by boat we get the feeling we've only scratched the surface. We extend our stay twice simply because we feel strangely at home here: the people are fantastic, the trails plentiful, and the crowd factor a zero, just the way I like it. With something for everyone and every season, I have a feeling northern Idaho will be seeing us for a fourth visit quite soon.