Just like heaven: Northern Idaho’s unspoiled Priest Lake is a blessing to visitors

Just like heaven: Northern Idaho’s unspoiled Priest Lake is a blessing to visitors – includes related article on Priest Lake travel planner

Jeff Halstead

The campfire brushes my family’s faces in wavering hues of yellow and orange and, with a pop, sends embers toward the stars. Last night we enjoyed steak and pork back ribs at a local restaurant. But this evening we opt for wieners roasted on metal coat hangers while the lake laps softly against the shore.

Lined with sandy beaches, hedged by verdant national and state forests, and watched over by the granite-tipped mountains that form the Selkirk Crest, Priest Lake is a 19-mile-long finger of water that draws visitors for both its natural wonders and the relaxing pleasures of a lake vacation.

Though cabins and resorts form a thin crescent above the shoreline, the lake is still bordered by large tracts of undeveloped land. Parts of the Selkirk Mountains north and east of the lake are in a near-wilderness state and harbor endangered grizzlies and mountain caribou. Sightings of deer, bear, and moose are common.

Trails on the Selkirk Crest lead hikers to superb alpine meadows, tumbling scree slopes, and sheer granite cirques, some hundreds of feet deep.

More rustic than Priest Lake is its 3-mile-long sister, Upper Priest Lake, which remains undeveloped; waterskiing is banned and fishing limited to catch-and-release in a specified season. Boat up the long no-wake channel that joins the two bodies of water or hike the easy 3-mile trail into the Upper Priest Lake Scenic Area. If boat camping or backpacking is on the agenda, consider spending the night.

The less motivated can enjoy the Priest Lake area’s scenery from the deck of a houseboat or, even better, a hammock. After all, the grandness of the setting shouldn’t cause one to overlook its simple gifts – such as the chance to share a beach fire with friends and family, cook a few wieners, and marvel at the bright Milky Way.

PRIEST LAKE TRAVEL PLANNER

Priest Lake State Park is 95 miles – about a two-hour drive – from both Spokane, Washington, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. For information, contact the Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce; (888) 774-3785.

Camping

Priest Lake has both private and publicly owned campgrounds, with fees running from $5 for a campsite to $18 for a full RV sewer and electricity hookup. For westshore sites (no RV hookups), contact the Forest Service, Priest Lake Ranger District: (208) 443-2512 for information; (877) 444-6777 or www.reserveusa.com for reservations. For east-shore sites (some with RV hookups), contact Priest Lake State Park; (208) 443-2200. Contact the chamber of commerce about private campgrounds.

Hiking

Mt. Roothaan. Two miles of fir forest, fields of flowering bear grasses – and great views. For directions to the trailhead, contact the Idaho Department of Lands; (208) 443-2516.

Houseboating

The smallest houseboat sleeps 12 and starts at $1,495 for a three-night weekend mid-June-mid-September; cost is $995 other times. Rent at Priest Lake Marina through Excursions Northwest; (509) 926-9196.

Lodging & dining

Elkins on Priest Lake. Log cabins on Reeder Bay. The rustic dining room is known for its lamb, venison, and fresh seafood. From $95 a night, $835 a week July 10-August 28. (208) 443-2432 or www.elkinsresort.com.

Hill’s Resort. Cabins, lodges, and condominiums on Luby Bay. Try the Margarita Shrimp in the dining room. From $115 a night, $855 a week July-August. (208) 443-2551 or www.hillsresort.com.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Sunset Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group