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Hiking the Idaho Panhandle

The Idaho Panhandle is an idyllic vision of the American West: Rivers meander through alpine forest, jagged mountain ranges soar high into the vast blue sky, and small frontier towns are infused with an explorer’s spirit. The Pend Oreille River is the lifeblood of the region, flowing west from Lake Pend Oreille, then traveling 130 miles northwest to meet the Columbia River. Along the way, the Priest River Delta settles beautifully into a tributary near Blanchard and Sandpoint. Wilderness overshadows civilization here, where national forests (Kaniksu and, further south, Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe) occupy more than 5,000 square miles. President Theodore Roosevelt protected much of the area, and as a result, hikers now enjoy one of the finest trail systems in North America.

The name of the trout-filled lake, located in the northwest corner of the state, is a nod to early Jesuit missionaries. This popular trail hugs the shoreline for 7½ miles each way, traversing 5 streams and unwinding under a canopy of spindly pines and patches of Douglas fir. Along the way, stop at one of numerous isolated beaches for a private picnic, and once the elevation reaches its apex, pause for gorgeous vistas of the majestic 19-mile-long lake.

Head into the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars, a 2,000-year-old virgin forest along the Washington-Idaho border, with trees that reach 12 feet in diameter and 150 feet tall, and you’ll see why Granite Falls tops every Northwest waterfall hunter’s list. The river races through a chute, then splashes headfirst against a sheer wall, begrudgingly turning 45 degrees before resuming its journey through the granite canyon, dodging boulders along the way. Several short trails stretching no more than a mile lead to picturesque lookout points for both the upper and lower falls.

In-the-know hikers stop at the obscure parking area off Forest Road 23 and saunter along a short, rocky path for a dip in the natural cauldron that forms at the base of Hunt Creek Falls. These falls—an antidote to the sometimes crowded Granite Falls—begin with a foamy cascade up top, where the creek splits around a massive boulder before spilling into a pool under the cover of western hemlock trees.

The Idaho Panhandle contains scores of lakes, and along many of the trails these can offer a refreshing respite from hot summer days. Few visuals compare to those on Gold Hill Trail #3, just 15 minutes from the quaint former logging town of Sandpoint. Several well-placed benches provide the perfect place for a breather and to take in Lake Pend Oreille (the fifth-deepest lake in the United States) and the rugged Selkirk Mountains. Look out for ravens and bald eagles patrolling the sky. The trail climbs only 1,200 feet in 2 miles, so it may be ideal for anyone desiring a more forgiving terrain.

Advanced hikers may want to opt for the Mickinnick Trail, a challenging 7-mile trek. “Your legs will burn a bit on Mickinnick,” explains local outdoors enthusiast Lisa Gerber, who together with her husband, Patrick Werry, and winemaker Jon Harding launched Small House Winery in 2013. “It feels as steep coming down as going up, but the views of the Cabinet Mountains and Lake Pend Oreille are well worth the effort,” she says.

The Mickinnick and Gold Hill Trails provide opposing views of the serpentine 43-mile Lake Pend Oreille. The area is fast becoming a popular stopover for skiers, who rave about the powder runs at nearby Schweitzer Mountain Resort, but the off-season remains relatively uncluttered with visitors. After a day of hiking, you’ll find locals and trailblazers settling onto Forty-One South’s riverside deck for a Laughing Dog Brewing Huckleberry Cream Ale and pan-fried freshly caught Idaho trout.

Get here early to see nature come alive: Golden sunrises set Round Lake aglow; ospreys glide just above the water’s surface, searching for trout; turtles putter near shallow banks; toads sing their morning songs; muskrats dart across the forest floor. Trapper’s Trail spends 1.8 miles circumnavigating the water-lily-rimmed lake. At one point the route delves into the surrounding 142-acre woodlands, which are filled with lodge-pole pines, hemlock and larch, before crossing Cocolalla Creek and veering through an alpine meadow. In summer the walk is peppered with white-and-yellow Syringa; the state flower blooms in late June.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.