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Visit Idaho's Panhandle Lakes Country

Bob Granstrom

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Put this idea on your list of things to do. For a vacation treat, visit the three well-known lakes found in the Panhandle of Idaho. The Panhandle lakes are legendary and big.

Twelve U. S. States have land protrusions called panhandles. The Idaho Panhandle is the northernmost region of the state, bordered to the west by Washington, to the east by Montana and to the north by Canada’s British Columbia. This slender arm of land is the home of just over 20% of Idaho’s 1.4 million population.

Drive into the Panhandle from any direction and you will be driving along a lake, river or stream. While the three largest lakes, Lake Pend Oreille (Pond-er-ray), Coeur d’Alene (Cor-da-lane) Lake and Priest Lake are predominant, more than half of the total surface waters in Idaho are found in this northern section of the state. Lake Pend Oreille is 65 miles long and 15 miles wide at its widest point. Coeur d’Alene Lake is 30 miles long and up to 3 miles wide and Priest Lake is 25 miles long. These lakes provide for excellent boating, sailing, and water sports of all kinds, plus world-class fishing.

A 37-pound Kamloops trout has been taken at Lake Pend Oreille, and prize-winning Dolly Varden trout and lake trout are often caught. Chinook salmon of over 40 pounds and tasty kokanee trout are hooked in Coeur d’Alene Lake, and Priest Lake is the location of the world’s record for the giant Mackinaw trout and for trophy rainbow trout. Boat launching facilities are available at these lakes, and boat and watercraft rentals are also offered. Campsites are plentiful on all three lakes and marinas and resorts ranging from rustic to world-class can be found on each.

The center of activities for Lake Pend Oreille is the quaint town of Sandpoint on the lake’s northern end. This town of about 7,000 is an emerging art colony featuring many art galleries, boutique shopping and specialty restaurants. Sandpoint’s City Beach and Park is a popular summer attraction for locals and vacationers alike, and nearby Schweitzer Mountain is the Northwest’s premier ski resort in the winter. Any time of the year, it provides an outstanding view of the lake below.

The city of Coeur d’Alene is the hub for activities on Coeur d’Alene Lake and the surrounding area. The city is the largest in northern Idaho with a population of less than 40,000. Set on the north shore of the lake, Coeur d’Alene is a great jumping off spot for water sports and a wide variety of other outdoor recreations. Silverwood, the Northwest’s largest theme park with its new water park, Boulder Beach, is just a short drive north of the city. The park features 60 thrilling rides, including three big-time roller coasters.

Priest Lake is west of Sandpoint following the Panhandle Historic Rivers Passage on U. S. Route 2. This scenic route is one of six designated Scenic Byways located on the Panhandle. When you arrive at the little town of Priest River you are closing in on the peaceful setting for Priest Lake. Turn north on State Route 57 and follow the river to the lake. If you are looking for solitude and fun, this is it.

Not everything in Northern Idaho is on or related to the large, pristine lakes. For example, there are 6 Idaho State Parks on the Panhandle. These include:

  • Priest Lake State Park, on East Shore Road, off State Route 57
  • Farragut State Park, on State Route 54, off U. S. Route 95 near Athol, Idaho
  • Heyburn State Park, State Route 5, off U. S. 95, between Plummer and St. Maries
  • Coeur d’Alene Parkway State Park, off Interstate 90 in Coeur d’Alene
  • Round Lake State Park, on Dufort Road, off U. S. 95 near Sagle, Idaho
  • Old Mission State Park, take Exit 39, off Interstate 90 at Cataldo, Idaho

Three National Forests lie in northern Idaho. The Idaho Panhandle National Forests are an aggregation of the Coeur d'Alene and portions of the Kaniksu and St. Joe National Forests. This 2.5 million acres of public lands are managed by the U. S. Forest Service. These lands offer up an endless list of outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, biking, fishing and hunting, and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter months.

With this abundance of possibilities, a visit to Idaho’s spectacular Panhandle Lakes Country makes a lot of sense. Put it on your short list of things you just have to do.

Granstrom, who resides in Idaho’s Panhandle, has a website devoted to the Gem State. See his site at for more information on Idaho.


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