3 Not-to-Miss Stops Along the Road
To continue the auto tour after the side trips, retrace Highway 57 south to Priest River and turn east on U.S. 2. The highway follows the Pend Oreille River for 20 miles to the Sandpoint suburb of Dover where the river empties from Lake Pend Oreille.
Lake Pend Oreille
Named by 19th-century French trappers for the loop earrings worn by Native Americans in the area, Lake Pend Oreille is the largest natural lake in Idaho, covering 148 square miles and measuring 43 miles in length. Its maximum depth of 1,150 feet makes Pend Oreille the fifth-deepest lake in the U.S., exceeded only by Crater Lake, Lake Tahoe, Lake Chelan and Lake Superior.
Pend Oreille emerged as a sport fishing destination for Kamloops trout in the 1950s and has attracted outdoor enthusiasts ever since. Fish species include rainbow and lake trout, perch, crappie, bass and whitefish. A world-record, 37-pound Kamloops trout was caught here.
At the west end of Lake Pend Oreille’s north arm, you’ll enter Sandpoint, a prosperous, small city with an attractive downtown. Sandpoint lies in the Purcell Trench, which is a 250-mile-long, glacier-carved trough nestled between the Purcell, Cabinet, Coeur d’Alene and Selkirk mountains.
Sandpoint has been an important railroad town since the Northern Pacific Railroad brought the first settlers to the area in the 1880s. Three railroads — Northern Pacific, Great Northern and Union Pacific — built track in the trench, creating a convergence of rail lines known as “The Funnel,” which is a popular destination for rail fans. Sandpoint has the only Amtrak station in Idaho, a stop on the daily Seattle/Portland to Chicago Empire Builder.
Entering Sandpoint from the west on U.S. 2, you can follow signs to Lakeview Park and its small botanical garden showcasing local flora. The Bonner County Historical Museum sits nearby, with exhibits chronicling the timber and rail industries as well as dugout canoes from the Kalispel tribe. The park also offers a popular public boat launch and other recreational facilities and sits next to the War Memorial Ballfield, home of the Festival at Sandpoint concert series in mid-August.
Downtown Sandpoint features heritage architecture and an eclectic collection of shops, galleries, restaurants and coffee houses. The city also supports a lively arts and entertainment scene, including the restored, historic Panida Theater, a 550-seat venue that opened in 1927 as a vaudeville and movie house. The theater sat derelict for decades before being restored in 1985 and earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another unique attraction is Cedar Street Bridge Public Market, the only marketplace on a bridge in the United States. Built in 1981, and inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, this 400-foot-long structure spans Sand Creek, which runs along the edge of downtown.
On the east side of Sandpoint, U.S. 2 joins U.S. 95. Turn left from Pine Street onto First Avenue, and then turn right onto Bridge Street — the turnoff for City Beach as well as the Amtrak station. A bridge connects downtown with City Beach at the southern end of the sandy peninsula that gives the town its name. This 18-acre park offers a sandy beach (with lifeguards in summer), lawns, two marinas and expansive views of the lake. Lake Pend Oreille Cruises offers a variety of summer boat trips from City Beach Dock. Boat rentals also are available at the marina.
At the north end of town on U.S. 95, the road splits and the Pend Oreille Scenic Byway (state Route 200) trails off to the east. A short 5 miles down that road is the Idaho Club, Idaho’s most prestigious (and private) golf venue featuring the only Jack Nicklaus–designed course in the state. If you’re up for a longer side trip, the byway stretches 33 miles to the town of Clark Fork and the Montana border.
Continuing north on U.S. 2/U.S. 95 out of Sandpoint brings you to a cutoff road that winds 11 miles uphill to Schweitzer Mountain Resort, the Idaho Panhandle’s largest ski area. Schweitzer features 2,900 acres of trails and 10 lifts to whisk outdoor enthusiasts around the terrain. Alpine skiers can descend from the 6,400-foot peak to the village via Schweitzer Bowl or on the mountain’s rugged posterior slope, Outback Bowl. Cross-country skiers can cover 20 miles of backcountry Nordic trails.
The resort village has two lodges, a shopping and dining arcade, and condominiums. During the summer, the resort transforms into a hiker’s and biker’s playground with provided RV parking. It also is popular with huckleberry pickers.
Read more about things to do in Sandpoint.
South from Sandpoint
After returning to Sandpoint, follow U.S. 95 down to Long Bridge, which crosses Lake Pend Oreille from one of two spits of earth emanating from the city shore. Glance left as you reach the bridge to see the railway bridge that carries passenger and freight trains across the lake from the other spit. After crossing the bridge, an immediate right onto Lakeshore Drive will take you to the Sandpoint Hatchery a mile west of the highway.
U.S. 95 continues south through a landscape of shrub-steppe and wooded hills. Several roads branch east to lakeside recreation sites. Sagle, 4 miles south of Sandpoint, is the gateway to Bottle Bay, Garfield Bay, Glengary, Talache and other settlements on the west shore of Lake Pend Oreille. The drive along the lake’s north arm from Bottle Bay to Sagle is highly scenic. The Sandpoint Waterlife Discovery Center on Lakeshore Drive has interpretive trails along the river outlet of Lake Pend Oreille.
Five miles south of Long Bridge, turn left for a 12-mile meander east on Sagle Road to the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center. This free museum features a hangar containing six mint-condition aircraft from 1927 to 1972 and motor vehicles from the same period. Additional exhibits include NASA and military uniforms, models and artwork.
The center’s Imagination Room honors inventors who perfected products ranging from Kitty Litter and Barbie to microprocessors and the artificial heart. One gallery displays inventions of museum co-founder Dr. Forrest Bird, who invented the respiratory ventilator and the Anti “G” Suit used by high-altitude pilots.
After your museum visit, retrace your route to U.S. 95, and take the highway south toward Round Lake State Park and Lake Cocolalla, which provide more opportunities for camping and boating.
About 25 miles south of Sandpoint on U.S. 95, you’ll enter Athol. Established as a logging town in 1903, this tiny town lies just north of Silverwood, the largest theme park in the Pacific Northwest, featuring more than 70 rides and attractions, including the famous Corkscrew. Built in 1975 at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, the country’s first inverted coaster was relocated to Silverwood in 1990.
The 216-acre park also has a steam train ride, a miniature mining town, entertainment venues and many places to grab a bite. The adjacent Boulder Beach Water Park has water slides, wave pools and water rides. The parks are open June, July and August, as well as weekends and holidays in May and September.
If you prefer a more natural setting, Farragut State Park, 5 miles east of Athol on state Route 54, features a diversity of habitats at the edge of Lake Pend Oreille. The park has extensive hiking, biking and equestrian trails, which also attract cross-country skiers in winter. In 1942, the U.S. Navy built the world’s second-largest naval training center here. The station brig, now a museum, is the only remaining structure from this period.
Several miles beyond Farragut State Park, Bayview overlooks Scenic Bay, the southern gateway to Lake Pend Oreille. An early logging and limestone quarry center, Bayview boomed during World War II while the Farragut Naval Training Station was operational. The town has groceries, boat launches and moorage as well as a number of small resorts. Houseboats lining the shore provide the air of a seaside resort. The Navy still maintains an underwater research facility at the southern edge of town.
Returning to Highway 95 and heading south brings you into Hayden, a northern suburb of Coeur d’Alene. Hayden Lake, on the eastern edge of town, runs 7 miles along the base of the timbered Coeur d’Alene Mountains, with many arms extending into the mountains that give it a shoreline totaling 40 miles. Hayden’s crystal-clear waters, sandy beaches and picturesque forested shores make it one of North Idaho’s most beautiful and popular lakes.
– Written by John King, last updated in September 2022
– Top photo of Historic Rivers Passage Near Dover courtesy of Visit Idaho