Reaching Crossroads at Priest Lake
State Highway 57, the Priest Lake Highway, heads north from Priest River and quickly enters a dense, old-growth, ponderosa pine forest that looms along both sides. The roadbed is wide and well-marked, however, making it excellent for trailers and RVs. Eight miles on, you reach the National Forest. Cell phones are useless by this point, and for a major chunk of this stretch of wilderness.
At milepost 22 you will reach a crossroads and a question — West Shore or East Shore? The federally managed western side has fewer public access points to the lake but more services and attractions, while the state-owned eastern half features the state park and the lake’s only shorefront town.
Side Trip — West Shore
If you continue on Highway 57 north along the west side of Priest Lake, you will reach the small community of Priest Lake 6 miles farther along. This camper resupply point at an altitude of 2,450 feet has food and gas, but keep a sharp eye out for bicyclists. Across the highway from the town center is Priest Lake Golf Course, an easily walkable public 18-hole course that doubles as a cross-country skiing center in winter.
If you turn on Luby Bay Road just past the northern edge of Priest Lake village and then make a left onto the dirt Lakeshore Road, this will take you down to Priest Lake Museum and Visitor Center, which is adjacent to one of the lake’s largest private resorts. The museum provides a glimpse into life in the 1930s with a retro-decorated kitchen and living room as well as exhibits on forestry, mining, recreation and natural history. The museum abuts a small day-use beach with probably the best public access to this side of the lake.
Three miles farther north on Highway 57, you’ll pass a grassy patch amidst the forest. This is a local airstrip used by the Forest Service as a base for smokejumpers — firefighters who parachute into remote forest areas to battle blazes. The airstrip is available for general aviation as well. Priest Lake Ranger Station sits across the highway, providing information for on-shore campgrounds as well as rustic campsites on Kalispell and Bartoo Islands in the middle of the lake. Deer are a common sight around the campgrounds and bears lurk just beyond the human domain.
The hamlet of Nordman, at milepost 37, is the last stop along the north shore route. The state highway ends shortly after. A turn onto Reeder Bay Road leads to several resorts and campgrounds, but the pavement ends after about 3 miles. From there, a Forest Road continues north into the Upper Priest Lake Scenic Area. The dirt road ends after 10 miles at the Forest Service’s Beaver Creek campsite.
Side Trip — East Shore
Dickensheet Road, the turnoff from Highway 57 for the east shore route, marks the boundary between federal and state land. The road curves to the right and passes several camping units in Priest Lake State Forest.
After swinging northeast, Priest Lake’s only lakefront town, Coolin, comes into view about two miles down the road. Several lodging options and RV parks comprise the core of this town that triples in population during the summer. Continue straight as the road descends onto Bayview Drive to reach Bishop’s Marina where you’ll find an inconspicuous public boat launch and, 200 yards past that, the souvenir-laden Leonard Paul Store.
Return up the hill from the shore and turn left onto Cavanaugh Bay Road, which marks the beginning of the east shore’s main access. This road is narrower and more winding than state Route 57, but the lake views are much more spectacular — although turnouts for picture-taking are fewer and farther between. After the private Rocky Point turnoff, the road name changes to East Shore Road.
Eleven miles north of Coolin is east shore’s major attraction — the Indian Creek Unit of Priest Lake State Park. This park features the lake’s only dedicated public day-use area, featuring a wide-ranging trail system and a slate of interpretative programs led by park staff. Accommodations include cabins, as well as RV and tent sites. Pets are welcome. A boat launch and a camp store that sells gas, propane and diesel also are found within park boundaries.
This auto tour returns back to Priest River from here, but farther up East Shore Road you will find the state park’s Lionhead unit. From here you can hike into the Upper Priest Lake Scenic Area.
– Written by John King, last updated in September 2022
– Top Image of Priest Lake by Getty Images