Explore the Idaho Panhandle Along White Pine Scenic Byway
Looking for an adventure in northern Idaho with charming towns, beautiful lakes and historic sites off the beaten track? Try taking a drive along the beautiful White Pine Scenic Byway.
Each year, millions of drivers rush across the Idaho Panhandle on Interstate 90, focused on the sights and attractions at either end of the state. Those who slow down and take the road less traveled — the 82-mile White Pine Scenic Byway — are in for a wonderful surprise.
White Pine Scenic Byway is named after the magnificent Idaho state tree that you see along the way. The road weaves through remote towns, stunning lakes and over wild rivers. You will pass through former mining and logging country and run across the oldest surviving building in the state. Don’t blink on the road to the historic mill town of Potlatch or you could miss the tiny unincorporated areas of Harvard and Princeton.
If you start White Pine Scenic Byway from the west on I-90, your road trip should kick off near Cataldo, Idaho. Cataldo is a small town with a rich history. Resting near the Coeur d’Alene River, the main draw to the area is Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park.
On the grounds of the park, you can wander around the Mission of the Sacred Heart, also known as the Cataldo Mission. Built from 1850–53, this is believed to be the oldest standing building in Idaho. The church is truly unique. Inside, the walls are decorated with fabric bought from the Hudson’s Bay Co. and hand-painted newspapers. Tin cans create the look of fancy chandeliers, while wooden statues carved by hand mimic the look of marble.
After taking in the sights of the mission, head farther down the Dredge Road to a fishing access spot along the Coeur d’Alene River. This is a calm and scenic place, great for relaxing and looking for wildlife.
The ponds north of this spot on I-90 are also great. Once you’ve seen what there is to see around Cataldo, head west on I-90 or East Canyon Road to the junction with state Highway 3 and the start of the southbound stretch of White Pine Scenic Byway.
The Road to St. Maries
Heading south on Highway 3, the first small community you encounter is Rose Lake. The main draw is the trailhead to the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The 73-mile paved trail spans the Idaho Panhandle, weaving through the old mining area of the Silver Valley alongside Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Coeur d’Alene River until it reaches its end at Plummer, a city of about 1,000 people located in the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. This is a truly spectacular biking route and worth an adventure on its own.
Past the trailhead the road meanders southward, passing farmland broken up by marshes and small lakes. At Medicine Lake and Cave Lake, take South Medimont Road to East Rainy Hill Road, where Rainy Hill Campground and lake views await.
After the lakes the road keeps weaving, snaking between forests and farmland. As the road nears the St. Joe River, a turn down Round Lake Road brings you to the Coeur d’Alene River Wildlife Management Area. Near the end of the road, find Birds of Prey Northwest, one of the many organizations helping to protect the birds of prey in the region. Past these stops, the road mirrors the movement of the St. Joe River until it reaches the delightful little town of St. Maries.
St. Maries sits along the confluence of the St. Marie and St. Joe rivers, where loggers flocked at the start of the 1900s. Today the small town still is busy, as it serves as the jumping-off point to the wild and pretty St. Joe River region. Up this way, find another scenic highway, one that crests the ridges and drops into Montana. If you have time, take this road and discover the beauty along this high-climbing highway along one of Idaho’s wildest rivers.
Giant White Pine
After St. Maries, you soon reach the White Pine forest. Four miles after entering the enveloping woods, the road climbs to a crest at the Palouse Divide Lodge and Nordic Ski Area. In the winter, this underrated gem is a fantastic place to get your turns in the St. Joe National Forest. In the summer, this is a great place to relax and wander in the woods. A more established spot to soak in the stunning sights is the Giant White Pine Campground and Trailhead.
The area was named after a towering 600-year-old white pine. The incredible tree has been cut down due to disease, but don’t worry. You still can see the massive giant on its side. You can stay at the 14-site campground in the towering old growth forest, hike the scenic trails through the woods and to beaver dams, or sit under the trees and enjoy a picnic.
Six miles south of the awesome sights at Giant White Pine Campground and Trailhead, find Laird Park. Located on Palouse River Road, Laird Park is a scenic spot to picnic and take in the views of the Palouse River. Here in the woods, the 167-mile river is hardly recognizable compared to the one that hurdles over Palouse Falls, Washington state’s official waterfall, 109 miles away.
On the Road to Potlatch
The final 8 miles of White Pines Scenic Byway may just be the smartest stretch of road in America. It isn’t every day that you can pass through both Harvard and Princeton. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss them. Despite having the same names as the famous Ivy League college towns, neither of these two is large at all.
Harvard, named after Harvard University, has a little more than 200 people. The town of Princeton, named after an early settler who was from Princeton, Minnesota, has fewer than 200 residents.
After the tiny towns, arrive at Potlatch, the terminus of the north-to-south route of White Pine Scenic Byway. Potlatch started as a company town that was owned and operated by the local mill.
Opening in 1906, the sawmill was believed to be the largest white pine mill in the world. In 1981 the mill closed, and now Potlatch is largely a commuter town for people working at the universities in Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington. Although the town’s mill days are long gone, Potlatch’s fascinating history can be discovered at the Potlatch Historical Society Museum at City Hall.
–Written by Douglas Scott
–Top photo from VISIT Idaho
This article appears in the 2022 Summer Edition of AAA Washington’s member magazine, Journey.