Mountaintops and mines in the Silver Valley
On its surface, Wallace is an unassuming town in the Idaho panhandle. Nestled high in the silver-rich Bitterroot Mountains, you would never know that this historic mining town used to have more than a dozen brothels and was ravaged twice by wildfires.
In addition to mine tours and museums, Wallace offers year-round outdoor recreation, including all-season biking; skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling in the winter; and hiking, fishing and ziplining in the summer.
Whether you’re interested in adventures below the ground or above it, Wallace has something for everyone.
Small town charm
It’s what’s beneath the surface in Wallace that gives this scrappy town its claim to fame, despite the fact that the movie “Dante’s Peak” was filmed there. Wallace and its neighboring towns form the Silver Valley, also known as the silver capital of the world. Since mining operations began in the 1880s, more than 1 billion ounces of silver have been mined from the surrounding mountains — and there is still plenty left.
In 1979, city leaders got the entire downtown district placed on the National Register of Historic Places, preventing the federal government from building Interstate 90 through downtown. For years, the freeway ended on one end of Wallace and resumed on the other, forcing motorists to slowly detour through town. Today, a viaduct carries the coast-to-coast interstate along the north side of Wallace at highway speeds.
You won’t find chain restaurants within city limits. Instead, there are about a dozen locally-owned eateries and watering holes. You’ll find options like burgers and huckleberry milkshakes to street tacos and homemade Italian dishes.
Wallace is a skiers’ haven with two ski resorts within 20 miles: Lookout Pass (to the east) and Silver Mountain (to the west). For snowmobilers, there are more than 250 miles of groomed trails nearby. Check with the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center for snow safety and local conditions.
Cross-country skiers, snowshoers and fat-tire bicyclists find winter fun on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a 73-mile paved trail between Plummer, Idaho and Mullan, Idaho, with trailheads and parking along nearly the entire route. Birds and other wildlife can be seen along this trail all year.
Summer is the busiest time on the trail because its smooth asphalt is ideal for bicycles, e-bikes, in-line skaters, walkers and wheelchairs. Summer shuttles are available from Wallace at the Wallace Inn, or you can rent an e-bike from Cogs Spokehouse in downtown Wallace.
Bicycling enthusiasts will also appreciate the Route of the Hiawatha, which like the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is among the nation’s best trails on former railways. Route of the Hiawatha is 15 miles long and all downhill, beginning at Lookout Pass about 14 miles east of Wallace. Shuttles are available to drive you and your bike back to the top. Trail passes, shuttle tickets, and mountain bike rentals are available at Lookout Pass Ski Resort.
For a bird’s-eye view of Wallace and the Coeur d’Alene National Forest at sunset, ride the 1,000-foot-long dual zipline during Friday Night Flights at Silver Streak Zipline Tours (open May-November). Silver Streak will also add a downhill mountain bike trail with about 3 miles of newly cut trails through varying terrain.
Anglers will enjoy fly fishing for trout along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River or the St. Joe River. For local advice, gear and fishing licenses, visit the Wallace Ace Hardware in downtown.
For a mix of Idaho history and the outdoors, check out the Pulaski Tunnel Trail. About 5 minutes from Wallace, this popular hiking spot will take you to the Pulaski Tunnel, where Ed Pulaski saved all but six of his 45-man firefighting crew during the Great Fire of 1910.
Interpretive signs along the 4-mile-round-trip trail tell the story of the “calamitous summer of fire.” The Pulaski Tunnel Trail is less crowded during winter and another top snowshoeing spot. This trail is also great for huckleberry picking from mid-summer into September, but watch out for berry-loving black bears.
Summer offers the best opportunities for historical tourism. From May through October, you can explore a real silver mine on the Sierra Silver Mine Tour. Led by a retired miner, this 75-minute tour includes a trolley ride to and from the mine and a narrated tour of Wallace. The mine temperature is usually around 50 degrees, so be sure to bring a light jacket.
History buffs will love Wallace’s four museums, all downtown within walking distance of each other. There’s the Oasis Bordello Museum, Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum, the Wallace District Mining Museum and the Barnard-Stockbridge Museum, which opened in 2019. Check online for seasonal hours before you go.
–Written by Meredith Metsker
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