Idaho's lake country

Make a summer escape to the West's most beautiful lakes

Caroline Patterson

The lakes of northern Idaho ― Coeur d'Alene, Pend Oreille, and Priest ― are deep, blue, and busy. Scooped out during the Ice Age, the lakes now float yachts and kayaks. On the green shores, towns draw visitors to high-end resorts, restaurants, and lakefront bicycle trails.

Each lake has its legend: Native Americans told stories of monsters in Coeur d'Alene Lake; another monster, the Pend Oreille Paddler, is rumored to inhabit Lake Pend Oreille; and Priest Lake is linked to 1920s actress and filmmaker Nell Shipman, who established a wilderness movie studio in what is now Lionhead State Park.

And each lake has a distinct personality. As my family (husband, son, and daughter) and I discover, Coeur d'Alene Lake is bustling with boaters, golfers, and resorts.

Further north, Lake Pend Oreille is grayer and deeper, and easygoing Sandpoint, on its northern shore, provides a more intimate, small-town experience.

Square in the panhandle, Priest Lake offers calm water, thick cedar forests, and seclusion ― with huckleberry pie to boot.

Logging mills to links: Coeur d'Alene Lake
When French trappers came through this area about 200 years ago, they called the native people Coeur d'Alene ― "awl heart" ― so impressed were they by the tribe's sharp trading skills. Eventually, Coeur d'Alene the town became known for logging and mining, and for more than a century it was a gritty place. No more. Now the lake and the town draw golfers and boaters from Seattle and Los Angeles. As my kids and I bicycle the 24-mile North Idaho Centennial Trail, which runs along the lake, we see a shoreline dominated by the 18-story Coeur d'Alene Resort, with its 3,000-foot-long, geranium-lined boardwalk and yacht-filled marina. There's also an 18-hole golf course with a floating green at the 14th hole.

Down at Coeur d'Alene City Park, a carnival atmosphere prevails: A man in a muscle shirt walks a Pekingese dog, a bride and groom pose for pictures, and families, like ours, dip their feet into the cool water. At nearby Independence Point, we board the Coeur d'Alene to tour the 25-mile long, 120-foot-deep lake as the breeze whips our hair and osprey dive into the water. (Another option is to see the lake by air, on one of Grant Brooks's seaplane tours ― these include 20-minute flights over Lake Coeur d'Alene, and longer trips over Lake Pend Oreille and other nearby lakes.)

We end our day sauntering along Sherman Avenue (named for General William Tecumseh Sherman, the namesake of the fort that is now City Park), with its art galleries and espresso shops. We are tempted by the Huddy burgers at Hudson's downtown, but daunted by the crowds ― so instead we choose a lake view and slow-roasted prime rib at the tony Cedars Floating Restaurant.

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