Before winter is over, take a break from the thrills of the slopes and spend some time exploring a few great snowshoeing areas in the winter wonderland of North Idaho. While lower elevations often get more rain than snow, or little to no precipitation at all, there is always enough snow in the mountains this time of year for a snowshoe trek. Snowshoeing is one of the most accessible winter activities, and just about anyone can have fun doing it with minimal gear or experience required. While snowshoeing is easier on groomed routes like snowmobile trails or other groomed trails designated for snowshoers, a person with snowshoes on their feet is not limited to designated trails but are free to wander through the mountains in pursuit of peace and quiet, wildlife sign, or stellar scenery wherever the snow and their abilities will allow. However, being prepared and aware of your surroundings and conditions (including the weather and avalanche risk) is vital for your safety anytime you head out in the winter. This guide gives you basic information on some great places to explore and suggestions on gear and other safety precautions. Now get out there, have fun and enjoy this enchanting country surrounding us!
When there is enough snow in Coeur d’Alene, the trails on Tubbs Hill downtown and Canfield Mountain on the northern edge of the town offer some fine snowshoeing options if you don’t have a lot of time. With easy access, short trails and varying terrain, you can get in some spontaneous shoeing without making it a full daytrip.
If the snow in the city is scarce, Fourth of July Ski and Snowshoe Area is just a few minutes east off I-90, with 12 miles of groomed ski trails, 5 miles of snowshoe trails and a Snowshoe Warming Hut about 2 miles down the Twisted Klister Trail. If you are up for a longer trek, consider making a night of it by shoeing six miles in to the Ian’s Eagle Warming Hut off the Eagle Run Trail. The Panhandle Nordic Cross-Country Ski and Snowshoe Club maintains much of the Fourth of July area, and their website (panhandlenordicclub.com) and Facebook page are a wealth of information, including maps, snow conditions, and warming hut and Park-N-Ski Permit information (permit stickers are $25 for a year or $7.50 for a 3-day pass).
Both Silver Mountain Resort and Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area rent snowshoes and provide groomed trails for snowshoers. In fact, at Silver, you can purchase a round trip gondola ride for just $17, spend the day on the back mountain trails and then ride back down to the lodge. The gondola is also pet-friendly, so your dogs can tag along in the snow with you!
One of the best views in the area on a clear winter day is from the top of the mountain across I-90 (north side) from Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area. An increasingly popular launching spot for snowshoers and backcountry skiers, this area doesn’t have a dedicated snowshoe trail, but there are roads and hillside routes for direct climbs up through the forest, and there are often ski or snowshoe tracks to follow up the mountain. Getting to the top for the best views could range from easy to difficult depending on snow depth and the route you choose. If you go out after a fresh snowfall, you may just get to forge your own trail through the snow-laden trees. Just be careful and informed – many places in the Silver Valley (especially the St. Regis Basin and Stevens Peak area on the south side of I-90) can pose significant avalanche risk. Parking in this area is limited on the north side of I-90, but you can also park at the ski area and walk back across the overpass.
Lake Pend Oreille and the surrounding mountains comprise some of the most picturesque scenery in North Idaho and offer some excellent snowshoeing options right out of Sandpoint. In town, the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail follows the waterfront for about 2 miles, stretching from Sandpoint’s City Beach to Black Rock and Ponder Point. Easily accessible and effortless to shoe, it is also dog friendly and lined with spectacular views (pobtrail.org). Depending on the snow level, the Pend d’ Oreille Bay Trail may be a winter hike instead of a snowshoe trek.
The McKinnick Trail just north of Sandpoint is a little more challenging, boasting an elevation of 4,300 feet for a total elevation gain of 2,150 feet. A popular scenic trail with excellent views of the lake and snowcapped peaks, it traverses 3.5 miles of trail (one-way) through 160 acres of rock outcroppings, snowy meadows and forest. Once private property, the land was donated to the US Forest Service in 1997. More info and directions at cityofsandpoint.com.
Finally, Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort (schweitzer.com) rents snowshoes and offers groomed trails just for snowshoers and Nordic skiers. While there is a $6 trail fee per person, these fun and relatively easy trails lead to dazzling views. Some popular routes include the old growth forest of Hermit’s Hollow and Schweitzer Ridge. Schweitzer also offers hosted snowshoe outings with knowledgeable guides on the weekends. Stop in at the Activity Center (or call 208-255-3081) for trail and route details. There is both free and paid parking, depending on how far you’re willing to walk to the trails.
A little off the beaten path, Priest Lake is a hidden gem with plenty of snowshoeing possibilities along the lake and in the surrounding Selkirk Mountains. For starters, Elkins Resort (www.elkinsresort.com) and Hill’s Resort (www.hillsresort.com), both on the west side of the lake, offer cabins for rent and have snowshoeing routes and trails of varying difficulty right out their resort doors. Both Hills and Elkins also rent snowshoes and poles and can offer advice on the best routes to explore. There are easy routes along the lake, more challenging hills to climb for views, and at the nearby Hanna Flats Nordic trail system, several gentle loop options (and reportedly some old growth cedar trees too). More info on Priest Lake area Nordic trails and snowshoe routes at: parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/priest-lake
Snowshoe Gear: Buy, Rent, Borrow – Just Get Out There!
If you aren’t already geared up, I would suggest renting a few times first to see if it’s something you want to invest in. All the major North Idaho ski resorts rent snowshoes with poles for typically $15 a day. Some have hourly or multi-day rates as well. In addition to selling snowshoes and gear, these outdoor gear shops also rent snowshoes: Mountain Gear in Spokane ($15/day), Tri-State Outfitters in Coeur d’Alene ($15/day) and Sandpoint Sports in Sandpoint ($25/day).
What you wear matters. Wear synthetic clothing, not cotton, which, when it gets wet, stays wet and can put you in danger of hypothermia. Several thin layers are better than one thick layer and are better for ease of motion. Waterproof pants, jacket and gloves (ski or wet weather hiking clothing) are important, especially if you take a fall or it begins to snow. Breathable gear, like Gore-Tex, as well as wool, will help keep you warm (but not too hot) and dry. Finally, bring along a small backpack to carry your water, food, extra clothing, and other gear.
Weather and Safety
Avalanche risk can be high in the Silver Valley and Selkirk Mountains around Sandpoint and Priest Lake, so make sure you check for avalanche alerts and information through the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center and have the proper training and avalanche safety equipment if you venture into any questionable terrain. They also offer affordable and valuable avalanche safety and survival classes for all skill levels: idahopanhandleavalanche.org
When looking for a place to snowshoe, everyone wants to know how much snow there is. Depending on the terrain, 1.5 to 2 feet of snow is sufficient to embark on a good shoe trek. All the ski resorts in North Idaho update their websites and phone recordings with the current snow reports for their areas. Another resource is The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), offering comprehensive, up-to-date weather reports at www.noaa.gov.
When going out on the trails, it is always a good idea to map it out beforehand. This way, even if you do take a wrong turn, you have a decent sense of where you are going. To be extra safe, carry a compass or GPS with you and input your starting point and destination. And don’t shoe alone. Having someone with you is vital in case of an emergency.
Snowshoeing is exercise, so hydrating is important. Pack water, tea, protein snacks and other small items for refueling breaks along the trail. Packets of air activated hand warmers (like HotHands) and compact survival blankets (like Heatsheets) are small and lightweight and could make the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. A headlamp is also a useful item to have. You never know if the beauty of the great white outdoors is going to lure you too far to make it back before the sun sets.
Post Snowshoe Grub – Where to Go
Fire Artisan Pizza and Moon Time are my two top picks in Coeur d’Alene for post snowshoeing food and drink. Fire’s wood oven pizzas, high quality beer taps and impeccable wine selection make for a warm and comforting meal. Moon Time tap options are more extensive, but you can’t beat their Moon Burger, 74th St. Gumbo or Chicken Caesar Soft Taco.
Although both resorts have limited food choices that will do in a pinch, the best food spot in the Silver Valley is Wallace. I have two favorites: The Fainting Goat Wine Bar & Eatery and City Limits Pub. The Goat is a new addition to Wallace, but their affordable menu is pure comfort food, with a gourmet twist. Their cozy space features an Enomatic Wine Dispenser, and their beer and cider bottle selection is excellent. City Limits Pub is home to North Idaho Mountain Brewery and serves up exceptional pub fare, including Scotch Eggs and juicy burgers. I recommend their Loft Honey Pale Ale!
Schweitzer Mountain Resort is home to several eateries, and their accommodations are also stellar. However, I prefer to stop off in Sandpoint for a drink and a bite. While Idaho Pour Authority on Cedar is a great place to grab a pint or growler, Eichardt’s Pub across the street has a comprehensive menu and a lineup of outstanding local and regional taps. For a delectable pizza experience, stop in at Bab’s Pizzeria, just up from City Beach.
Priest Lake is a bit of a drive, so I like to stop off on the way in Priest River and grab a cup of DOMA coffee at the Beardmore Bistro on Main Street. On Priest Lake, both Elkins Resort and Hill’s Resort are home to gourmet, award-winning restaurants. For simpler fare, try the Nickelplate Restaurant in Nordman for home cooking and famous ribs, or Ardy’s Bakery & Café in Coolin. Although only open for breakfast and lunch during the week in the winter, Ardy’s also serves up some fabulous Thai food for dinner on the weekends.