THE SNOW BELT AT Palouse Divide Nordic Ski Area is a recreational gem tucked into the Hoodoo Mountains atop a 3,600-foot pass in Idaho’s southern Benewah County. The groomed ski area and charming retreat center next door make this a rural destination worth checking out.
The trail s ystem straddles the border between the St. Joe and Clearwater National Forests where stands of towering evergreens periodically break into expansive views. You may see deer, elk, bear, moose and eagles while gliding silently along gently sloped trails that meander through stands of spruce, tamarack, hemlock and Douglas fir. The area is closed to motorized vehicles in winter.
Turnouts at Harvard Pass on Hwy. 6 signal your arrival at the ski area entrance. There are five trails to the east and three on the west. Dogs are welcome only on the west side where trails are not groomed. A nice choice for snowshoes, the initial climb may be a bit daunting for beginning skiers. Nevertheless, the first .4-mile is rated easy, and continues by bearing left to the 1.6-mile out-and-back Sampson Trail. Advanced trails climb to the right to views of the valleys and surrounding mountains.
The road on the east side leads to a small parking area, a large map and the trailhead. There are no public facilities here or along the trails, and it’s a Park ‘N Ski area, which requires a sticker so check the end of the article for permit contacts.
Pete Minard, a retired Forest service employee drives up from Orofino each Friday to groom and set track on about 8 miles of the 20-mile system. Since manpower and snow grooming equipment are at a premium, he focuses his efforts on Little Loop and Big Loop. They are appropriate for beginners but do include some short inclines. Those who prefer not to downhill on cross-country skis are advised to follow the suggested routes, which lead uphill on the steep parts.
All the trails are well marked. Stay to the right to reach Little Loop .7-miles from the trailhead. Head right to ski this trail in a counter-clockwise direction.
From the trailhead, bear left for Big Loop. “It has some pretty views off to the southeast and goes through some really nice woody sections where overhanging trees make a tunnel, but watch for icy spots through there,” Minard suggests. The scenic views and an uphill section are about three miles out.
At the junction a mile later, keep right to return to the trailhead.
A sharp left at the junction leads to the Palouse Divide Trail. Two miles of it belong to the Nordic trail system, which is groomed only if time and conditions allow.
It is seven miles from the junction to Bald Mountain, the highest point in the Hoodoos and home to a Forest Service lookout rental. The lookout is only available in summer but you can experience similar accommodations year-round at the Palouse Divide Lodge where Lane and Shirley Hathaway provide a lookout for their guests. They also offer a private cabin and numerous hostel-style rooms in the rustic lodge. Nutritious and wheat-free meals are served in the gathering hall, which is warmly decorated with locally made quilts and other homespun wares. There is also plenty of Nordic ski equipment for guests to use free. The place mainly caters to groups of 10 or more by reservation only and fills up fast, so plan well ahead.
On the way to the Palouse Divide, stop at the Drifters Western Bar & Grill in Emida to get the lowdown on local culture and a hearty breakfast. They open weekdays at 6 a.m., and 8 a.m. on weekends. Sample their homemade pies, gourmet mustards, ketchup and wild berry jams. The Drifters also has an upscale motor home for overnighters a mile uphill behind the restaurant. It is off the grid with solar panels, a generator and great views of the valley and Tyson Peak. This is the only overnight lodging in the immediate area, other than the Palouse Divide Lodge. See www.southlakecda.com/lodgings for contact information.
The ski area is funded through the Park ‘N Ski Pass system. It costs $7.50 a day or $25 annually. To get a permit call the Idaho parks department at 800-247-6332.
When You Go:
It’s 75 miles from Spokane if you go through St. Maries, which is the shortest and most scenic route. From Spokane, take the Palouse Highway from the South Hill to WA 27. From Spokane Valley take Pines south on WA-27. Turn left at Rockford onto WA-278, which leads to Idaho and joins Hwy 95 at the Coeur d’Alene Casino. Go south to Plummer and turn left onto winding Hwy 5 toward St. Maries. When you come to the ‘T’ in St Maries, turn left and stay on this road, which becomes the White Pine Scenic Byway (SR-3). Fourteen miles south of St. Maries turn right onto Hwy 6. From there it’s a straight shot to the pass. From Coeur d’Alene, the most direct route is I-90 to the Rose Lake exit onto SR-3.