Come summer, the mountains of the Inland Northwest offer a surfeit of high-elevation locations to escape the heat. But the forested foothills and meandering Pend Oreille River in northeast Washington’s Pend Oreille County offer a quick, quiet getaway for seekers of shade, historical landmarks, empty trails and roadside adventure.
Pend Oreille River Manresa Grotto
North of Usk on the Kalispel Reservation, a sign reading simply that “A beautiful grotto exists” marks the entrance to one of the tribe’s most sacred places. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and open to the public, the natural cave system at Manresa Grotto was the site of early Catholic missionary efforts in the region. A gentle path no more than 100 yards long approaches the main cave, where rows of flat rocks arranged as seats face a simple altar of mortared rock. Explorers can wander the myriad side paths to access smaller caves, all with peek-a-boo views of the Pend Oreille River. Unusual patterns of divots and dimples in the walls give evidence to the caves’ creation millennia ago, when wind-driven waves coming off a glacial lake in the Pend Oreille Valley carved concavities into the soft rock. More recently, decades of ill-bred visitors have carved their names, but please refrain from damaging this special place.
Camas Center for Community Wellness/Bison Watching
Nearby, in the town of Usk, the Kalispel Tribe’s Camas Center for Community Wellness is an impressive testament to the relative small reservation’s investment in the community. Members of the public can purchase day passes for access to the four swimming pools, which can be a nice change of pace on a multi-day family camping trip, especially when foul weather rolls in. Also, just to the south of the center lies the tribe’s herd of around 100 bison that graze on about 600 acres between the highway and the river. The bison provide many resources for the tribe and make for a fun road-side “wildlife” watching stop.
Heading south from Usk, drive back toward Newport on LeClerc Road. This backroad alternative to Highway 20 passes among lilypad-bedecked ponds and the pine-dotted foothills of exposed rock that comprise the southernmost Selkirks.
Bead Lake Hiking/Picnic Stop
For a mountain lake feel minutes from the river, turn off LeClerc Road toward Bead Lake. Although it sits at just shy of 3,000 feet in elevation, Bead Lake boasts a rocky, alpine-like shoreline much different from its brushy, low-elevation lake kin. Singletrack traces the northeast side of the deceptively long shoreline – the lake is Pend Oreille County’s second largest – with few ups and downs and near-constant views. The trail eventually climbs well above the lake for an 11-mile out-and-back, but with no single must-see destination, the hike makes for an ideal kid- and dog-friendly stroll; wander as little or as long as you like. Several undeveloped campsites invite picnicking in the shade of tall cedars. If you bring bikes, it also makes for an excellent mountain bike ride with loop options using forest service road.
Historic Stop in Downtown Newport
Further south in downtown Newport is the final stop for this road trip: the Pend Oreille County Historical Society and Museum. An old train depot houses the gift shop and displays of old photos and pioneer wares, but it’s the more than half a dozen intact pioneer cabins, several of which visitors can enter, that set the museum apart. Kids especially will enjoy the Claire Howe Schoolhouse, complete with student desks, a blackboard and books. Adults will duck into the Settler’s Cabin and Hunter’s Cabin and wonder if they could survive in dwellings that put today’s tiny-house movement to shame. A replica of a fire lookout tower constructed using Forest Service blueprints stands sentinel over the grounds, which are constantly growing with additions to the museum’s holdings. For a final cooldown, cross the street from the museum to Owen’s Grocery, Deli & Soda Fountain. The expansive, airy interior seems transported from a bygone decade, complete with jars of dime-store candy on the long wooden bar. Owen’s makes its own ice cream; huckleberry is hard to pass up. //