Not long ago, a traffic jam in downtown Sandpoint meant more than one moose on Main Street. This eclectic enclave of loggers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts sits at the midpoint of a lonely two-lane road that cuts through the wilderness at the very tip of the Idaho Panhandle. Just 60 miles shy of the Canadian border, the town seemed geographically immune to the commercial speculation that overtook (and some say overran) Coeur d'Alene just an hour due south.
But ever since Schweitzer, Sandpoint's locally owned (and Idaho's second largest) ski resort, was rescued from bankruptcy, the spectacle of idle ungulates has been replaced by the specter of idling SUVs. So much so that there's been talk about building a freeway and a bypass.
For now it's just talk, and the two-hour drive from Spokane still culminates in a moment of magic on old Highway 95—the crossing of Long Bridge. Northbound vehicles typically burst from the forest, then crawl for two miles as drivers, noses to the windshield, absorb the jaw-dropping majesty of the snowcapped Selkirks and Cabinets ringing Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced pond-or-RAY). This inspirational blue-within-blue inland sea teeming with game fish is nearly as long as Lake Ontario and deeper than Loch Ness. Locals have even spotted a resident lake monster, although naysayers believe the Pend Oreille Paddler is just a giant sturgeon.
Once in Sandpoint, you get the sense that you've driven right off the map and landed in a frontier town. At its rugged 19th-century heart, the town hasn't changed all that much since 1881 when Robert Weeks opened his general store, Sandpoint's first business. Two years later, settlers arrived en masse on the freshly laid tracks of the Northern Pacific Railway.
Sandpoint is still a major rail hub, with more than 50 trains, including the vintage 1950s passenger train Montana Daylight, daily rumbling past or stopping at the restored depot on the banks of Sand Creek. The span of the Cedar Street Bridge connects the depot with dozens of stores, galleries, and restaurants crowding Cedar Street and First Avenue.
The Cedar Street Bridge, modeled after the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, also houses the flagship clothing retail outlet of Sandpoint's largest employer, Coldwater Creek. Many visitors never make it beyond the bridge. This split-level concourse of hand-hewn tamarack and other timber is home to five separate stores devoted to each of Coldwater Creek's specialty catalogs. There's also an espresso bar, a deli, and a teak-paneled wine bar with a selection of 49 of the finest wines around (including the Pend d'Oreille Winery's award-winning Bistro Rouge—fermented, aged, and bottled right in town). Cozy leather chairs overlook Sand Creek and Schweitzer Mountain in the distance.
Just 11 miles outside of town, the 6,400-foot peak is blanketed each year with more than 300 inches of some of the most desirable champagne powder in the West. With 2,500 acres of skiable terrain, including 58 downhill runs, a half-pipe for snowboarders, a hill for tubing, and more than 20 miles of groomed Nordic trails, Schweitzer is as big as Colorado's Copper Mountain. Yet since the mountain opened in the 1960s, Sandpointers have virtually had it all to themselves. And for that reason, they nearly lost it.
In late 1998, however, a Seattle-based developer bought the financially strapped resort and, seeing the underdeveloped mountain as the next Whistler, began a serious makeover.
The rooms in the Selkirk Lodge (formerly the Green Gables, an Austrian-style chalet) now feature rustic hickory furniture, cast-iron fixtures, and framed black-and-white prints by Sandpoint's own Ansel Adams, the late Ross Hall.
The resort offers only one full-service sit-down restaurant, the Chimney Rock Grill. Its motto: "Simple food done insanely well." You'll be crazy about their rib-eye steak topped with Gorgonzola butter or roasted salmon in a Moroccan lavender glaze.
Off the mountain, the restaurants most frequented by locals include Slates, a pool hall known for its prime rib, and the Hoot Owl, a roadside log diner that serves breakfast and has tractor seats for stools. Ivano's, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in a romantic fir-shrouded cottage, is about as fancy as eating out in Sandpoint gets. Ivano's signature dish: pollo Ivano—chicken stuffed with fontina cheese and prosciutto in a tomato brandy sauce.
If you visit Schweitzer on April 7 or 8, you're sure to hear the sound of Bob Marley wailing while skiers in grass skirts swarm over the mountain and order tropical drinks at bars carved out of snowbanks. And let's not forget kayakers shooting the gates of the giant slalom. Don't worry. Be happy. It's the Caribbean Carnival, an end-of-season tradition.
After the carnival, the lodge remains open but deserted. That is, until the lift begins running again on June 30 for summer guests.
In other words, it's a perfect time to come. While the snow melts on Schweitzer, there's plenty to do below the tree line, from navigating the water hazards at Hidden Lakes Golf Resort to camping among the hemlocks and cedars at Round Lake State Park. Those with energy to burn will find the backcountry of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest perfect for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
And, of course, fishing.
Who knows, you might even spot the Pend Oreille Paddler. If you happen to hook him, just keep in mind that lake monsters, like the protected bull trout, are definitely catch-and-release.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are area code 208 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Idaho, Montana, Wyoming TourBook and Idaho/Montana map. For more information on the Sandpoint area, contact the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, 263-2161, (800) 800-2016, www.sandpointchamber.com. For information on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, contact the Sandpoint Ranger District, 263-5111,www.fs.fed.us/ipnf.
WHERE TO STAY
Coit House Bed & Breakfast, 502 N. Fourth Ave. 265-4035. A restored 1907 Victorian manor with five rooms from $75 to $95.
Schweitzer Mountain Bed & Breakfast, 110 Crystal Ct. 265-8080, www.schweitzermtnbb.com. Austrian-style chalet with five guest rooms from $120 to $195.
Selkirk Lodge, 10000 Schweitzer Mountain Rd. 265-0257, (800) 831-8810,www.schweitzer.com. Eighty-two rooms with views of either Schweitzer Mountain or Lake Pend Oreille from $69 to $399.
Round Lake State Park, off U.S. 95, 10 miles south of Sandpoint. 263-3489,www.idahoparks.org. Fifty-three first come, first served developed campsites for $12 per night.
Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, 1413 Upper Gold Creek Rd., 16 miles northeast of Sandpoint. 263-9066, www.westernpleasureranch.com Six-room log lodge, plus three private cabins with woodstoves, on a 960-acre cattle ranch. Rates from $85 to $115.
WHERE TO EAT
Chimney Rock Grill, Selkirk Lodge, 265-0257.
The Hydra, 115 Lake St. 263-7123. Popular lunch and dinner buffets as well as seafood, pasta, and steak selections.
The Hoot Owl Cafe, 110 Hwy. 200 E., Ponderay, 265-9348.
Ivano's, 124 S. Second Ave. 263-0211. Italian cuisine.
Panhandler Pies, 120 S. First Ave. 263-2912. Home-style cooking, plus 21 different homemade pies.
Power House Bar & Grill, 120 E. Lake St. 265-2449. Seafood, chicken, and pasta specialties.
Red Martin Vegetarian Cafe, 330 N. First Ave., 263-0369. Vegetarian dishes.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Schweitzer Mountain Resort, 10000 Schweitzer Mountain Rd. 263-9555, (800) 831-8810, www.schweitzer.com. Lift tickets $10-$37. Cross-country skiing, sleigh rides, snowshoeing.
Montana Daylight, (888) 533-7245, www.montanarailtours.com. Scenic three-day train ride from Sandpoint to Livingston, Mont. Trains run July-September.
Pend d'Oreille Winery, 1067 Baldy Industrial Park Rd. 265-8545, www.powine.com. Tastings and tours Tuesday-Saturday.
Hidden Lakes Golf Resort, 89 Lower Pack River Rd. 263-1642, (888) 806-6673,www.hiddenlakesgolf.com. Open after April 1.
Bonner County Historical Museum, 611 S. Ella Ave. 263-2344. Native American artifacts and dioramas of the county's pioneer past.
Photography by Dick O'Neill and illustration by Dave Stevenson
This article was first published in March 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.