My North Idaho Hometown Is A Hidden Gem

Tripoto
Photo of Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

The mountainous area of north Idaho may not be the first place on your vacation wish list. Most likely that’s because you’ve never heard of Sandpoint or the beautiful scenery of Idaho’s Rocky Mountains or Lake Pend Oreille, the largest freshwater lake in the US west of the Mississippi River.

Looking north at the Cedar Street Bridge on Sand Creek

Photo of Bridge Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

With a population of about 7,500 Sandpoint is just 63 miles south of the Canadian border. Make no mistake though, this mountain lake town is 100% red-blooded American but does draw a significant amount of tourists from Canada during both the summer and winter seasons.

My hometown of Sandpoint displays four distinct seasons with the winter and summer months being the most popular. And while I look out my window right now to piles of snow and the temperature gradually rising I look forward to seeing my hometown in the summer again.

Sandpoint in the summer is a hidden gem from the rest of the world. Often the only time people hear about Sandpoint, Lake Pend Oreille or north Idaho in general is when a friend or relative from there tells them about it or invites them there for the weekend. But once you visit this place you’ll always want to return.

Looking north toward Sandpoint from the south end of the Long Bridge.

Photo of Long Bridge Grill, Sagle, ID, United States by Steve Carter

The summer months are mild, though there is plenty of sun to be had. The vast mountains surrounding Lake Pend Oreille shield the sun throughout the day, as does the abundance of trees and foliage to help cool you off. And if you need further chilling Lake Pend Oreille is so vast and deep that it stays a rather chilling temperature even in the dead heat of July or August.

Getting There / Getting Around

Although Sandpoint does have an airport it’s a small regional airport that you cannot book direct travel to online. The nearest commercial airport is in Spokane, Washington about 76 miles away. If you don’t know anyone in the area then you will most likely need to rent a car at the airport for your stay.

There also are not any major bus lines that have stops in Sandpoint. The nearest Greyhound bus stop is in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho about 40 miles south of Sandpoint.

Amtrak offers train travel to and from Sandpoint. My aunt and uncle have used this option many times to visit north Idaho from western Washington. The train depot in Sandpoint is a local historical landmark right next to City Beach with pick-up and drop-off services offered daily, although not normally until late at night.

The recently remodeled Sandpoint Train Station

Photo of Amtrak Station - SPT, Railroad Avenue, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

The best and most reliable option to get to Sandpoint and explore the surrounding area is to drive. In many big cities throughout the US and the world not having a car is a viable travel option, but Sandpoint is off the beaten path and the surrounding area is just too large to get by without one.

Once you’ve made it to Sandpoint though, your transportation requirements will be based on what you plan on doing. If you would just like to explore downtown (which takes up a few square blocks) and hang out at City Beach then all you need is a good pair of shoes. There are also several bicycle shops in town that have good deals on buying or renting bikes. Greasy Fingers on 3rd Avenue and Pine Street is easy to find and has some good deals.

Where to Stay

Since Sandpoint is a tourist destination many different options for where to stay have risen over the last few decades. Of course you can look on travel websites like Travelocity.com to find different hotel or motel options. The Seasons at City Beach is only a few years old and is Sandpoint’s most recent hotel/condo, but it’s going to set you back about $400 a night in the middle of the summer. You can also find budget friendly motels for about $60 a night during the week on the outer edges of town, which means you’re maybe five or ten minutes from downtown because Sandpoint isn’t a big city at all.

My personal suggestion is the Edgewater Resort located at City Beach right next to The Seasons. During peak season in the summer it costs about $220 a night during the week and about $240 a night on the weekend. For the price though this is absolutely the best location to stay in town. You’re on the beach and within a five minute walk to the rest of downtown, which is really convenient if you plan on going out for a few local beers later in the evening.

Driving down Bridge Street to the City Beach.

Photo of Bridge Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Sandpoint City Beach on a sunny summer afternoon.

Photo of Sandpoint City Beach Park, Bridge Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Another option that has grown in popularity is Airbnb.com where you can find bedrooms or entire homes for rent. You can also find some unique stays around Sandpoint such as a tipi on the beach for $80 a night. Or if you’re traveling with a large group there are also plenty of large cabins around the lake that can hold lots of people.

When to Visit

The summer season in Sandpoint is generally between early May and the end of September. Lost in the 50’s is a classic car show that takes up all of downtown for one weekend in early May and I’ve always considered this weekend the official start to Sandpoint’s summer, although the exact dates of the event can vary by a week or two each year.

Lake Pend Oreille won’t be warm enough to swim in May. Some years the lake isn’t even to its normal summer level as that’s controlled by the dams regulating water flow in and out of the lake. There are MANY other smaller lakes in the area that should be fine for swimming in May though. Round Lake and Mirror Lake are easily accessed from Sandpoint and are great spots for camping.

By the end of September the days are still hot but the water has begun to cool. As the days grow shorter the sun’s exposure on the lake grows less and less. The local kids have also gone back to school so morning and afternoon commutes definitely see an increase in traffic. Some restaurants in the area are also getting ready to close up and finish out their season.

So if you haven’t made it to Sandpoint for the summer yet you had better make plans, otherwise you will have to wait another eight months or so to experience summer in the Rockies. Unless you’re coming here for the fall, which is incredible! That story however will have to wait for another time.

Garfield Bay is another community around Lake Pend Oreille worth checking out.

Photo of Garfield Bay, Bonner County, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Bayview is on the south end of Lake Pend Oreille and well worth the drive.

Photo of Bayview, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Where to eat/drink

When I describe Sandpoint to someone who has never been I usually start with the food because there are so many good options. In downtown there are so many choices that you need a few days just to let your pallet explore.

Spuds outdoor seating deck overlooks the local marina.

Photo of Spuds Waterfront Grill, North First Avenue, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

My absolute favorite! A turkey basil sandwich paired with a huckleberry cream ale from Laughing Dog Brewery.

Photo of Spuds Waterfront Grill, North First Avenue, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Atop the list of my favorites is Spuds (go figure a restaurant in Idaho being named after a potato). Although their location and ownership has changed a few times they’ve been a Sandpoint fixture for about 20 years. Their menu of soups, sandwiches and baked potatoes has influences of regional cuisine, southwestern favorites and Mediterranean creativity. They often have five or six soups made fresh daily that are absolutely divine. My choice when I visit has changed little in the 20 years I’ve been eating there. Each time I visit I order the turkey basil sandwich, made with fresh po’boy rolls, house-made basil mayonnaise and fresh rotisserie turkey. It’s not unusual that I order a second sandwich if I’m particularly hungry.

Another regular stop is 2nd Avenue Pizza where the pizza toppings are stacked a few inches high and weigh several pounds! They have a sign inside that says their pizzas take a little longer to cook because of all the toppings, so I’ve learned to call ahead when I’m driving back from Coeur d’Alene so that my pizza will be fresh and ready for pick-up about 40 minutes later.

The Loaf & Ladle has only been around for a few years but has quickly become a favorite of locals and tourists alike. They offer a menu of seasonally rotating items that are prepared at the peak of their growing as well as a rotating beer and wine selection. In the summer they also offer a happy hour menu on Tuesdays and Thursdays that offer discounted flat bread pizzas that are at the discretion of the chef. It’s really fun going in different weeks and tasting their latest flat bread creation.

Joe’s Philly Cheesesteaks and Joel’s Mexican on Church Street are also personal favorites. Joe’s had been here for about 10 years and Joel’s has been around for about 20 years, although he started in a small food truck a few blocks from his current location. Both are small shops that are super popular and super tasty bites. I would recommend either for lunch during a leisurely afternoon through downtown.

There are two breweries in the area that Sandpoint is known for. The first if Mick Duff’s with a restaurant and brew pub located on 1st Avenue and a beer hall located on Cedar Street. Mick Duff’s beer is brewed at the beer hall but all their beer is available at both locations. I always enjoy stopping by either location when I have an afternoon with nothing planned. I’ll try any beer they brew, but their blonde is my favorite.

The other brewery Sandpoint is known for is Laughing Dog Brewing located a few miles out in Ponderay just outside of Sandpoint. Laughing Dog has changed locations a few times to expand their growing operation. In 2016 they moved again and built a brand new tasting room with all their selections. Personally I really like their huckleberry cream ale. The last time I visited dogs were also welcome so it’s not uncommon to find a few friendly critters among the beer lovers.

Thing to do

Sandpoint provides a well-centered base for excursions beyond the city or staying in town and checking out the hotels and restaurants.

I mentioned Lost in the 50’s earlier. It’s the largest classic car show in the northwest and happens each May. It’s a must-see for any classic car enthusiast. I remember the show with I was younger being no larger than the downtown parking lot. Now the show takes up several blocks of downtown to just display the classic cars.

Hundreds of cars and thousands of enthusiasts gather each year for the Lost in the 50's car show.

Photo of Cedar Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

It takes hours to see all the cars for Lost in the 50's.

Photo of Cedar Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

There are classic cars to suit all tastes at Lost in the 50's.

Photo of West Third Avenue, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Each August Memorial Field on the south side of town hosts The Festival at Sandpoint. It’s several weeks of live music that have included local area symphonies and acts such as the Beach Boys and Ben Harper. Many people travel from all over the country to see the festival while locals living near Memorial Field can hear the event each summer without paying admission.

Lake Pend Oreille is the largest draw in the summer. Besides the beaches and communities all around the lake to enjoy there are several rental companies in town that offer kayaks, jet skis and boats to rent. Action Water Sports located on 1st Avenue can get you whatever you need for the water. I also went school with the owners so they would be my first choice to rent from.

The mountains never stop calling, whether it’s the summer, fall or winter. During the summer months the mountains make a perfect getaway any given day to get away from all the tourists flooding Sandpoint. All around Lake Pend Oreille there are thousands of miles of roads and trails to explore. My personal favorite area is on the east side of the lake where I not only found some awesome hiking trails but also some great spots to find huckleberries and some waterfalls (which I also included in my article titled Waterfalls of North Idaho).

High in the mountains is perfect for getting lost, or finding huckleberries.

Photo of Trestle Creek Road, Hope, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Char Falls flows all summer long and is perfect to get away for an afternoon.

Photo of Char Falls, Bonner County, Idaho, United States by Steve Carter

Grouse Creek Falls does make for some beautiful pictures!

Photo of Grouse Creek Falls, Bonner County, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Huckleberries are definitely an Idaho treasure!

Photo of Grouse Creek Falls, Bonner County, ID, United States by Steve Carter

I go where the huckleberries take me!

Photo of Grouse Creek Falls, Bonner County, ID, United States by Steve Carter

There are a couple golf courses in the area that have different ranges of difficulty. Most of the summer my dad can be found out at The Elks Golf Course in Ponderay if he’s having a slow day or just wants to get out of the office. On the weekends we tend to drive north to the Mirror Lake Golf Course in Bonners Ferry that has longer fairways and varying terrain. There's usually an Australian Sheppard patrolling the golf course to keep it free of Geese.

The Sandpoint Elks Golf Course is just north of town and less crowded during the week in the summer.

Photo of Sandpoint Elks Golf Course, Idaho 200, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

About an hour north of Sandpoint near Bonners Ferry is the Mirror Lake Golf Course and a great change of pace.

Photo of Mirror Lake Golf Course, Naples, Boundary County, ID, United States by Steve Carter

The Farmers Market is a normal stop for my mom and I when we want to find some fresh produce during the summer. The market is open mid-May through early October and is open every Saturday and Wednesday. The produce offered changes weekly as the growing season evolves quite rapidly in north Idaho in the summer. And in addition to the goods offered in the market the Oak Street Food Court next to the market offers some great eats also. My mom’s favorite is the veggie burger at The Old Tin Can.

The Sandpoint Farmers Market is a regulat event each Wednesday and Saturday in the summer.

Photo of Farmin Park, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

The Farmers Market offers an abundance of fresh produce.

Photo of Farmin Park, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

The Oak Street Food Court is open each Saturday with the Farmers Market and offers a great variety.

Photo of Oak Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Schweitzer Ski Resort is a twenty-minute drive up the mountain from Sandpoint and is also open in the summer for hiking, dining, shopping and other activities. I like attending the Fall Festival usually scheduled for the first weekend in September. It’s a beer festival wrapping up the summer season with dozens of beer selections on tap with live music and an array of food options. Though normally it’s on a sunny weekend it can be a bit chilly in the shade being so far up the mountain. It’s best to arrive early and beat the crowds so you can easily find parking.

The signs couldn't be any clearer!

Photo of Selkirk Lodge @ Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

The view from the top couldn't be much better at the annual Fall Festival.

Photo of Selkirk Lodge @ Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

A Few Tips

Get up early! Yes the summer months have lots of light and you can see most things into the evening, but the daybreak across Lake Pend Oreille and the Selkirk Mountains is absolutely stunning! And the majority of people visiting the area will be sleeping in, so it’s great to get out and into the mountains first before anyone else.

Definitely get up early for the views!

Photo of Sandpoint City Beach Park, Bridge Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Sometimes words can't describe how awesome my hometown is.

Photo of Sandpoint City Beach Park, Bridge Street, Sandpoint, ID, United States by Steve Carter

Do ask the locals about where to go, where to eat and what to see. Most of the best places to visit, whether in town or up in the mountains aren’t going to be found on Google. Someone who has grown up on the lake and explored the mountains beyond cell phone coverage is going to be your best guide. And nowhere online will you be able to find out where the good huckleberry picking places are.

Sunset over Sandpoint, as seen from the town of Hope on the east side of Lake Pend Oreille.

Photo of Hope, ID, United States by Steve Carter
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