If we had flown, it would only have taken one hour. However, we would have missed out on three days of making lifelong memories. If we had flown, North Idaho would just be another nondescript part of the map. Instead, the panhandle is a place we can describe in vivid detail. Our friend marrying her childhood sweetheart may be the best decision of her life. Roadtripping to their Coeur d’Alene wedding from Western Washington may be one of our family’s best decisions.
After several hours driving through Washington, we were happy to leave I-90 for the path less traveled, the Lake Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway. Our family loves to cycle, so it seemed just wrong not to take advantage of every cyclist’s dream: the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes. A paved bike path in a city park is a nice touch. But a 73-mile-long paved bike path paralleling a national forest, spanning a 3,100-foot-long historic wooden bridge and connecting quaint small towns—with plenty of idyllic countryside and wildlife sightings in between—is a national treasure.
After setting up camp at Beauty Bay Campground near Harrison, we headed into town to rent bikes and fuel up on homemade “in-season” huckleberry ice cream and fresh fudge. Then, we began pedaling at a relaxing rhythm, only possible when you don’t have to worry about sharing the road with motorized vehicles. Still, that’s not to say we didn’t encounter others along the path. In fact, not long after spotting an osprey nest on the river, we passed a cyclist with a pan strapped to her bike’s panniers. “Is she planning on cooking a fish she catches?” our 9-year-old, Layla, asked. Laughing, her dad explained that the cyclist was probably hoping to find the mother lode.
The next day we decided to explore the St. Joe River Scenic Byway. This 89-mile detour turned out to be a destination in itself. For starters, we saw more wildlife—everything from towering moose to great egrets—in two hours than some city dwellers see in a lifetime. I couldn’t explain the difference between a deer and an elk, other than to say the latter is bigger. Still, I determined the bear we spotted while driving was a black bear. “Duh, Mom,” the kids said—torn between rolling their eyes at me and keeping them glued to the bundle of dark fur climbing a cottonwood tree in the distance. Along the drive we also “I Spy-ed” fishermen, rafters and even a tugboat hauling a load of timber.
Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area was the perfect place to stop and stretch our legs along this byway. First, hiking here transported us to an enchanted forest that could be the setting of any Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Then, it offered a glimpse of life in a 20th Century logging camp. We even stumbled upon an abandoned steam donkey, once used to transport logs. It seemed ancient—until you remembered the surrounding trees were just seedlings when Christopher Columbus came to America.
Nicknamed the “Gem State,” Idaho is filthy rich when it comes to valuable rocks and minerals. So our final stop for the day was the Emerald Creek Garnet Area.
“Idaho and India are the only places in the world where you can find these rare star garnets,” explained the park ranger. She handed us shovels and buckets before explaining how to use the sifting screens and sluice box. “Your goal is to find one of these,” she said, reaching into her pocket. The tiny star garnet looked like a precious ruby. When polished, it was the color of a pomegranate seed. “We’re supposed to find one of those in that?” the kids asked, pointing at the huge pile of excavated dirt where all the other rock hounders were filling their shovels. I nodded, happy to know this unique activity could entertain our prospective prospectors for hours.
That night, when we arrived at Giant White Pine Campground, we didn’t even attempt to count the rings on the 600-year-old white pine tree on display. “I think that’s the oldest dead thing I’ve ever seen,” our 7-year-old, Kai, announced. I was impressed by its record-breaking size and age. But even more impressive was the fact we’d made it to our campsite and the kids were noticing nature before insisting on s’mores.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But in North Idaho, meandering is straight up mandatory. We’d learned this by day three of our trip, and we fully embraced it as we drove up White Pine Scenic Byway the last morning before the wedding. Instead of traffic, trees flanked us on both sides. In fact, the second our SUV’s tires hit the pavement, we could have been crowned king of lane. Road royalty or not, those miles winding through Idaho’s timber country were beyond humbling.
We stopped several times to stretch our legs and take pictures, the kids trying to wrap their arms around trees almost as wide as our car. At one of the stops, my husband and I noticed the kids studiously digging through the dirt, searching for garnets with laser focus. We let them have at it, enjoying a little time to talk just the two of us. When it was time to load back into the car, Kai hesitated. “We haven’t hit the mother lode yet,” he said.
Yes, we have, I thought. We’d discovered North Idaho.