You’ve probably never heard of Sandpoint, Idaho.
But the readers of USA Today/Rand McNally’s “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” survey have heard of it. They recently bestowed this honor on Sandpoint, a classic Old Northwest village in the Idaho Panhandle, just forty miles from the Canadian border.
It doesn’t take long to see why. As you cross the two-mile-long bridge over Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced “pond-a-ray”), surrounded by the snow-capped Selkirk Mountains, a village of restored wood and red-brick buildings filled with interesting shops, restaurants, and galleries awaits you on the other side.
This is a town with a truly majestic backdrop. The Selkirks rise up to 8,000 feet, and they’re blanketed by a layer of the thickest forest you’ve ever seen. And Lake Pend Oreille (a term coined by early French traders to describe the ear ornaments of the local Indians) is enormous – 43 miles long, 148 square miles, and 111 miles of shoreline dotted with beautiful inlets and coves, and silver-blue waters prime for boating, fishing, and recreational activities.
Sandpoint is one of those precious little towns where interesting people are doing interesting things. For example, there’s an independently-owned book shop (yes, they still exist here!) called The Corner Book Store, at 106 Main Street. It’s one of those shabby, cramped, maze-like places in which you could easily while away the hours, browsing shelves overflowing with great books you never thought you’d find. Just across Main Street is the classic 1927 Panida Theatre (short for PAN-handle and IDA-ho), built as a vaudeville house in 1927, and still used for movies, live theater, and concerts today. Take a look inside; you’ll marvel at this elegant period-piece.
Then there’s the Pend Oreille Winery, at 220 Cedar Street, where you can enjoy live music, award-winning wines created in the small factory in back, good small dishes, and great conversation with owners Steve and Julie Meyer, who’ll be happy to talk about their products. And just outside of town is Laughing Dog Brewery, owned by Fred and Michelle Colby, who produce award-winning craft beers here in the Selkirks (and whose brewery is named after their dog, Ben).
Sandpoint also has attractions that take full advantage of the majestic natural setting. Just outside of town, at the top of a 20-minute winding drive up into the mountains, is the Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort, where you can hike or take the scenic chairlift ride up to the top of Schweitzer Mountain (6,400’). Here, standing by the sign marking the Continental Divide, you can see three states (Idaho, Montana, and Washington) and two counties (the U.S. and Canada). And you can see, as well, Lake Pend Oreille in all its majesty, spread out before you in a hundred bays and inlets leading off toward Canada.
A couple of other noteworthy attractions are outside of town, as well – but you’ll look forward to the drives because of the scenery. Western Pleasure Guest Ranch is an authentic working ranch with 1,100 acres of horses, cattle, deer, elk, and moose, run by the same family since 1940. The ranch has four authentic log cabins, and six guest rooms in the Main Lodge; all are filled with Native Northwestern blankets, rugs, pottery, and carvings. Even if you don’t stay here, you can play cowboy for a day on horseback, riding though pine forests and multi-colored meadows.
The Bird Aviation Museum & Invention Center is an unlikely attraction for this distant corner of Idaho. But don’t miss it – it’s one of those places where your imagination can run wild. The brainchild of local inventor Forrest M. Bird, the Museum is filled with aircraft and cars dating as far back as the First World War, as well as a National Inventors Hall of Fame. And the drive here, past tiny mountain hamlets and alpine lakes, is worth it by itself.
Back in town, you can take a close-up look at the lake, on a boat trip with Lake Pend Oreille Cruises, leaving from the docks at Sandpoint Beach. And the Farmer’s Market at Sandpoint, which takes place every Wednesday and Saturday in summertime, is overflowing with locally-grown fruit and produce, along with colorful crafts made by local folks. There’s live music, too.
You’ll be surprised at how many excellent restaurants this small Northwestern town has. At the Schweitzer Mountain Resort, for example, Mojo Coyote Café offers great Mexican and fresh, homemade baked goods for breakfast and lunch. And the resort’s Chimney Rock Grill has a setting of informal Northwest elegance and a menu with great fish and local specialties. Back in town, a restaurant called 41 South overlooks the lake, at the foot of “The Long Bridge,” and serves up an upscale ambience and good food. And Trinity at City Beach overlooks Sandpoint Beach and the lake, with dining both indoors and out.
To really understand what makes Sandpoint, Sandpoint, though, you have to get down and dirty…on the miles of great hiking trails. Here, the silence and the colors and the wildlife and the see-forever vistas really get to you. On trails such as the Gold Hill Trail, the Mickinnick Trail, and the Mineral Point Trail, you’ll not only see what makes this place so special…you’ll feel it, as well.
My favorite spot, though, is sitting right outside my cabin at Sleep’s Cabins, on a rocky ledge over the lake, watching the sun make its very-slow way into the Northwestern horizon on a summer night – at 10:30. As the sun changes colors, it tinges the ripples on the water in shades of pink, purple, lavender, and orange. And when it finally sets, replaced by a thousand stars against a black-velvet night, all you can hear is the sound of those ripples gently lapping against the shore.
Then you’ll truly understand why Sandpoint was named “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America.”