[This article is contributed by April Davila, a freelance writer from Los Angeles, California. Ms. Davila is also a screenwriter and independent movie producer. For more information, please visit her website.]
At the northern tip of the Idaho Panhandle, nestled between the mountains of Montana to the east and Washington state to the west, is Lake Pend Oreille (photo, left). Until 200 years ago it was known only to the Plateau Tribes of the Columbia River Basin, but in June of 1809 the first white man, an English-Canadian named David Thompson, ventured from the surrounding hills down to the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.
Thompson was a fur trader and cartographer, as well as one of the Pacific Northwest's most renowned adventurers. In September of 1809, acting on behalf of the North West Company, he established a trading post near Lake Pend Oreille. It was the first documented business operation between tribes and traders in the region. (Photo, below right: Monument to the first trading post in Idaho.)
Half a century later in 1866, gold was discovered in the neighboring territories of what is today British Columbia and Montana. The closest major city was Portland, Oregon and the most efficient way to transport supplies was up the river leading to Lake Pend Oreille. A few daring entrepreneurs saw the potential for profit. The quest to supply the miners brought steam ships to Lake Pend Oreille. Later these ships would provided access for surveyors from the Northwest Pacific Railroad. (Photo, below left, modern day train crossing the Pend Oreille River.)
The construction of the railroad began in the early 1880s and brought with it newcomers from all over the world. Chinese Americans in particular flooded the region in search of work and by the mid 1880s they made up 33% of Idaho's population. At the point where the railroad first crossed the Pend Oreille River in 1882, a rowdy town sprung up which came to be known as Sandpoint. In 1889 it was officially incorporated.
Long after the fur traders and gold miners had moved on, Sandpoint, Idaho subsisted on a local timber industry until sports fishermen discovered the lake in the 1950s and the town's economy shifted toward tourism. In 1963, the Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort opened the region to winter sports as well.
Today the town of Sandpoint boasts tourism and recreation as its major sources of revenue. From May through August the town's permanent population of about 6,000 swells with tourists from the surrounding areas who come for the boating, skiing, hiking, biking and swimming. During the winter the focus moves up the mountain. Just twenty minutes from downtown Sandpoint, the Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort offers over ninety trails accessible by eight lifts. (Photo, below right, Sandpoint's City Park at the north end of Lake Pend Oreille offers a view of Schweitzer Mountain in the background.)
Though there is a small airport, most travelers arrive via Spokane, Washington and make the hour-long drive to Sandpoint. Highway 200 runs through the town from east to west, while highway 95 runs north to south.
Some must-see spots around Sandpoint, Idaho:
Schweitzer Ski Resort. The ski season in Northern Idaho runs from early December to early April, with an average of 300 inches of snow, but the fun doesn't stop then. From late June to early September you can hook your mountain bike to the lifts and take in 1700 vertical feet of biking fun, or go for a hike and pick huckleberries along the way. Even if you're not athletically inclined, it is worth the drive to the top of the mountain just to see the view of Lake Pend Oreille.
The town of Hope. This town of just 79 people is located on highway 200, just 15 miles east of Sandpoint. The main road runs parallel to the highway and offers fantastic views of the lake. If you keep a very careful watch you may spot Chinese headstones from the 1800s. Stop at Little Bear's Pizza Shack for a snack and then continue down highway 200 to East Hope. Even smaller than Hope, this tiny community boasts some amazing front yard art (photo, below left), and is definitely worth the detour.
The Cedar Street Bridge Public Market. The only marketplace-on-a-bridge in the nation, this small shopping center offers some nice views of the river. The main entrance is in downtown Sandpoint at First and Cedar.
Sandpoint City Beach. From downtown on First Street go east on Bridge Street. This will take you over the water, under the railroad tracks and out to the park. Though the water can be quite chilly outside of July and August, the park has a variety of amenities, including boat launches, volleyball courts and picnic areas. At the southern end of the park, on the end of a long cement jetty, is a quirky, small scale replica of the Statue of Liberty (photo, right).
Holly's Place. Skip the Starbucks and go half a block down to this charming little cafe at 200 North First Avenue. More often than not it's Holly herself behind the counter, and the girl can make a damn fine latte. The small space is filled with cozy couches, has a computer in the corner for internet access and free wi-fi for those with laptops.
When planning your trip check out the calendar page at Sandpoint.com for information on upcoming events such as the yearly Festival at Sandpoint which hosts musicians at the War Memorial Field. Past guests have included Blues Traveler and Boz Scaggs.
No matter when you go, there's something fun to do in Sandpoint.
Article and photos, © 2009, April Davila. Permission is required for reproduction.