For years, the more than 550-acre plot of pristine backcountry has remained just out of reach for the people of Rathdrum. Not because of physical boundaries, with some sections of the acreage just minutes away from Main Street, but because of a lack of public access to the sprawling city-owned terrain near Rathdrum Mountain’s peak.
The mountain draws countless visitors to the area each year, from all-terrain vehicle driving to horseback riding to hiking and more. With well-preserved natural environments, long-standing cedar and fir trees, peaceful trails, rich wildlife viewing opportunities, logging roads for motorized and nonmotorized travel, and sweeping vistas of the open valley below that stretches from the Rathdrum Prairie to Lake Coeur d’Alene, there’s no shortage of recreational opportunities around the mountain.
There’s just one problem: There are no public roads or access points for visitors to gain entry to the large swath of city-owned property.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s probably some of the most scenic land in the county,” said Rathdrum Mayor Vic Holmes. Finding public access “is certainly one of my priorities,” he added.
The city is looking into ways that would open up access to the property, Holmes explained, either through buying land, or securing right of ways or easements. “Whatever we can get for the citizens we represent down in town to have access to the mountain,” he said, adding that having a close-by trail system would be beneficial to residents and a boon to the local economy by bringing in tourists.
With a limited number of homes and roads on its hillsides, Rathdrum Mountain has been sheltered from developments digging into the terrain, cutting down the old-growth forest and taking away from its natural state. However, that lack of roads – and, more importantly, lack of public access to the city’s property – also means much of the mountain remains off limits to the public.
The city can enter the property for maintenance purposes and official business using the private Barrett Drive just off Reservoir Road, said Rathdrum City Administrator Brett Boyer. For everyone else, Boyer added, the land is inaccessible because they first must cross over private property. In the past, the city has logged some sections of the land to pay for the new city hall.
The issue of public access was first brought before the City Council several years ago, but as council members have cycled through, there has been no agreement reached. Some of the sticking points for owners include traffic and parking concerns, and how to monitor the area to prevent crime.
Currently, Boyer said, the city is negotiating with private property owners to allow public entry.
“The City Council is determined to find public access and, perhaps in the future, have some soft-use areas,” he said.
Friends of Rathdrum Mountain has helped keep the issue at the forefront by pitching a trailhead proposal that would begin near the water tank. The group is passionate about keeping the mountain area free from any development that might detract from its unspoiled grandeur, its Web site states. In addition to promoting public access and education, the group has worked with the city in habitat restoration, noxious weed control and native species planting on the mountain.
“What we’re suggesting is a little trailhead that starts here and opens all the rest of the property up to hiking trails, maybe horseback riding, cross-country skiing, all those kinds of things,” said Friends of Rathdrum Mountain secretary Jim Ochenkoski, while standing along North Reservoir Road a few hundred feet from Rathdrum’s water tank, which sits at the southeastern-most tip of the city’s land. “You can access all that property from this little point, which is only three minutes out of town.”
The nonprofit group’s Water Tank Trailhead concept envisions a parking pullout for about 20 vehicles in the dirt lot adjacent to the tank. In the artist’s rendering, the area would include picnic shelters, a learning area with informative signs on subjects such as the area’s underground aquifer, a raised pathway over a small marsh at the base of the trail, and a half-mile path that follows the South Fork Spring Creek and leads up to the larger sections of city-owned property. A raised boardwalk would offer canopy views over some sections of the wetlands and old growth woodlands.
There are ways for people to explore the mountain’s backcountry, Ochenkoski said, but it is a long drive to get there.
Since large sections of land on the mountain are owned by private logging companies, such as Inland Empire Paper Co., which is owned by Cowles Inc., the same company that owns The Spokesman-Review, the public can use some areas for a fee. Inland Empire Paper offers recreational-use permits for a variety of reasons, including berry and mushroom picking, firewood gathering, hiking and horseback riding. Permits are available for $10 per day, $40 individual annual or $65 family annual pass.
To get there, though, “that is a long way around the block,” Ochenkoski said.
While the city continues to work on public access, the City Council will examine trailhead ideas in the area, including the Friends’ water tank proposal, said Boyer.
“Maybe another plan comes forward as we open it up for public debate,” he offered. “In the long term, with the city owning 557 acres, it’s a great asset and we want to open it up to the public.”