Say “Lake Coeur d’Alene” in Spokane and most people think of boating or maybe swimming off the beaches at Coeur d’Alene City Park and taking a walk on the floating docks. Yet there are many other destinations around this gorgeous lake regardless if you come by boat, car or bicycle.
If you’ve never been down the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene, now is the time to go. From Spokane, take I-90 east through Coeur d’Alene and take Exit 22 at Wolf Lodge Bay, then go south on Highway 97 and prepare to be dazzled.
There is a reason why they named one of the bays Beauty Bay: nothing describes it better.
The two-lane, winding road hugs the shoreline of the lake, opening up one stunning view after another as you round a cliff here and dip over a hill there. It’s a spectacular stretch of highway, so take your time. There are many pull-outs and viewpoints, as well as trail heads and campsites to explore.
Just before Harrison, on the north side of the Coeur d’Alene River, you’ll find Thompson Lake. Look for Thompson Lake Road on your left (east) and drive about two miles on gravel to the wildlife viewing area. There’s a gazebo there that provides shade and a great view of the lake area.
Inside the gazebo there are plaques explaining which species of birds, fish and mammals are most common in the area.
Sit still for a while – be quiet – wait patiently and something is sure to pop up on the lake.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, huge blue herons could be seen flapping low over the cattails and water lilies. Bullfrogs could be heard from the shallow water near the shore. The water itself was so clear turtles and fish swimming around the lily pads could easily be spotted from the gazebo. Dusk and dawn are of course the best wildlife viewing times, but give it a shot no matter what time of day it is.
When you get back on Highway 97, Harrison is just a few minutes farther south. Like so many other small towns, it was the arrival of the railroad that brought settlers to Harrison. Silas W. Crane built the first house there in 1891 and the town quickly grew, adding a post office in 1893 and a school in 1896. Around the turn of the century Harrison was the biggest town in Kootenai County, with the lumber industry being the driving economic force. Sawmills and box factories sprung up along the lakes and rivers that were the main transportation routes for all the timber being cut in the area.
Today, Harrison has had a revival as a laid-back vacation hamlet with small shops and restaurants lining the main drag and one trail head for the 72-mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes smack in the middle of town.
In Harrison, it is a good idea to have dessert before you have anything else: just past the park and the road down to the docks you’ll find The Creamery, which features mouthwatering Cascade Glacier ice cream – there’s probably a line, but it’s worth it. Ice cream cone firmly in hand, head down to the docks and find a place to sit down and enjoy the view.
There’s a great little beach just off the park. Gig’s Landing – out on the docks – or One Shot Charlie’s Bar and Grill, just up from the marina, provide plenty of lunch or dinner choices right by the lake.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes runs right through Harrison, parallel to the main drag just below the park and above the marina. The trail head is clearly marked and there are restrooms. From Harrison, bike about seven miles south and you’ll reach Heyburn State Park, which offers stunning views of the St. Joe River, Round Lake and Chatcolet Lake (the southernmost part of Lake Coeur d’Alene). Cyclists and hikers can cross Lake Coeur d’Alene on Chatcolet Bridge, which offers incredible views of the lake and the shorelines.
If you bike or hike north from Harrison, you’ll hit the Thompson Lake Wildlife Area just outside of town. The trail takes you between lakes as it follows the Coeur d’Alene River north and east toward Cataldo. Osprey nest here on almost every available utility pole, and blue herons are just one of many species of waterfowl that can be easily spotted. Bring binoculars and a bird field guide – there’s plenty to look at.
Heading back to Spokane from Harrison can be done two ways: backtrack up Highway 97, or continue south to St. Maries, then take Highway 5 west toward U.S. Highway 95 (you can catch 95 in Plummer or just east of Worley, at Conkling Road).
St. Maries is another town that was built on the backs of lumberjacks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, the main drag features little shops and restaurants – The Gem State Club comes readily to mind – but it’s the surrounding area that really makes the drive worth it: it’s simply gorgeous. Follow Highway 5 through Heyburn State Park and make sure you have time to stop at the many pull-outs to enjoy the views.
At one point you can see Chatcolet Lake to your left, Round Lake to your right and the St. Joe River running between the two of them.
By now you’ve rounded the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene and are headed back north. If casinos are your thing, the Coeur d’Alene Casino is in Worley just off Highway 95 – you can’t miss it.
Catch Highway 58 just north of Worley and you’ll hit the Palouse Highway, which will take you back to Spokane.
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