When Jim Lea moved to Spokane in 1982, the Indiana native had to learn a thing or two about winter recreation.
In the Hoosier State, winter sports didn’t mean skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing or anything else outdoors. It meant, for the most part, basketball.
But Lea was a young energetic medical doctor and so he dove into the Northwest’s various wintertime pastimes wholeheartedly.
One of the first things he learned?
Priest Lake’s Chipmunk Rapids cross country ski trails were a hoot, particularly one spot: the viewpoint.
“We used to ski with our families there when our kids were preteens,” he said.
They’d sip hot chocolate and eat lunch admiring, on a clear day, views of the Priest River and the Selkirk crest.
“I always thought it was the best skiing in North Idaho,” he said. “Just in terms of the quality. The scenery and the quality of the terrain. The terrain is varied. It goes through some interesting places. We have terrific views.”
When the Forest Service stopped grooming the roughly 7 miles of trail in 1998, Lea and many others were disappointed. The old logging roads were soon overgrown and hard to navigate, particularly on a pair of skinny skis. Some hikers and backcountry horsemen, however, continued to use the trails.
That started to change when the Priest Lake Nordic Club started grooming the trails during the 2019-20 season, but there were still plenty of downed trees and overgrown canopies.
Then in 2020, thanks to Lea and more than 200 hours of volunteer labor from the Priest Lake Nordic Club, volunteers removed downed trees, cleared brush and generally gave the trails a facelift.
That sweat equity – combined with renewed support from the Forest Service in the form of a cost-share agreement – adds to Priest Lake’s nearly 30 miles of cross country skiing trails.
All of which gives regional skiers, particularly beginners and intermediates, another cross country skiing option.
“That’s a nice thing about the area. It’s beginning friendly,” Lea said. “You go up to Mount Spokane the first time and you have hills.
“It’s a great place, but it doesn’t have that place right by the lodge that is dead flat where people can learn.”
The trail starts at the Priest Lake Visitor center and then drops toward the river. On the way it passes the Kaniksu Marsh. Wildlife tracks – including coyotes, cougars, deer and moose – are common.
The three interconnected loops makes it easy to make the day as short or as long as you’d like.
Eventually, the trail parallels the Priest River, passing high above the eponymous Chipmunk Rapids.
Near that is a nice viewpoint over the river. A bench installed by volunteers gives weary skiers a place to rest their legs. A donation box offers the chance to give some financial thanks.
The trails are well marked with signs distinguishing between intermediate and advance routes. Although the overall elevation gain isn’t much, the final hill back to the parking lot is a haul and will raise a sweat.
But it’s worth it for the views, the solitude and, of course, the skiing.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.