US-2 Across Idaho’s Panhandle

Even though the route zigzags for some 75 miles along the Kootenai and Pend Oreille Rivers, it doesn’t take long for US-2 to cross the narrow neck, known as the Panhandle, of northern Idaho.

Following the Pend Oreille River east from Washington, the route passes a pair of struggling but proud old logging communities, then pauses at the resort town of Sandpoint before threading the deep gorge of the Kootenai River upstream toward Montana.

Sandpoint

Located at the junction of US-2 and US-95 at the northern end of Idaho’s largest lake, Pend Oreille, Sandpoint (pop. 7,365) is a resort community with a relaxed welcoming feel. The highly regarded Schweitzer Mountain Resort (208/263-9555 or 877/487-4643) north of Sandpoint attracts adventurous off-piste skiers in winter and daredevil mountain bikers in summer. The mix of Rocky Mountain scenery and abundant recreation has made Sandpoint a popular place to visit and live, yet despite the dozens of real estate agents and other signs of potential despoliation, it still feels like a small town.

As you might guess from the name, Sandpoint boasts the fine quarter-mile-long City Beach, just a few blocks’ walk from downtown at the east end of Bridge Street, complete with volleyball courts and a dock where you can board tour boats to cruise the lake.

South of downtown, summer visitors in search of burgers and soft-serve cones flock to Dub’s Drive-In (703 US-2, 208/263-4300). Downtown, the main business district along 1st Avenue fills a half-dozen blocks around the landmark Panida Theater (208/263-9191), where big names and locals still perform. You’ll find a number of good cafés here, plus Eichardt’s (212 Cedar St., 208/263-4005), a beer-drinker’s delight with great food (burgers, sandwiches, fish ’n’ chips). Two blocks east, the Cedar Street Bridge was rebuilt in 1983 to house a funky range of boutiques, cafés, and food stalls, inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Besides the $150 rooms at Sandpoint’s resorts, there are many more moderate motels, like the slightly faded but well-located Best Western Edgewater Resort (56 Bridge St., 208/263-3194, $109-279), right on the lakefront.

Naples and Bonners Ferry

North from Sandpoint, US-2 and US-95 run together through broad flat valleys dotted with small timber towns. The largest of these, Naples, is still a little bit notorious because of its connections to the 1990s battles between the FBI and local neo-Nazi sympathizers around nearby Ruby Ridge. These days things are pretty quiet, but travelers are drawn to Naples’s friendly Northwoods Tavern (208/267-1094), on US-2, a great place to meet locals over a beer and a game of pool (or three). There’s a handy general store, and not too far away is the Naples Inn (208/267-5964).

Ten miles north of Naples, and named after a ferry service across the Kootenai River that started here in 1864, Bonners Ferry (pop. 2,543) is a busy blue-collar town with a natural resource-based (read: logging and farming, especially hop-growing) economy. The Kootenai River Inn (7169 Plaza St., 208/267-8511, $99 and up) is an Native American-run casino and Best Western hotel.

Away from the highway, the Bonners Ferry area has an unusual lodging option: the Shorty Peak Fire Lookout (around $25), about 45 miles from town and a half-mile hike from the nearest road, way up in the wild Selkirk Mountains, where two people can spend the night and take in the panoramic views. For reservations and information on hiking in the surrounding wilderness, contact the USFS ranger station (208/267-5561) on US-2/95 at the south edge of town.

Between Bonners Ferry and the Montana state line, US-2 crosses the once-wild, now-dammed Moyie River on a 450-foot-high bridge.

Map of the Great Northern through Idaho.
Map of the Great Northern through Idaho.