When you see highway signs that say “Canadian Border Ahead; Have Passport Ready,” you’ll know you are almost at Priest Lake State Park. American Indians moved in here a long, long time ago, and the first European settlers arrived around 1800. They were attracted to the area’s natural beauty, surprisingly mild winters (considering it’s northern Idaho), and recreational opportunities. Your family will like Priest Lake State Park for these same reasons.
The centerpiece of Priest Lake State Park is, of course, Priest Lake. This rather small, very deep, and mountain stream-fed lake has some of the bluest water anywhere. Paddleboarding and other such boating activities are popular on this lake, and the fishing is outstanding as well. On land, Priest Lake State Park is actually two parks in one. The developed Indian Creek Unit is in the southern part of the park. Wi-Fi is available here, along with many other amenities. The rustic Lionhead Unit is on the more remote north shore of Priest Lake. And when we say remote, we do mean remote. Many parts of the Lionhead Unit are inaccessible by vehicle, especially in the winter.
These two units combined have over 100 RV campsites. All these spots have lots of shade and lots of space. In Indian Creek, RVers also enjoy electric, water, and even sewer hookups.
Most people come to the park from the west from Oregon or from the south from Boise. Priest Lake State Park may be remote, but visitors still have options in terms of travel direction. To reach the park, RVers can either go around the sprawling Colville National Forest/Okanogan National Forest/Kaniksu National Forest triumvirate of trees, or they can go through it.
The forests are incredibly scenic, but be sure to watch your speed. Highway 57, which is a mostly-asphalt two lane highway, is winding. Additionally, although you may be the only RV on the road, you are not the only creature in the forest. The Colville National Forest, for example, is home to the last caribou herd in the Lower 48. And, these animals do not always yield the right-of-way.
You can also take Highway 20 and some other roads that skirt these huge forests. They are straighter and clearer than Highway 50. But your chances of seeing caribou are slim to none.
This 62-site campground is adjacent to the Indian Creek beach. So, it has good views of both the lake and the mountains. The back-in sites have water and electric hookups. Since it’s closer to the lake, this campground is a little more open than the other ones in the park. However, there are still plenty of trees, so your RV parking spot should not be too sunny or windy. Campground amenities include an RV dump station, two restroom and shower areas, amphitheater, and large parking area. By the way, park officials sometimes cut off water between November and February. Be sure you call ahead.
This smaller Indian Creek Unit RV campground has 11 level parking spots. These sites have electric, water, and sewer hookups. It’s further away from the lake than Indian Creek I and II, so it’s a little higher up and also has more trees. White Pine is close to the visitors’ center and gas station. The back-in sites are on two loops, and a short trail connects Indian Creek I and II with White Pine. White Pine also has a restroom and shower area.
In the northern part of the park, you’ll find this rustic 78-site RV campground. These sites are also a bit smaller than the ones in Indian Creek, so if you have a big rig, you may want to stick to the south. A swimming beach is on either side of Lionhead I and II. Other campground amenities include a restroom area and a boat launch.
If you went to Priest Lake prior to the 1990s and went there again today, you may double-check the map. This lake might seem like a different fishing hole. Once upon a time, native kokanee salmon and bull trout dominated this lake. Then, rangers stocked Priest Lake with lake trout. Lake trout, while abundant, are usually smaller than other types of fish. So, if you want to catch a lot of fish, stay in the southern part of Priest Lake where the lake trout roam. If you want to land the big one, head up to the northern part of the lake. There are fewer bull trout and salmon here, but if you get one on your hook, it may be a monster.
During the fleeting Northern Idaho summer, visitors may enjoy three sandy beaches at Priest Lake State Park. The Indian Creek Unit has a large beach that’s flanked by a basketball court and an almost one-of-a-kind, Indiana Jones-style log flume. This beach also has a day use area, restrooms, and several fishing piers. For something completely different, trek up to one of the Lionhead Unit’s two swimming beaches. These beaches also have fishing piers and restrooms. However, they aren’t as big or as nice.
The dense forests, towering mountains, and sparkling lake combine to make Priest Lake State Park something of a summer hiking paradise. Lace up your hiking boots, grab a walking stick, apply lots of sunscreen, grab some water, and hit the trail. For advanced hikers, we recommend the five-mile Lakeview Mountain Trail. From start to finish, this steep trail has about a 2,000 foot elevation change. The trail winds through open meadows and Douglas fir trees. On the opposite end of the difficulty scale, there’s the seven-mile Lakeshore Trail. As the name implies, this flat trail hugs the western Priest Lake shoreline. The trail is very scenic and crosses over several mountain streams. You may want to pack a lunch as well, because there are several picnic area cut-offs along this trail.
After the first heavy snowfall, which is usually around Thanksgiving, the aforementioned Lakeview Mountain Trail becomes a very nice snowmobile trail. It’s wide, well-marked, and flat. If snowshoeing is your thing, try one of the shorter trails, like the nearly three-mile Kalispell Island Trail. This easy trail goes around the back of a campsite. But the lake has to be clear. This remote trail is only accessible by boat. Check with rangers about lake ice conditions, whether you are a winter hiker or an ice fisher.
As mentioned, winters here are usually not Siberia cold. Especially in the late fall and early spring, activities like horseshoes, volleyball, and basketball are quite popular. These facilities are located in the Indian Creek Unit. There’s also a disc golf course in this area. Rather conveniently, these athletic facilities are located near a large bonfire pit. Those flames may feel really good when the sun begins to dip in the afternoon.
The park’s remote location and proximity to protected habitats create lots of wildlife viewing opportunities. Many of these animals, like elk and deer, only live in large numbers in the Oregon/Idaho area. In the skies overhead, look for lots of large birds of prey, like eagles and hawks. The love the high trees and high mountains in this area. If you get really lucky, you may see a bald eagle dive for a fish in the lake.