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ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho

Pure snowy scenery begs even resolute non-skiers outside
at Idaho's Schweitzer Mountain

By Susan McKee

Snow ghosts stood sentry on the mountain ridges above Lake Pend Oreille as I drove the two miles across Long Bridge into Sandpoint. In the Idaho panhandle, wintry storms are wet enough to cover the evergreens in a lasting crystal white coating that shimmers in the brilliant blue sunshine. Up close, the trees are sturdy enough to scale with ice climbing equipment, but from the valley, they look like the snow queen’s palace guard.

I wanted to get away for a long weekend, and an invitation to Schweitzer last January promised solitude. It’s a ski resort, and I don’t ski. I planned to veg out in front of the fireplace in my accommodations in White Pine Lodge overlooking the slopes.

That never happened. There was so much to do without barreling downhill that I didn’t even finish the book I brought along.

ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Schweitzer Mountain Vista
A Snowy Vista at Schweitzer

The snow was so beautiful I couldn’t stay indoors. The first afternoon, I rented snowshoes and poles and headed out for a walk on the beautifully groomed (and clearly marked) trails. The air was clean and crisp, and the silence broken only by the occasional cross-country skier or local resident.

That was one of the surprises of Schweitzer. It’s not just a ski destination with day-trippers and vacationers, but a place for year ‘round living. As one resident explained, as long as there’s good cell coverage, high-speed internet access and overnight delivery, why not live where the scenery is spectacular? I ran into accountants, artists, and authors who made the slopes (with a cute “alpine village” at the resort with restaurants, shops and services) their home base.

Part of the appeal is the valley. Schweitzer towers above Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced “pond-er-ay”), named for an indigenous Native American tribe with a propensity for decorating their earlobes with hanging decorations.

The lake is surprising deep – 1150 feet, carved by the melting of glacial ice sheets that filled the valley nearly a half-mile above today’s lake level.

The railroad arrived in Sandpoint in the 1880s -- Amtrak still stops here. Lumber and mining were the main industries until World War II. That’s when the United States Navy arrived, creating the largest city in Idaho practically overnight.

In 1942, the second largest naval training station in the U.S. was built on the southern tip of Lake Pend Oreille. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Navy wanted an inland base, and this one was about 300 miles from the Pacific coast on a quiet body of water deep enough to simulate the ocean. The Farragut Naval Training Station (decommissioned in 1946) brought 300,000 seamen to the area for boot camp – many of whom returned to the region as permanent residents after World War II ended.

The closing of Farragut (it's now a state park) didn’t end the Navy's involvement with the lake. At Bayview, just north of the former training station, the Navy operates the Acoustic Research Detachment, a small base (employing about 100) working on methods to make ships and submarines operate more quietly.

ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Schweitzer Mountain Skiing
Ski Action on the Mountain

The lake is also popular with fishermen, and the region developed as a summer vacation destination for avid anglers. Winters were quiet, until a certain dentist from Spokane, Washington, named Jack Fowler stopped there in the early 1960s on his way home from a ski trip to Whitefish, Montana. He looked up at the "perfect" yet undeveloped Schweitzer Basin in the Selkirk Mountains and wondered if he could shorten his weekend commute.

The rest, as they say, is history. Fowler gathered a bunch of investors, and bought a section—160 acres—from a lumber company for $3,200. Schweitzer Basin opened December 4, 1963, with $4 day passes for one rope tow and a mile long chair lift. These days, the resort is owned and operated by New Schweitzer LLC, a Seattle-based investment group, and there are 2,900 ski-able acres.

My snowshoe excursion was such fun that I repeated the adventure the next day. On the third, I was ready for a bigger challenge, so I signed up for a cross-country ski lesson. My instructor was most patient, and by the end of the afternoon, I could manage, oh, several yards of forward motion without falling down. Yeah, it’s harder than I thought (this novice is sticking to snowshoes in the future).

On my final day, I rode one of the eight ski lifts to the top of a ridge for a snowmobile excursion. I thought I’d be the passenger of an experienced driver, but the guys at the Selkirk Powder Company convinced me I could pilot my own Arctic Cat, following in the wake of my guide. Zipping along a narrow path at 15 or 20 miles an hour with a wall of snow on one side and a sheer drop-off on the other was heart-stopping and breathtaking at the same time.

After snowmobiling I was ready for adventure at a slower pace, so I headed eleven miles down the mountain to the town of Sandpoint. I hadn’t realized this was the hometown of Coldwater Creek, the women’s apparel and accessory chain. Their huge store on First Avenue kept me busy for a couple of hours.

But then it was time to head to Pend d’Oreille Winery for a complementary tasting – they usually have eight bottles open for sampling (my favorite was a Malbec). On Fridays and Saturdays, live music and wine-by-the-glass draws people in town to visit the many arts and crafts galleries.

ROAD & TRAVEL Destination Review: Schweitzer Mountain "Snow Ghosts"
Snow Ghosts on Schweitzer Mountain

The mountain is named for an early settler in the region. Legend has it that an old man built a rough cabin at the bottom of the basin of the Cabinet, Selkirk and Bitterroot mountain ranges more than a century ago. Little was known about the man, other than at one time he had served in the Swiss military. The solitary figure became such a presence in the area that, some years later, locals in the nearby mountain town of Sandpoint would name Schweitzer Mountain after him – “Schweitzer” means “Swiss man” in the German dialect spoken in Switzerland.


Schweitzer Mountain

Selkirk Powder Company

Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce

Coldwater Creek

Pend d’Oreille Winery