I was two post-ride IPAs deep with Rick Shaffer at the City Limits Brewery in Wallace, a historic mining town of red brick buildings, saloons, and a bordello museum in the cycling-rich Idaho Panhandle when it struck me that Shaffer is the personification of this place in all its kooky glory.
Irreverent and impossibly tall (“I’m six-foot-eight in the morning before stress and gravity take over,” he tells me), Shaffer is a quick-witted jokester who has explored every trail and fire road around Wallace on his oversized Zinn 29er. The unofficial cycling ambassador and self-proclaimed Prime Minister of Wallace, which has a manhole cover proclaiming itself the Center of the Universe, Shaffer is a man who has found contentment through cycling in a place that he loves.
Shaffer came to Wallace from New York City nearly 30 years ago to manage a hotel and quickly grew enamored of the region’s wild nature, mountains and historic charm, and especially its endless opportunities for big rides. He pedals most days after work and puts in big miles on his days off. His civic pride is boundless, and his passion for the area’s mountain biking runs deep.
“The riding is unlimited if you have enough leg power, because it’s all uphill from here, but every ride is rewarded with a huge descent. We have loops that go from the valley floor where we are here in town up to mountain peaks and alpine lakes. The sights are spectacular, and the wildlife is incredible with moose, deer, and elk. I’ve seen cougar on the trail between Lookout Pass and Mullen Pass. It’s all here.”
I met Shaffer in June during a visit to the Idaho Panhandle, that north-facing bone in the pork chop that is Idaho’s shape. I knew little about the Panhandle before visiting but I’d heard the riding was great. While other Idaho ride destinations get all the hype — think Sun Valley and Grand Targhee — the Panhandle is a region lesser known to those outside the Pacific Northwest. As a new resident of Seattle by marriage, I hatched a plan for a four-day-long weekend with three days of riding. Call it a Panhandle sampler in the land of, as the license plates say, Famous Potatoes.
My wife and I began in Sandpoint, a six-hour drive from Seattle. Sandpoint is a year-round outdoor recreation playground in the Selkirk Mountains with a plethora of singletrack nearby, located on the shores of 43-mile-long Lake Pend Oreille. Schweitzer ski resort is just outside of Sandpoint, and it offers lift-served riding as well as long cross-country loops that connect the resort to the valley floor. This is where we began our mission, excited to hit the dirt and warry of the storm clouds that gathered as we unloaded our bikes.
Sadly, after about 90 minutes of riding at Schweitzer, we got slammed by torrential rain and lightning that shut down the mountain and caused us to retreat to town. No worries. After hosing off the mud at our hotel we walked over to the Greasy Fingers bike shop, which was hosting a Yappy Hour fundraiser with beer, burgers and a fenced area filled with dogs awaiting adoption from the local animal shelter. A dog happy hour, what could be better? My goal was to get some trail beta from the locals and pat some mutts. Enter Brian Anderson, the owner of Greasy Fingers and a fifth-generation Sandpoint resident.
“Sandpoint is epic for mountain biking,” Anderson says. “Schweitzer is great, and it satisfies riders looking for gravity-based riding and more aggressive downhill stuff, as well as having trails for riders of intermediate abilities.” Also, about a mile-and-a-half from town is the Syringa trail system, which has about 15 miles of loops on conservation lands.
“That will be growing in the next few years because of the acquisition of more adjacent lands that will be developed for trails,” Anderson says. He also recommends Mineral Point, another trailhead near town that features intermediate trails “with enough roots and rocks and climbing to keep it challenging,” plus panoramic views of the lake and Selkirks. The Gold Hill trailhead offers more difficult riding. “It’s north-facing and heavily treed, so cool and shady on hot days, with lookouts and great views of the river down below,” Anderson says.
But beyond riding, there is Lake Pend Oreille, which provides opportunities for camping, fishing, boating, swimming, and standup paddleboarding. With its abundant bike lanes and a plethora of bars and restaurants and treed parks, Sandpoint is one of those small towns where cruiser bikes are the main mode of local transport. “You can come here to mountain bike but have a ton of fun outdoors on the water after your rides. We’ve got it all,” Anderson says.
Silver Mountain is located right off Interstate 90 in Kellogg, Idaho, making it easy to reach from Seattle. With nearly 50 miles of trails and 3,400 feet of vertical from the top of the gondola to the base area, Silver provides long descents through a variety of ecosystems, from rocky and rooty pine forestlands to sunny meadows with wildflowers to moist, leafy riparian areas. Silver is well-known among Idaho and Washington mountain bikers, having been voted the best bike park in the Northwest multiple times, and it is well worth a visit for road tripping mountain bikers due to its short lines and affordable ticket prices — just $38 on weekdays.
We rode the gondola to the summit at 5,700 feet and did laps in the Chair 3 Zone, which offers rowdy expert trails including Hot Mess, with its elevated wooden ramps and mandatory gaps. “Some of those trails will make you pucker,” says Jeff Colburn, general manager of Silver Mountain. Chair 3 also provides access to mellower blue and green flow trails, which we sampled before finishing with a long descent to the bottom, spilling out onto the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene’s, which is a paved multi-use trail that leads back to the base village.
Dusty and spent, we were pleased to learn that the resort’s Morning Star Lodge has a water park. We cooled off in the water, hoping against all hope that none of the kids around us were peeing, before showering and heading into town. We then ventured into Kellogg, an active mining town that lacks the charm of Wallace or Sandpoint but with multiple fine watering holes. We ate burgers and drank microbrews at Radio Brewing and watched an outdoor movie at the lodge in the chilly evening air.
The Route of the Hiawatha is a scenic, non-technical, 15-mile ride on a former railroad grade that is in the Hall of Fame of the Rails to Trails Conservancy. While not a challenging mountain bike ride by any means, everyone said we would be remiss not to ride it. It seemed like a touristy thing to do, and a nice easy spin for our tired legs. The Route of the Hiawatha is located in the steep and rugged Bitterroot Mountains, and it passes over seven bridges or trestles, and through 10 tunnels that workers built when constructing this railroad span that linked Chicago to the Pacific Coast back in the early 1900s.
More than 50,000 people ride the route annually, says Matt Sawyer of Lookout Pass ski area. The ski resort sells shuttle passes for the route and runs the concession. “We get a lot of guys coming from Silver or Schweitzer and they’ve hammered for a few days and this is an opportunity for them to go out and ride with their kids or spouses and do a historic, scenic ride that’s fun for the whole family.”
We stopped on all the bridges, stepping to the edge and staring down hundreds of feet to the treetops below, even watching a raptor fly below us. Riders are required to bring either a headlamp or handlebar lights for the pitch-black, 1.6-mile-long Saint Paul Pass Tunnel. And most pleasant of all, the trail is a consistent two percent downgrade all the way. After completing the 15 mile ride, we opted for the paid shuttle that returns riders to their cars at the trailhead, but next time we would likely make a full day of it by riding up from and descending back down to Wallace.
Back in Wallace, our pints finished, Shaffer walks us back to the historic Ryan Hotel and stops along the way to show us the Center of the Universe manhole cover. As the story goes, some local drunks came up with the idea to proclaim the town at the epicenter of all known things because, well, nobody could disprove it.
Alas, our time in the Panhandle was too short, work be damned, but we plotted our next visit while driving home to Seattle. Stopping to gas up I checked my email and saw a note from the Prime Minister. “Our chatter got me pumped for dirt so I’m heading out this morning for a classic 2 mtn pass loop,” he wrote. “Promise to return.”
Deal. You can’t say no to the Prime Minister.
If You Go
With a river walk, ample bike lanes and abundant local restaurants, Sandpoint is the ideal place to stay when visiting Schweitzer. We roomed at the La Quinta downtown, just a few blocks from Greasy Fingers bike shop and the Utara Brewing Company, an “ale and curry house” serving microbrews and affordable Indian dishes.
The Hotel Ryan has clawfoot bathtubs and is located in the heart of this town’s historic district. City Limits Brew Pub has an awesome Citra IPA favored by Shaffer as well as burgers and vegetarian fare.
You can buy shuttle tickets and get maps for Ride of the Hiawatha at Lookout Pass ski area.
Silver Mountain is a must-visit for riders passing through the Panhandle on I-90.
Morning Star Lodge has a waterpark and condo-style rooms with kitchens