"Big and beautiful Priest Lake as seen from below Lookout Mountain.
"Frozen-over Upper Priest Lake can be seen in the distance.
"The snow-encased lookout on top of Lookout Mountain (elevation 6,727 feet).
"Snowfall on our second day of riding at Priest Lake varied from light to very heavy.
"We played in the Soldier Creek drainage on day two of our ride at Priest Lake, ID.
"Working our way up the mountain to Lookout Mountain. Priest Lake can be seen in the distance.
If you think western riding is just about 8- or 9,000-foot riding elevations, you’re missing a whole lot of riding. For those who use elevation as a yardstick for riding and want those lofty heights, then many places in the Pacific Northwest may not measure up.
They will be passing up some of the best riding areas in the West and that includes Priest Lake, tucked way up in the panhandle of northern Idaho near the Canadian border, where the lake itself sits at 2,439 feet.
You can ride up to between 6,000 and nearly 7,000 feet in the mountains that surround the lake, so you’re gaining upwards of 4,000 to nearly 5,000 feet. We’re guessing that caught some sledders’ interest.
The fact is, those who regularly ride the West know elevation is all relative.
That’s why places like Priest Lake may fly under the radar but are riding masterpieces. The riding around Priest Lake can be every bit as challenging or mild as you want, as we found out last winter on a two-day ride in the area. Priest Lake features some of the best riding Idaho—and the West—has to offer.
Our first day of riding in Priest Lake was true boondocking at its best. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, better terrain or better snow. The only very slight downside was the cloud cover. And even then, it really wasn’t a big issue except that we were anticipating the views of the lake from one spot in particular but the clouds wouldn’t cooperate. We’ve heard about this view of Priest Lake and the surrounding peaks for literally years and seen pictures of it and so were very anxious to experience it for ourselves.
Even though it was cloudy, we never got snowed on. And there were breaks in the clouds but not once we got up to the aptly named Lookout Mountain (elevation 6,755 feet). We were hoping for a glimpse of Priest Lake but it wasn’t to be. Not only did the clouds obscure the lake, but also several of the area’s namesake peaks, such as Lion’s Head (7,226 feet) and Abandon Mountain (7,035 feet).
Most everything below us was visible, including the frozen-over Upper Priest Lake and lower ridges, which were covered in copious amounts of snow. While we may have been somewhat disappointed we didn’t get to take in the grand view, everything about the day’s ride was spectacular.
To describe the route we took to get to the top of Lookout Mountain ... well, through the trees, up that ridge and along that one forest road, through more trees. That’s kind of it in a nut
shell. Our guides for the day were Gary Smith and Tony Wallace, both of whom are very proficient on their snowbikes. Craig Hill, one of the owners of Hill’s Resort, and Tony Wallace, owner of Sundance Mountain Lodge, were also along on the ride.
We parked on the north end of the Priest Lake near Mosquito Bay and followed groomed trail No. 1 (just one portion of Priest Lake’s 400 miles of groomed trails) for a short distance before turning off onto an ungroomed mountain road that steadily gained elevation. On our ride up the mountain, there were a couple of overlooks that offered amazing views of Priest Lake— which is what really got us stoked for what we hoped we would see once we got to Lookout Mountain.
Deep And Untouched
The snow all the way up the mountain was deep and untouched. After riding the road close to Lucky Creek for a handful of miles we dove into the trees and sidehilled up to a small perch on the edge of the Lion Creek drainage. Again, the view from here was awesome. We could still see the lake but the canyon and the mountains across the drainage were impressively tall and rugged.
We admit the ride up through the trees to that point, and on to Lookout Mountain, was challenging and somewhat exhausting. We kinda, sorta followed Smith and Wallace on their snowbikes, but they went places a sled can’t so we boondocked through the trees until we came to that small perch just mentioned. If you’ve ever watched a snowbike work technical terrain, then you know that it can be tough to follow a single track on a full size snowmobile through the trees. Smith and Wallace are great riders and went absolutely anywhere they wanted to go. We would say it was fun to watch them, but we were busy trying to follow them.
We’re not sure, but we would guess Smith and Wallace take a different route up the mountain each time they go—because they can.
On the way up to Lookout Mountain, there are some burned out sections so the landscape is a bit more open although the snags are still standing, while in other spots the trees are much tighter.
There is a road that goes up to the in the side of the mountain but it’s definitely not a groomed path and is just as challenging as the rest of the mountain terrain.
Edge Of The Earth
Once on top of Lookout Mountain, we saw two buildings, one of which is the actual lookout. Another building is perched on what feels like the edge of the earth. Look at it on Google Earth and you’ll see what we mean.
After waiting a while to see if the clouds would blow over so we could get a good view of Priest Lake and the other peaks in the area, we descended the mountain toward Lookout Lake, which was a challenge in and of itself— and we were going downhill. Again, you don’t want too get to close to the cliff that makes up one side of Lookout Mountain. You would fall a long way before you hit the bottom.
From Lookout Lake we again boondocked through the trees before dropping off the hill to an ungroomed forest road and back to the parking area. It was 27.8 miles of hard riding on absolutely spectacular snow.
Day two’s ride promised to be much like day one’s, that is, until the snow came and it started dumping on us. We parked in Coolin, on the southeast side of the lake at Cavanaugh’s Priest Lake Outfitters, and followed Jon Dodge along the groomed trail (Nos. 19 and 21) until peeling off and heading up the Soldier Creek drainage. Our general goal for the day was the Sundance Mountain area, but the higher we climbed the worse the visibility got. Then it started to snow and the group decided it was best to head back to the truck.
That was disappointing but the best decision. The groomed trails we did ride were all in good shape and the drainage itself offered lots of play opportunities.
Dodge explained to us that the east side of the lake is filled with bowls, plenty of trails—groomed and ungroomed—as well as tight trees and open areas. The west side of the lake is even tighter trees and more trails.
In fact, the hardcore trail rider can ride around the entire Priest Lake—110 miles in all—on a groomed trail. Riding on the east side of the lake is on Idaho Department of Lands endowment lands, while on the west side it’s pretty much forest service.
Some areas north of the lake are closed to off-trail riding but you can ride on groomed and ungroomed trails to see the area as long as you don’t leave the trail. Some ungroomed trails take you fairly close to the Canadian border. You can also connect with Washington state trails on the west side of the trail system.
There is no shortage of riding opportunities around Priest Lake with plenty of riding to keep you busy for several days.
And all of it is fun—at any elevation.