Cross the Idaho Panhandle on the Silver Valley’s Mullan Road

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By Bob Difley

The Schee-chu-umsh people lived beside an idyllic azure-blue lake surrounded by towering pines in what is now the Idaho Panhandle. Each year they traveled east along the river that fed the lake to their buffalo hunting grounds where they could shop for the necessities of survival in this snowy and cold winter climate: hides to cover their homes and bodies, protein-rich food to nourish their tribe, and bone for making fish hooks, spear points and tools.


In the 1790s French-speaking trappers from Canada traveled this same route and gave the local guys the name Coeur d’Alene, or “heart of awl” or point of the awl, a sharp leather-working tool, referring to their tough, shrewd bargaining and trading skills.

Jesuit missionaries came next in 1842 and converted the Coeur d’Alene people to Catholicism, promising them a mission that the Indians completed – including lugging the foundation stones the half-mile to the site of the 90-foot by 40-foot wide wilderness church – in 1853 and now called the Cataldo Mission.

Then in 1862, the United States tasked Army Captain John Mullan to build a military road between Fort Benton in Montana and Fort Walla Walla in Washington to follow the same route. With the discovery of gold and silver, the character of this former hunting trail now known as the Mullan Road would change forever.

Coeur d’Alene
Today Interstate 90 generally follows the old Mullan Road through the Silver Valley, from Post Falls near the Washington border to the Montana border. The region’s largest city, Coeur d’Alene, just east of Post Falls, nestles by the lake of the same name, which shimmers like a brilliant sapphire in a lush forest setting (more than 2.5 million acres of National Forest surround the city, so vast it seems to swallow up North Idaho).

Cross the Idaho Panhandle on the Silver Valley’s Mullan Road
Idaho Centennial Trail photo by Bob Difley

Downtown, Sherman Street’s antique shops mingle with stores crammed with beach umbrellas and swimming suits, rafts and innertubes, goggles and fins, and cool cafes just steps from the city’s sandy beach and grassy park. Towering Coeur d’Alene Resort overlooks the lake described as one of the “world’s most beautiful lakes.”

Golfers come from around the world to try the Resort’s challenging 14th hole, famous as the world’s only floating green. Golf Digest honored the course as America’s Most Beautiful Resort Golf Course.

The city takes full advantage of the lake frontage with a 3300-foot floating dock and a marina crammed with sailboats, ski boats, luxury cruisers and tour boats. Parasailing, lake cruises, seaplane tours and rental boats of all kinds – kayaks, paddle boats, pontoon boats, Jet skis – tempt even landlubbers into Coeur d’Alene’s water world.

Water sports and activities is one of the biggest draws, although bicyclists and walkers also enjoy this section of the scenic Idaho Centennial Trail.

Take a short drive into the surrounding national forest for huckleberry picking, ripe and ready for you from June to October. Contact the Forest Service office for the best areas.

Wallace
The discovery of gold attracted Colonel W. R. Wallace, who in 1884 bought eighty acres of swamp covered with large cedars at the confluence of two canyons, staked a claim and promptly discovered gold. Within two years 500 optimistic miners had moved in.

The Coeur d’Alene Mining District around Wallace soon became the largest silver-producing district in the world, with over one billion ounces of silver extracted from the area’s mines.

The railroad arrived in 1887 bringing a spirit of joie de vivre to this raucous mining town. The Northern Pacific Depot, a two-story building completed in 1902, became the town’s most recognized building, now the Northern Pacific Railroad Museum.

The entire town is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. One notable structure, the Oasis Bordello, at 605 Cedar St., operated openly until 1988 when the FBI came to town to investigate illegal gambling. Fortunately, Miss Ginger and her girls got out of town safely. The bordello today is a museum with the girls’ personal effects and clothing – that they left behind due to their rapid departure – on display.

Between The Old Mission and Wallace near Kellogg, the Silver Mountain Gondola will whisk you along a 3.1-mile 20-minute ride on the world’s longest single-stage gondola. The two restaurants and a visitor center provide a calming influence for acrophobia and those uncomfortable being out of touch with civilization.

Check out Bob Difley’s RVing eBooks on Amazon.com.

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Bill

Great article Bob! I-90 between Bozeman Mt and CDA is one of the most beautiful routes on the Interstate grid … and not that much truck traffic. People can check out the wonders at exit 16 in MT (both historical and kitsch). Also roadside readers near the top of Mullen pass to explain the significance of the 1910 conflagration that spawned the Forest Service.