The murmur of a breeze in the evergreens sang a soft harmony to the deep blue of a brightening sky. It was morning in the Idaho mountains. Warm and drowsy in my sleeping bag, I gradually woke up, listening to my surroundings and anticipating a new day.
As light filtered into my tent, I breathed in the smells of the forest—pine needles, spring blossoms, damp earth, and fresh coffee. Coffee? Absolutely. I was cozy, snug, and barely awake, yet the aroma of the steamy roasted beans was unmistakable. It seems the airport manager is in the habit of brewing up fresh coffee each morning for visiting campers. The coffee pot is just outside the restrooms with hot showers, 50 yards downhill from the camping area. As I sipped my warm drink, I thought, “There is simply no smoother way of ‘roughing it’ than staying here.”
Just 100 yards away is the marina, a hub of recreation, meals, and social activity throughout the season. Priest Lake stretches to the north, providing a true wonderland of recreational opportunity. From water-skiing to huckleberry picking, the choices of fun and relaxation are nearly limitless. It’s the kind of place that, once you’ve visited, you won’t be able to stop talking about.
The Idaho Panhandle is a scant 40 miles wide, sneaking up in between Washington and Montana to grab its tiny share of the Canadian border. Priest Lake is just east of the Panhandle’s western border, and its north shore is just 15 nm south of the 49th parallel that defines the Canadian border. At the southeastern end of the lake is Cavanaugh Bay.
Two airports and one seaplane base serve Priest Lake. For airplane camping or access to the Cavanaugh Bay Resort, the Cavanaugh Bay Airstrip (66S), a grass strip adjacent to the southeast shore, is most convenient. For access to Grandview or Hill’s Resort, Priest Lake USFS Airport (67S), a grass and gravel strip about 3 miles from the western shore, is more convenient.
Canadian travelers will have to pass through U.S. customs before landing, so arrivals from directly north are rare. Peaks from 5,000 to 7,700-ft dominate the surrounding terrain, so current mountain-flying skills are highly advised. The easiest route to the area is from the south. Fly first to Priest River Airport (1S6), and then follow the highway north about 20 nm to Priest Lake.
The Spokane area, 60 nm to the southwest, offers a multitude of en route fuel stops; to the east the pickings are slimmer. The closest fuel stop is Sandpoint (SZT), 17 nm southeast, with 24-hour, self-serve fuel.
The Cavanaugh Bay airstrip is carved out of the forest and fairly easy to spot. Look for a small peninsula on the southeast shore of the lake, forming the western shore of Cavanaugh Bay; the strip is on the southeast shore of the bay, ending near the marina. For a remote grass strip, it can still experience a fair amount of traffic. There are seaplane operations in the bay and in the northern part of the lake, and Priest Lake USFS Airport on the opposite shore.
Rising terrain to the east dictates left traffic for Runway 33 and right traffic for Runway 15. Since there is no line-of-sight between runway ends and high trees can hide ground and air traffic from each other, it’s important to monitor 122.9 MHz, self-announce, and keep a sharp eye out for fellow aviators, including during taxiing. Since the terrain slopes uphill to the south, approaches are usually made to the southeast, landing on Runway 15, and departures are on Runway 33, toward the lake. This provides the easiest approaches and departures with minimal obstacles. Due to high forest and lack of lighting, night operations are not advised, so plan arrivals and departures accordingly.
The enlarged area at the north end of the strip provides ample parking, and overflow parking runs down the east side of the 120-ft. wide runway. Concrete anchors and tiedown chains are at the north end of the strip, but bring tiedowns just in case. Be sure to secure the aircraft, since winds and propwash can be unpredictable. After landing, walk to the operations building at the north end and ask them to lend you a golf cart to haul your gear to the campground or resort—not bad for roughing it.
The airstrip is open year-round. Although it is not plowed, it is groomed after snows fall, and wintertime operations are fully supported.
If you’re visiting either Hill’s Resort or Grandview Resort, and don’t want to rent a boat to cross the lake, you can fly to Priest Lake Airport, 6 nm northwest across the lake. There are no camping facilities, but it is closer to both resorts. The 4,400 x 175-ft. turf and gravel runway with clear approaches on both ends is adequate for most aircraft up to a DC-3. For local conditions, contact the USFS Ranger Station across the street, (208) 443-2512.
Seaplane pilots have several options. Just a short walk, bike ride, or boat ride from Cavanaugh Bay Resort, Dr. Loel Fenwick’s privately owned Tanglefoot Seaplane Base (D28) welcomes visitors. The floating docks and concrete ramp can accommodate up to large, multi-engine seaplanes, (208) 650-2589. You can also dock at Hill’s resort.
Priest Lake went through some early identity crises, being first called “Kaniksu” by the Kalispel tribe, then “Roothaan” by a local Jesuit priest in the 1840s. It is believed that the Indian word “kaniksu” referred to the black robes worn by the Jesuits. Eventually simplicity won out, and by the early 1900s the naming convention had settled on Priest Lake.
As early as 1936, Idaho showed foresight in recognizing its attractiveness as a tourist destination when it created Sun Valley. Tourism was nurtured and eventually became a mainstay of the state’s economy. The emphasis on tourism has been a profound blessing for general aviation. Dedicated to “highest quality,” the state’s Division of Aeronautics has a positive attitude and a state-mandated charter to promote aviation. Their generous support has made Idaho a popular destination for small-aircraft travelers. One example is the state-sponsored program for airport courtesy cars.
Idaho is home to more backcountry airstrips than any other state except Alaska. Cavanaugh Bay is one of these, and provides a spectacular launching point to see and enjoy what the area has to offer.
While there are plenty of obvious tourism and recreational activities here, there is also more than meets the eye. You will unquestionably run out of time before you run out of activities. Most visitors will want to do some water-borne exploring on the 23,000-acre Priest Lake, known as Idaho’s “Crown Jewel.” Simplest and most elemental, jump into the fresh, clear water and go swimming. The lake has nearly 80 miles of shoreline, but a good place to start is right at Cavanaugh Bay. The azure water of the resort’s beach remains shallow for a ways out, and after splashing around, you can relax on the shore, temporary home to countless sandcastles.
Boats, kayaks, canoes, and Jet Skis are all available, although most won’t want to put any serious distance behind a paddle (the lake proper spans 19 miles). One of the newer choices in watercraft is a ski-capable deck boat. This outdrive-powered boat affords an exciting flexibility, with the ability to pull a skier or camp at anchorage on the water. Details of boat rentals will all be known by Memorial Day weekend, so check in and reserve your choice. One popular destination for boaters is Bartoo Island, one mile from the resort and six miles from the south end of the lake. It has white sand shores, forested hiking trails, and 23 camping sites.
The local Mackinaw trout get to trophy size (the record 1971 trout was 57.7 lbs., and that’s not a typo); they are found anywhere from the surface to 200 feet down. If you’re new at it or looking for trophy hits, you might want to hire a local fishing guide to get some expert advice. Blue Ribbon Charters provides gear and takes you in search of trout you’ve only dreamed of. A trip is guaranteed to hook some trout, which can range from 8 to 40 lbs. All skill levels are welcome, and young children are encouraged, $400 for six hours, (208) 661-6969, www.fishingidaho.com. April or May, when the temperatures haven’t gone up very far and the fish can be found in more shallow water, are the best times for large catches. Non-resident fishing licenses can be obtained online through Idaho’s Department of Fish & Game or from local vendors, fees $12.75 for the first day, $6 each additional day.
A little mountain biking is healthy, fun, and offers a pleasant perspective to tour the lake. You can ride along state forest roads; the most challenging routes are on the steeper east and north sides of the lake, while more leisurely rides lie along the flatter terrain in the west and south. It’s also possible to bike on some hiking trails, such as the Lakeshore Trail, which borders Priest Lake. This easy seven-mile trail has a gradual 120-foot change of elevation, crosses five streams, and passes through brush hillsides. Bring along your bathing suit and picnic lunch, as you will pass by several isolated beaches.
There are more than 50 miles of hiking trails and logging roads around Priest Lake, paving the way to explore the surrounding 523,000 acres of federal and state lands. An easy one-mile trail begins just one-half mile from the Cavanaugh Bay Airport. From the north end of the airstrip, turn right and walk east along Cavanaugh Bay Road. In approximately one-half mile the road will join the main hard-top East Shore Road. One half-mile farther along the trail, which is under forest canopy and to the right of Cougar Creek, the route forks. Take the right fork and continue another 200 yards to a logging road. Turn right on this road and hike another 200 yards, through a vehicle gate. You’ll reach an antenna site on a prominent rocky knoll. From an elevation of 700 feet, this spot provides a panoramic view of Priest Lake.
Bring some topos to enhance your hiking, biking, or riding experience. Trail maps are available from the Priest Lake Ranger District, Mile Post 32 on Hwy 57, (208) 443-2512. All rentals above are available through Cavanaugh Bay Resort, (208) 443-2095.
Some of us prefer an extremely specialized exercise involving searching through the bushes for small white polymer spheres, while vigorously swearing. A round of golf at the Priest Lake Golf Course, just a quick cart ride from Hill’s Resort, is good for this pursuit. With its own driving range and the niceties of the resort nearby, the course has everything that any big-city course can offer, except that traffic and smog are exchanged for spectacular scenery and crystal clear air. This 18-hole, par-72 course has a slope of 118 and yardage of 6,177 off the men’s tees. Greens fees are $20–$50, and if your clubs didn’t make it into your baggage compartment, you can rent some for $25. Pull carts are $4 and powered carts go for $15, (208) 443-2525.
The damp, shady forest floors are ideal places for gathering mushrooms; in fact, more than 450 species have been identified in the area. Morels can be found in May and June, in the woods along streams and on disturbed land, such as burned areas. Look for white- and golden-colored Chanterelles, plentiful in the fall, at edges of meadows and at bases of conifer trees. Before you scoff at the idea, have someone who knows what they are doing cook you up a dish or two of fresh forest mushrooms. You’ll be a convert in two bites. Speaking of knowing what you’re doing, don’t even think about eating any mushroom that hasn’t been identified and blessed by an expert. There are a few poisonous types to be found, and you want to give these a wide berth.
If mushrooms don’t tickle your taste buds, the area is renowned for huckleberry picking. Since these tart variations on the blueberry are now Idaho’s state fruit, they deserve to be at least as famous as the potatoes. From July through September, you’ll find three types of these little morsels: purple-black, which ripens first; red, which is very sweet; and blue, which has a milder taste. They can be found growing wild almost anywhere in the forest, but you’ll probably have to sweet-talk an experienced picker into revealing their favorite patch. Like mushrooms, huckleberries have their own level of risk, but it’s associated with their appeal to the local bear population. Keep a watch out for fellow fruit lovers of the furry kind, and remember to share generously. After you’ve had some fresh berries from the woods, you can try some of the jams, pies, candies, and other huckleberry creations available at local stores and restaurants.
The evergreen woods are cool and pleasant, and the proximity to flush toilets and hot showers makes the campground next to the runway a relaxing, low-cost home. Evening barbeques and campfires enhance the experience, and mornings in the pines are one of the finest ways imaginable to start the day. Sip a cup of hot coffee and think about how fantastic it was that you even got to fly here too. You can camp next to your plane all down the airstrip, so space is essentially unlimited. There is no charge for camping or use of showers and toilets—this is truly a pilot-friendly place to be.
For those who want more comfort, the choices are prodigious, especially if you rent a boat. Immediately adjacent to the airstrip, the Cavanaugh Bay Resort is great for large groups looking to spoil themselves a bit. The accommodations at Cavanaugh’s comprise three luxury guest suits and an equally comfortable cabin. The three-bedroom suites sleep up to 14 guests and feature multiple living rooms and patios, king- and queen-sized beds, flat-screen televisions, a fireplace, and a boat slip. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom Cabin No. 7 sleeps 10 and also features a living room, family room, lakeside deck, and boat slip. Accommodations rent by the week during peak-season, but shorter stays can be arranged with two- or three-night minimums, $325–$550 per night, $2,275–$3,900 per week, (208) 443-2095.
Across the lake to the west from Cavanaugh Bay, Hill’s Resort has condos, cabins, and chalets. You can spend an entire vacation without leaving the resort, which is along about a half-mile of sandy beach. At the docks directly in front of the resort, you can rent canoes and kayaks, $15 per hour or $35 per day, or 20-hp boats, $65 per hour or $150 per day.
Accommodations are in several structures along the lakeshore and in the forest surrounding the main lodge. Most have an impressive lake view toward the east. The one- to five-bedroom Lakefront and Forest View Cabins sleep four to ten; most include a full kitchen, fireplace, and an outdoor deck, $190–$480. North of the main lodge are buildings that house two- and three-bedroom condos, $260–$335. You can get to Hill’s Resort by boat from Cavanaugh Bay, or you can land at Priest Lake USFS Airport and they will pick up. Docking areas are available for seaplanes; the resort requests that pilots dock at the ski docks away from the children’s swimming areas for safety reasons. The resort is open year-round, although only weekly rentals are accepted Jul–Aug, (208) 443-2551.
Another option is the Grandview Lodge at the north end of the lake, ten miles from Cavanaugh Bay and now under new management. Owners Mike and Katie Belles have preserved the Grandview’s charm, while also remodeling the in-house restaurant (see "Where to eat" below). The main lodge houses the restaurant and motel-style rooms, some of which have lake views. Other accommodations include cottages and deluxe suites in one- to two-story structures in the surrounding woods. Suites and cottages are equipped with woodstove or fireplace, full kitchen, and television. Cabins and condos rent on a weekly basis, cabins $1,265-$1,800, condos $1,800; rooms start at $140 per night, 3492 Reeder Bay Rd., (208) 443-2433.
Crown Jewel Winter Sports in Coolin offers a full choice of ways to enjoy the lake. The company, owned and operated by Duane and Dana Kennedy, bills itself as having the largest selection of available boat rentals, ranging from an 18-foot Sea Ray Bowrider (a seven-passenger ski boat with a Bimini top and a 185-hp engine) to a 21-foot Crownline Bowrider that fits 12 passengers and boasts a 290-hp engine. Three-passenger Yamaha WaveRunners are also available. Full-day rentals run nine hours; hourly rentals can be arranged. All watercraft come with life vests, towropes, and water toys. Crown Jewel will launch your boat and meet you at the end of your rental, reservations recommended to ensure availability, $250–$350 per day, $1,800–$2,000 per week, 8 a.m.–8 p.m., 111 St. Lewis Ave., 208-691-3719.
More information on area activities and lodging, including a selection of lakeside rooms, cabins, and homes, is available from the Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce, (208) 443-3191 or (888) 774-3785.
The restaurant at Cavanaugh Bay is a short walk from the campground, tiedowns, and resort lodgings. You have a choice of indoor seating with a view of the lake, boat moorage and docking, or outdoor deck dining for close-up supervision of all comings and goings. The varied menu options range from soups and salad to pizzas, burgers, and tacos, to entrées like a 12-ounce rib eye served with a creamy wild mushroom peppered pan sauce, $29, and the popular Priest Lake Pasta, pasta shells, chicken, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and bacon tossed in a smoked gouda cream sauce, $20. The Sunday buffet breakfast begins at 9 a.m. and includes coffee, juice, egg dishes, bacon, a chocolate fountain, fresh fruit, and more, $16. Spring and fall are considered “off season,” and hours are variable, so call ahead, summer hours Mon–Sat 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sunday buffet 9 a.m. –1 p.m., (208) 443-2095.
The family-friendly restaurant at Hill’s Resort has lakeside dining and features tempting traditional meals and exotic options. Enjoy the sunset over Priest Lake from the expanded deck and order the local-favorite baby back ribs, lathered in the Hill’s signature barbeque sauce (so good you’ll want to purchase a jar for the trip home), $24–$36. Those looking for something different can try the wild game ravioli, stuffed with elk and Italian sausage and served in a homemade spaghetti sauce, $22. Casa Loma Shrimp is another popular entrée; the pancetta-wrapped jumbo shrimp is stuffed with Gouda cheese and grilled, then served with lemon beurre blanc, $27.50. Don’t miss the local specialties made with wild morel mushrooms or the huckleberry pie, 8 a.m.–9:30 p.m. (bar menu available until 10:30 p.m.), (208) 443-2551.
Slightly farther away, at the north end of the lake is Grandview Resort’s lakeside restaurant. After a long day on the lake, visitors will appreciate the no-frills menu. Start with an appetizer in front of the large picture windows overlooking the dock and the lake—a perfect place to enjoy the sunset. The smoked trout dish is a seven-ounce, locally sourced Idaho trout, served chilled with huckleberry chutney and cream cheese, $13. From there, consider one of several wraps and burgers available, like the jalapeño popper flatbread, grilled flatbread with seasoned cream cheese, crispy bacon, and mozzarella, and topped with tempura jalapeño rings and a honey Sriracha drizzle, $12. Another staff favorite is the Grand Burger, an eight-ounce patty stuffed with thick-cut bacon, Boursin cheese and caramelized onions, topped with Cajun tartar sauce and cheddar cheese, $17, (208) 443-2433.
As with most remote destinations, there’s no public transportation at Cavanaugh Bay. There are many other ways to get around. For instance, Hill’s Resort will also provide shuttle service by boat to the Priest Lake Golf Course. But one of the most flexible options is to rent a boat and travel the lake on your own.
When Priest Lake first appears over the cowling, the pure, delicate beauty of the water and its deep green forests is soothing and almost mesmerizing. The view alone is more than reason enough to drop into this top-of-the-world paradise. Now add to this the incentives of first- class lodgings, gourmet meals, and more activities than you can sample in the course of three entire vacations. The simple truth becomes very clear: it’s time to make reservations.