As the Coeur d’Alene area becomes more congested, as commutes take longer and our ears are bombarded with city noise, the need for wilderness becomes more critical to the well-being of our souls. John Muir noted 120 years ago that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
The reality of this modern world is that we all must work our 40 hours a week to pay bills; to buy homes and cars and the cell phones that have become so intrinsic to our society that most of us would become incapacitated should they be rendered useless.
What we do with our time has become so much more important. It becomes our identity.
Some people crave the mountains and rivers, they hold their breath throughout the week until the weekend comes. They race for destinations which they have daydreamed about while answering emails. When they reach them, they breathe in the fragrance of the trees and creeks enough that they can be sustained another week.
And sometimes, responsibility creates a deficit within our souls. There’s just not enough time.
There are still some pockets of nature in the Coeur d’Alene area which can slake your thirst for the mountains. Here are some of the worthiest.
Cougar Gulch Preserve
Five minutes from the Northwest Blvd. and I-95 interchange, the Cougar Gulch Preserve can sometimes have the feel of somewhere much farther from town. I have seen black bears crossing the wetlands and osprey diving for fish in the bay. When I first discovered the little dirt road which seemed to go nowhere, I was astounded that I had never noticed this area before. My family ran out and explored the hillsides, bushwhacking off-trail well past the point of “no-more-fun.”
When we lived in town this was a favorite place to stretch our legs and listen to the red-winged blackbirds in spring.
There are two loops totaling roughly two miles. The first begins right after the gate (there is a map posted at the beginning of the trail) and the second begins at the midway point of the first, after a short connector trail along the shoreline. There is a short side trail off the second loop which provides a detour to a viewpoint of Cougar Bay.
Although escaping the sound of highway traffic is often difficult on this hike, the closeness to town makes this a great quick escape.
Access. To get there, head south on Highway 95. Just after the right turn for Cougar Gulch Rd., and before the road climbs the Mica grade, turn left into the small parking area for the preserve. Be very aware that there is no turning lane, and traffic coming down the grade is usually going fast. Signal your turn well in advance as those coming up behind you are trying to gain momentum to ascend the grade.
Difficulty. This trail is suitable for everyone. The two loops combined are just over two miles in length. Mosquitos have chased me away on a few occasions.
The Mineral Ridge trail has become a bit crowded. On any sunny weekend near midday, the parking lot will be full, so go early or late.
Midway through the descent, if you hike the trail counterclockwise, there is a bench next to the trail with one of the best views in the area. And the best time to reach this bench, which coincidentally will most likely be after the crowds have long gone, is sunset. Watching the sun descends over the eastern arm of the lake is awesome.
That being said, my wife and I had a nerve-wracking experience on this trail after dark.
Karen, and I decided to hike the trail after dark, in the rain. We had the trail to ourselves - almost. As we were nearing the ridge itself, I spotted a pair of eyes below us glowing in my headlamp stream. I dismissed the eyes as a deer grazing, then quickly realized that this wasn’t a deer. A deer will raise its head and stand very still, watching you. These eyes went to the ground and started slinking across the ground sideways. I saw a flash of tan and what I thought was a long tail. The hair on my arms went vertical and my hand went to the pistol on my hip.
I stopped Karen and grabbed my husky, Jackson, by the collar, and we began descending back down the trail. Problem is, the trail is a series of switchbacks, so every time the trail turned, the cougar was somewhere above and behind us. Exactly where you don’t want a cougar to be. We made it safely back to the parking lot, out of breath and eager to get into the relative safety of our SUV.
Along the trail there are a few interesting features that are easily missed if you are not looking for them. There was once a fair amount of mining on the ridge and in Beauty Creek. There are old overgrown and abandoned roads where I have found rusting tracks from an old bulldozer and rotting timbers that may have been used to shore up a prospect. There is a marked side trail about halfway up the ridge which leads to one of these prospects.
Access. Head east on I-90. At the Wolf Lodge exit take a right and drive along the windy shores of the lake until just before you reach Beauty Bay. The trailhead will be on your left.
Difficulty. I would rate this three-mile hike as moderately strenuous. There are some sections which are steep and rocky. I have heard of other people coming across a cougar on this trail, although that was several years ago.
Check out the extensive Mineral Ridge trail and plant guide.
Blue Creek/Wallace Forest Conservation Area
For a long time, the area surrounding Blue Creek Bay was mostly unknown. Even today, few people seem to visit this location. There are several trails looping through the hillsides on each side of the bay, so many in fact that I have found the best way to enjoy this area is to simply wander.
In spring the south facing slopes above Yellowstone Trail and I-90 lose their cover of snow early. I went shed-hunting there a few springs back and bushwhacked all over the hillsides finding nothing, until I came down a different trail and found one 100 feet away from where I had parked. The following year my youngest daughter found her first shed, (dropped antler) on the other side of the bay.
In early spring the crickets and frogs sing in the fields down by the lake. I have seen a mama black bear and her cub walking across these fields on their way to get a drink of water from the lake.
Access. There are a few ways to get to Blue Creek. Perhaps the simplest to explain is to drive to the Wolf Lodge exit and turn left over the interstate. At the dumpsters, called by locals the Wolf Lodge Exchange, take another left and drive up the road about two miles. The road turns to dirt, look for the parking area on your right.
Difficulty. The Wallace Forest Conservation Area has over 750 acres of land managed by the BLM. There are both easy and moderate trails. The BLM website states that the main parking area provides access to more than five miles of trail. If you continue down the road a little farther and take a left at the Blue Creek dumpsters the road will take you to a picnic area and docks with a public restroom.
While these hikes are close to town, cell phone reception is sometimes sketchy on the east end of the lake (Mineral Ridge and Blue Creek). There are four-legged critters that are potentially dangerous to us two-legged critters. Use common sense when you are in the woods. This is Idaho after all.