North Idaho town offers lakefront beauty and recreation, making it a good stop on a Western road trip or a destination in its own right.

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The town of Coeur d’Alene, nestled along a lake in northern Idaho, is a “choose your own adventure” sort of destination.

Step out of a downtown hotel and turn one direction for bistros, beer bars and quaint small-town shopping. Head the other way and you find (get ready, it’s a long list): hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, water skiing, lake cruises, a biplane waiting to whisk you above Lake Coeur d’Alene, wind surfing or just lounging on the beach

On the average pleasant summer day, all those pursuits happen side by side in the town of 46,000, which is tucked between the lake and the national forest that share its name.

Add it all up and Coeur d’Alene offers small-town charm crossed with the glories of the wild. Perched at 2,200 feet and just off Interstate 90, it holds an easy, laid-back magic built for tourism but never overwhelmed by it.

There’s no pretense here — just a quick, seductive charm and progressive Western mentality. The downtown farmers market, for instance, included a woman pouring three of her homemade kombucha teas (which she sold to an eager local audience — on tap no less); another stall hawking locally grown wool in a rainbow of colors; and, of course, because this is small-town America, local fudge.

But the town’s secret weapon becomes obvious soon after arriving: the beautiful lake. Edging downtown CDA (as the locals call the town) and ringed by pine-forested hills, it’s a winding 25 miles long. And, on the edge of town, the lake includes the “floating green” at Coeur d’Alene Resort golf course. It’s exactly what its name implies: a green on the 14th hole that floats just offshore, and it’s accessible only by boat once a golfer chips a shot over.

Youths jump from the rocks at Tubbs Hill in the center of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  (Josh Noel / TNS)
Youths jump from the rocks at Tubbs Hill in the center of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. (Josh Noel / TNS)

Small-town friendliness

“I’m a Southern California girl, and I never would have guessed I’d end up here,” said Carol Kime, 52, who moved to the town five years ago, after her parents did. Until then, she had never even heard of it. “The people are so friendly. They just talk to you on the street. And you’d never honk your horn at someone like in L.A. You just don’t do that here.”

The floating green at the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s golf course is at the 14th hole. A little boat carries golfers to and from the unusual green (with its serious water trap).  (Visit Idaho /Coeur d’Alene Resort)
The floating green at the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s golf course is at the 14th hole. A little boat carries golfers to and from the unusual green (with its serious water trap). (Visit Idaho /Coeur d’Alene Resort)

I met Kime at the dock where a boat tour, which spends 90 minutes skimming across the lake, begins. The tours are an easy way to gain perspective on the town and the beauty surrounding it, so I boarded a cruise one afternoon with several dozen people, mostly families with young children or groups of adults with cases of beer and festive mindsets.

The captain announced on the intercom, “They say this is one of the five most beautiful lakes in the world,” and whoever “they” were, I believed them.

I believed them even more when a local clued me in to which house on the glistening shore belonged to retired football player John Elway and which belonged to the actor Dennis Franz. (They’re neighbors, apparently.)

The next morning I walked the town’s Tubbs Hill, a rolling, 130-acre pine-shrouded peninsula that juts into the lake.

Tubbs Hill has been protected land since the 1970s; in the hands of a less savvy town, it’s not difficult to imagine that it would have been plowed and developed to the hilt with view homes. But Coeur d’Alene had the good sense to leave Tubbs Hill alone, resulting in a rustic, piney two-mile hiking trail right beside downtown. On a warm, sunny day, I walked the loop, passing the secret coves and beaches below. Locals swam, splashed, threw sticks for their dogs into the lake and dared each other to jump from the rocky cliffs into the blue-green water below.

The town, and most sense of civilization, disappeared after about 10 minutes on Tubbs Hill. It was just me and a quiet view across the broad lake. It was wonderfully peaceful. But I won’t lie — I was glad to know that at the end of the loop, I would be a mere five-minute walk to beer and wood-fired pizza. Such is life in Coeur d’Alene.