By: Andrew Beck
North Idaho is known for its beauty and lakes with expansive shores. It’s also known for being home to plenty of affluent properties—many are owned by celebrities looking for refuge from Hollywood, such as Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, and Clint Eastwood. Priest Lake, situated above Priest River has a long coastline and several islands on the lake. There are multiple campgrounds around the shore, but near the north end of the lake is a camping area more true to nature than most.
Sections of remaining endowment land have been maintained by a few park staff and generous campers, and you can camp there for free! It is very close to the equally enjoyable Lionhead Unit of Priest Lake State Park. When you drive to Lionhead, you come to an intersection where you would turn left into the Lionhead Ranger station. Instead, turn right onto the dirt road. You’ll know you’re at the right intersection because there is a large totem pole in the center of it. You’ll see cars parked to the side of the road, which will indicate who’s camping where. When you’ve chosen a spot, feel free to make yourself at home. The endowment land campsites are very private—most sites aren’t in view of others.
The wildlife at Priest Lake is humbling, as there are many large animals. You may run into a bear, a buck, or even a moose. There’s lots of small animals too: bats cut through the air just feet above your head, and spring campers will occasionally run into a deer and her fawns. Some parts of the campground are more isolated than others, due to a bridge that collapsed decades ago. If you take a day hike over to the isolated side, you can see nature taking the forest back before your eyes. Tiny daisies poke out of rusty fire pits, reaching for the filtered sunlight. Only two slightly bare gravel treads mark where a large grated road used to be. Be warned, this side of the campground is real nature. You may run into a moose, a bear, or other large animals. During the spring, be very carful not to startle wildlife and use smart hiking decisions. I spoke with a regular camper there named Nico Archer, who told me “Sometimes people fire off guns near sunset to scare off the large animals, but there’s not always people there doing that.” Animals typically steer clear of the campgrounds, but will roam the banks on the other side of the river.
Because the endowment land is only mildly maintained and patrolled, it does not offer the same amenities that a normal campground might. It’s a real camping experience; there are no bathrooms, no dedicated ranger station, no cell phone service, and no RV or trailer camping. The dirt roads are very rocky at times, and it’s highly suggested that you travel in a vehicle with high clearance.
Outdoor adventurers will love the easy access to Priest River and the beaches of Priest Lake. Most of the endowment land campsites are situated on the riverbank. You can feel a crisp drop in air temperature when you walk down to the riverside. The water is freezing cold, but is appreciated during Priest Lake’s very hot and dry summers. The lake water itself is perfectly chilled, getting warmer toward the beaches. Large sand bars allow you to walk several hundred feet from shore in some places, and small islands around the perimeter beg to be explored.
If you have a few dollars to spend, you may want to consider renting recreational equipment. Basic camping gear like tents, backpacks, camping stoves, and snowshoes can be rented at most REIs. Students, however, should look into renting equipment from their university. Whitworth University, for example, has a Rec Center where you can rent all kinds of outdoor fun. Check out their website for more details.
You’ll need to be prepared for a trip with no extra help (bathrooms, nearby grocery store, cell service, etc). Make sure to bring plenty of ice, and bringing lots of non-perishable food will free up space in the coolers for beverages. Aaron Kretzer, another regular camper at Priest Lake Lionhead, told me the lack of resources and facilities allows you to be creative. “You can warm up jugs of water by the fire and then string them up in a tree, and you can make a hot shower out of it!”
Firewood is also a must-have. There is some wood that can be gathered around the campsites, but to preserve the land it is highly recommended that you bring your own. It will burn better and hotter than found wood anyway. Some campers are not the most considerate; try not to leave your campsite unattended for more than an hour or so to be safe.
With gas prices so low currently, travel costs should be minimal. It’s 103 miles from Spokane, WA to the Lionhead Unit. At an average of 25 miles per gallon, the average consumer should pay only about $18 round trip. According to SmartAsset.com, bringing food should cost
about $40-50. According to MainStreet.com, renting camping gear should only set you back about $55 for a 4-person tent for the weekend. Split between two people, this weekend trip is a bargain!