The Hidden Secrets of Paddling Idaho’s Thorofare

The Thorofare is a leisurely paddle and can be done as a day trip or an overnighter.
The Thorofare is a leisurely paddle and can be done as a day trip or an overnighter. Pete Zimowsky
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A narrow waterway leading from North Idaho’s Priest Lake to Upper Priest Lake, the Thorofare is a paddling adventure that unfolds with dramatic mountain scenery and quiet solitude.

The waterway takes paddlers from busy, touristy 23,000-acre Priest Lake to the secluded, 1,300-acre upper lake, with campsites only reached by water or backpacking. It’s one of the premier canoe/kayaking camping adventures in the West, starting at the base of 7,600-foot Selkirk Mountain peaks. Beyond the spectacular scenery, it’s an ideal trip for beginners new to canoe and kayak camping—and an perfect adventure to embark on before the end of the summer.

Canoeists and kayakers launch from the white sandy beaches of the Lionhead unit of Priest Lake State Park or the U.S. Forest Service’s Beaver Creek Campground and paddle a short way on the big lake entering the two-mile waterway. Mornings are the best time to launch, because ski boats aren’t on the big lake yet and the water is usually glassy.

The expanse of Upper Priest Lake and its remote shore-side campsites lure touring kayakers every summer.
The expanse of Upper Priest Lake and its remote shore-side campsites lure touring kayakers every summer. Pete Zimowsky

Within minutes, paddlers are cruising past the lime-green, velvety moss banks of the Thorofare, leaving behind signs of civilization like cabins and campsites before entering the protected upper Priest Lake Scenic Area. The sweet smell of cedar, hemlock, and white pine lingers in the crisp air, and paddlers who know what to look out for can spot wildlife like moose, white-tailed deer, waterfowl, and even bears and bald eagles.

The 2½-to-3 mile route to the upper lake, depending on where kayakers launch, is easy paddling with minimal current. From there, paddlers break out of the narrow, tree-line waterway onto Upper Priest Lake and experience the kind of solitude that stays with you for a while.

Here, a few insider tips on planning your own Thorofare and Upper Priest Lake paddling adventure—which can include hiking, camping, and some of the best huckleberry treats around, from pie to daquiris—while summer is still in full swing.

Sandy beaches at state park and Forest Service campgrounds make great launching points for the Upper Priest Lake Thorofare.
Sandy beaches at state park and Forest Service campgrounds make great launching points for the Upper Priest Lake Thorofare. Pete Zimowsky

Hiking

Named for outdoor-loving President Theodore Roosevelt and designated a scenic area in 1943, the Roosevelt Grove natural area is a must for hikers. The trail leads to a beautiful cedar forest whose trees average 800 years old, with some up to 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Bring a picnic to enjoy in the shadow of these towering giants.

Another highlight of the area, and a perfect respite for a warm summer hike, is Granite Falls, 14 miles north of Nordman on the west side of Priest Lake. The trail leads to two places with great photo opportunities of the silvery, cascading falls. Get there by driving north on Forest Road 302, which is an extension of state highway 57.

Mountain Biking

Mountain bike trails can be found throughout the whole Priest Lake region. The Upper Priest Lake Navigation Trail is an excellent mountain bike trail near Priest Lake, an eight-mile route (one way) on singletrack to old-growth forests next to Upper Priest Lake. Other recommended trails include Chipmunk Rapids, Granite Pass, and Lakeshore.

Camping

The first remote campsites along Upper Priest Lake are usually the busy ones. Paddlers who cross the lake have more solitude.
The first remote campsites along Upper Priest Lake are usually the busy ones. Paddlers who cross the lake have more solitude. Pete Zimowsky

Campsites can be found at the Indian Creek and Lionhead units of Priest Lake State Park (call 888- 922-6743 for reservations). Lionhead is better suited for tents and is a good launch for the Thorofare; RV camping is limited. The Indian Creek unit is more developed with RV spaces, a park store, and laundry. However, it’s too far for paddling to the Thorofare and kayakers will have to drive to Lionhead or Beaver Creek campgrounds to launch.

Campsites at the Dickensheet Unit of the state park are located on Priest River and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. It also requires driving to the launch sites.

Refueling

The standard camping staples of baked beans and packaged soups can only go so far for so long. Another bonus about exploring Priest Lake its restaurants and resorts around the lake, where you can grab pizzas and burgers or sit down for a gourmet meal. This is also huckleberry country—don’t miss the chance to savor a huckleberry shakes, pie, or even a huckleberry daiquiri.

Island Hopping

The U.S. Forest Service oversees two islands in Priest Lake with campgrounds: Kalispell and Bartoo. Kalispell is about 1.3 miles from the Luby Bay Campground on the west side of Priest Lake; Bartoo Island is 1.7 miles. The islands are popular for both motorized and non-motorized boaters.

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