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The Best of the Shoulder Season

What to do and see in Sandpoint during the off season

By Abigail Thorpe

Come October, the crowds start to dissipate on City Beach, and downtown becomes a quiet strolling town once again, without (as much) commotion and traffic. The height of tourist season is over, and for a time Sandpoint once again resumes the sleepy town feel locals know so well.

It’s during this time, known as “shoulder season,” that the heart and soul of Sandpoint comes out. The dog days of summer are over, the boats are out of the marina, and the water has gone from pleasant to frigid overnight it seems. Despite the cooling temps, autumn is the prime season to make the most of Sandpoint’s many offerings.

“Life slows down a bit after tourist season, and locals can finally take a deep breath and relax after the frenetic summer activity,” says Kate McAlister, President and CEO of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce. “With the leaves turning and the canopies over the local streets turning gold and orange, it is magnificent.”

October is sweater weather, a time when it’s still warm enough to explore the outdoors and admire the incredible changing color, but also when we start to pull out our favorite cold weather recipes and let time slow down enough to enjoy meals and quiet walks with friends and family.

“We still see visitors, mostly retirees, but the area becomes ours for a short while,” adds McAlister. “The air is crisp and clear, and it’s time to harvest the gardens and prepare for the winter. It is usually a time we all get together, swap soup and slow cooker recipes, and talk about winter activities and the upcoming holidays.”

Before the snow starts to fly, there is lots to do and see in Sandpoint. The changing foliage becomes one of the most instantly noticeable markers of the season, so don’t miss a drive through one or all of the scenic areas in the region during October, when colors are at their height.

Lakeshore Drive and Dufort Road over in Sagle are prime spots to enjoy the colors during a short scenic drive right along the lake, or head out to Highway 200 toward Montana for epic views along the lake and Clark Fork River, with majestic mountain peaks and beautiful river valleys dotted with color. For a longer adventure, set out on the International Selkirk Loop and enjoy 280 miles of breathtaking scenic views through North Idaho, Washington and Canada.

Scenic drives are incredible this time of year, but sometime the best experience is getting out on foot or bike to truly take in the colors and crisp air, feel the leaves crunching beneath your feet, and breath deeply of the cool autumn air, spiced with notes of dry leaves, balsamy firs and cozy chimney smoke. Head out on one of the many trails in the area for a fall adventure, like Pend Oreille Bay Trail, Gold Hill, Mineral Point, Mickinnick Trail and Maiden Rock, to name a few.

Up at Schweitzer Mountain, the lifts may be closed until the slopes open in November or December, but there is still plenty to do. Stop in one of the local eateries for a bite, then bundle up and sit outside for breathtaking views of the valley below, Lake Pend Oreille at its center. Admire the changing colors during your drive down the mountain, or jump on your mountain bike for a rush of adrenaline down the mountain trail—one of your last chances before snow covers the trails until spring.

All of that activity is guaranteed to work up an appetite. Downtown restaurants are warm, friendly, enjoyable places to stop in for a bite this time of the year, and boast a menu full of fall favorites and comfort foods. The crowds are gone, so there’s plenty of room to pull up a chair, chat with a friendly neighbor or enjoy a quiet meal with friends and family. Don’t miss eating Guinness Stew at Eichardts while you’re out and about.

Need some brews to go along with all of that comfort food? Head out on a local brewery tour of Sandpoint’s finest, and sample some seasonal favorites. Outside of Laughing Dog brewery in Ponderay (which you should put on your list to drive to, as they’re serving up some great brews), you can walk from downtown to Sandpoint’s various breweries.

Start at Matchwood Brewing in the historic Granary Arts District, then head over to Utara Brewing on Pine Street and finish your journey at MickDuff’s in downtown, where you’re perfectly placed to head out for some end-of-night adventures at one of the local haunts.

No fall is complete without pumpkin picking and a fall fest. Head out to Hickey Farms to find your perfect Jack-O-Lantern, and have fun taking part in the many festivities on the weekends, including a corn maze, live music, food vendors, a large slide, bouncy house, hayrides and the beloved Wriggle Worm.

Take to the mountains and fields on horseback with Mountain Horse Adventures or Western Pleasure Guest Ranch. Horseback riding is a great way to take in the views and colors, and fall is the perfect time, when temperatures aren’t too hot.

“It’s always fun to explore our area, you never know what you may find—a moose, a bear, and all kinds of wildlife. If locals happen to stumble on something new and hidden, we often don’t share our secrets,” smiles McAlister.

Even though COVID has canceled or changed some regularly scheduled fall events, there is still plenty to do around town. Catch a show at the historic Panida Theater downtown—October 22 through 25 features the LIVE theater CLUE production from the Panida Playhouse Players. Catch some humorous, whodunnit fun and explore one of Sandpoint’s historic gems in the process. October also marks the Winter Welcome from the Sandpoint Nordic Club, where you can wander the Pine Street Woods, learn more about the club and winter activities, and participate in the silent auction.

Fishing is still alive and well in the autumn months—although the waters are colder and you’ll need some serious layers to go out on the water. This is prime time to catch some great native species and enjoy the lakes, rivers and streams while they’re quiet and free of the crowds and boats that summertime brings to the area.

Whether you take to the trails and woods or explore the downtown shops and restaurants while it’s quiet and there’s time to chat with the proprietors and locals, there is still much to see and do during shoulder season in North Idaho and Sandpoint.

“You have a better chance of exploring places without being crowded out,” says McAlister. “It’s much easier to find calm whether hiking or biking or just hanging out and getting to know the locals, because we are awesome people. Life starts to take the nice slower pace we all appreciate. That is, until ski season at Schweitzer, then we gear up to once again give excellent service to our visitors.”

If you’re new to Sandpoint, just passing through or a long-time local, take the extra moments and hours that fall brings to stop and smell the leaves, go for a walk and celebrate all that shoulder season brings to our small town—you may discover something you never expected.

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