Sunday, May 24, 2020

Mickinnick Trail

Cabinet Mountains rise over Lake Pend Oreille and Sandpoint
7 miles round trip, 2400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, free parking

Just outside the town of Sandpoint, the Mickinnick Trail provides beautiful views of Lake Pend Oreille in the Idaho Panhandle from atop a mountainside of the Selkirk Range. I haven't explored quite enough of the Pend Oreille region to compare this hike to others nearby, but I did enjoy this hike quite a bit and found the views over Idaho's largest lake to be fabulous. Autumn is a nice time to see the color of the western larches down in the valley below, although there are very few larches on this trail itself.

I hiked this trail during an October road trip to the Selkirks. The trailhead is on the the outskirts of Sandpoint, Idaho and is about 80 minutes driving from Spokane. From Sandpoint, I followed US Route 2/US Route 95 north to the Walmart just north of town and made a left turn onto the Schweitzer Cutoff Road here. I followed Schweitzer Cutoff Road until it intersected with Boyer Avenue just outside the Bonner County Jail and made a left turn; shortly after, I made a right turn onto Woodland Drive and followed it across the railroad tracks. I continued along Woodland Drive after it made a sharp bend to the right and followed it just north to the Mickinnick Trailhead on the left side of the road.

The trail's unusual name comes from Mick and Nicky Pleass, Sandpoint residents who donated land to the Forest Service to open up public access to this trail. The name also refers to the kinnikinnick- or bearberry- plant that grows in the region.

Leaving from the trailhead, I took the wide trail across a grassy field that gave me a glimpse of the mountain above, which was a mix of cliffs and forest. As the trail reentered the forest, it passed a stand of western larches that were the only such trees that I saw from close up on the hike.

Reaching the foot of the mountain, the trail cut to the north and began a switchbacking ascent up the slope. After a couple initial switchbacks, the trail arrived a small clearing at a half mile from the trailhead with a view to the east, the first viewpoint on the hike. Much of the view that could be seen higher up on the hike was visible here, although with a little less definition at this low elevation. A handful of nearby larches lit up the forest just below, while farther out open fields were mixed with forests and buildings in Sandpoint, with Lake Pend Oreille and the Cabinet Mountains beyond that.

Larches and the Cabinet Mountains from the first viewpoint
From this first viewpoint, the trail made a brief drop before embarking on a long switchback climb through the forest. Although there were no larches in this forest, some of the underbrush exhibited nice fall colors.

Trail through the forest
At around two miles into the hike, after numerous switchbacks, the trail passed an unmarked social path breaking off to the right from the end of a switchback that led out to a beautiful, open viewpoint atop a rocky part of the mountain slope. This was the widest and arguably most impressive viewpoint of the hike: from here, there was a sweeping view of Lake Pend Oreille and the town of Sandpoint below. The lake could be seen much more clearly than at the lower viewpoint, as could the many inlets along its shoreline. The Cabinet Mountains rose to the north of the lake. Looking more towards the north, I could also see along a stretch of the Cabinet Mountains, with the valley between the Selkirks and the Cabinet Mountains below dotted with farms, houses, and larches.

Rays of sunshine illuminating Lake Pend Oreille from the second viewpoint
View over Sandpoint to the Cabinet Mountains
After enjoying this viewpoint for a bit, I returned to the main trail, which continued climbing for a bit before cutting off towards the south. There was a nice viewpoint over Sandpoint and Lake Pend Oreille from the trail itself, but this view was not as broad as the viewpoint just earlier.

I continued to follow the trail on its sustained uphill climb. The switchbacks ended and the trail leveled out a bit as it approached a false summit around mile 3; the trail crossed this false summit and then dropped slightly through a saddle before making a final ascent to a nice viewpoint at the end of the trail. The trail's end was still far short of the summit of the mountain, stopping simply at a nice viewpoint on the east slope of the Selkirks.

Although this final view was not quite as wide as the view from the middle viewpoint, the additional elevation allowed me to further appreciate the size of Lake Pend Oreille. The lake is the largest in Idaho- in fact, the largest in the Pacific Northwest- and the 27th largest natural lake in the country. It's also the fifth deepest lake in the US, a fact that led the Navy to set up the Farragut Naval Training Center on the shores of this lake during World War II. The Navy still uses the lake for research today, as its depth gives it acoustic properties similar to the ocean. The lake also marks the spot where massive continental glaciers once dammed up the Clark Fork River, leading to the formation of Glacial Lake Missoula, which provided the waters for the massive floods that swept Eastern Washington to form the Channeled Scablands.

Lake Pend Oreille
This high viewpoint did provide more of a view to the south: I could see over the downtown area of Sandpoint and the Causeway that carries BNSF freight trains to the south. Gold and Blacktail Mountains were among the low, forested mountains across this arm of the lake; while it wasn't visible, the main body of the lake actually lies behind these nearby mountains. In the distance was the Bitterroot Range, a major arm of the Rockies that stretches along the Idaho-Montana border.

View to the Causeway, Blacktail Mountain and the Bitterroots
I had the top of the trail to myself; I saw a couple of locals on the hike up and down, but most confined themselves to the lower stretches of the trail, turning around at the first or second viewpoints. It was such a luxury to enjoy the views of fjord-like Lake Pend Oreille in solitude.

Lake Pend Oreille
Upon finishing the hike, I entered Sandpoint for lunch and found it an absolutely beautiful and charming town. Originally a timber town, outdoor recreation now powers the town, with the ski resort at Schweitzer Mountain a major player in the local economy. Skiers who come visit the resort in winter and head up to the crest of the Selkirks can see similar views to the ones from the Mickinnick Trail.

I enjoyed this hike quite a lot. It's easily accessed from Sandpoint and although the climb is substantial, the grade is manageable. Hiking here made me eager to return and explore more of Idaho's Rockies. If you're in the area and have a half day or more, this is a good hike to appreciate the beauty of Lake Pend Oreille.

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