Little boy in a yellow shirt plays on a lake beach in priest lake ,Idaho.

Top 10 Unforgettable Things to Do in Priest Lake, Idaho

Post Summary: A guide on the best things to do at Priest Lake, Idaho.

Priest Lake is a secluded spot located in the northernmost reaches of Idaho. While most lake towns inevitably succumb to over-development and commercialism, Priest Lake has retained its wild nature. With 80 miles of shoreline and a large percentage of the area protected by state and federal parks, Priest Lake will likely stay that way. Its quiet charms are what beckons adventurers, nature lovers, and those seeking solace away from the grind of an over-connected life.

We make it a point to visit every year and consider Priest Lake one of our favorite summertime activities in North Idaho. With its crystal clear water, dreamy forests, and the majestic Selkirk Mountains looming around every bend, it’s hard not to fall in love with Priest Lake.

Read on to discover our picks for ten unforgettable things to do in Priest Lake, Idaho. Most of this post covers activities ideal for summer and the warmer months.

*This post may contain affiliate links, which means we might earn a small commission if you purchase from them. This is at no extra cost to you! We only recommend products and services we truly think are helpful.

Best Things To Do At Priest Lake, Idaho

Here are our recommendations on fun and adventurous things to do in Priest Lake, Idaho. Since so much of Priest Lake is about playing in the outdoors, it’s important to remember that we all play a part in keeping the area clean and beautiful for generations to come. When visiting Priest Lake, remember to Leave No Trace and practice the movement’s core tenets.

Play In The Lake

Beautiful blue lake with mountains in the distance and a kayaker on the water.

If you’re coming to Priest Lake, chances are you want to enjoy the water. Whether you want to boat, kayak, paddleboard, or go for an old-fashioned swim, time spent in or near the water is a must-do.

There are several places to rent boats in the area, two convenient ones being Priest Lake Marina and Elkins Resort. Most boat rental places also have kayaks, paddleboards, tubes, wakeboards, jet skis, and water skis you can add to your rental. If you rent a boat, you can cruise through the lake and visit any of the seven islands. Bartoo Island and Kalispell Island both offer boat-in camping.

If you’re looking for a fun day-use area where you can swim and enjoy the water from land, you can visit Indian Creek Campground, Luby Bay Campground (charges for day use), Lionhead Campground, and Reeder Bay Campground. While the resorts at Priest Lake are lovely and worth a visit for a nice dinner out, they do not allow day use to the public.

Visit Priest Lake State Park

Little boy in yellow shirt plays in the sand at Priest Lake State Park.
Woman in overalls eats ice cream in front of a chalkboard with ice cream flavors.
Ice cream is how to do summer at Priest Lake.

Priest Lake State Park is a popular park with three separate units: Dickensheet, Indian Creek, and Lionhead. Most people are there to camp and enjoy the water. If you’re a day tripper wanting easy access and parking to a public beach, visiting one of the park units is a fun option.

  • Dickensheet Campground is the smallest and on the Priest River, so it’s nice if you want river access or to fish in the waters.
  • Indian Creek Campground is the most developed campground with a visitors center, flush toilets, showers, a camp store, and ice cream! The beach there is lovely, and it will be packed with families in the summer. The unit also has dis golf and pleasant hiking trails that are ideal for small children.
  • Lionhead Campground is the furthest north on the western side and has a beautiful beach area. It’s quieter and more rustic than Indian Creek. It’s a great launch point for hikes in the area and kayaking the Thorofare between Priest Lake and Upper Priest Lake.

Kayak the Thorofare

Woman kayaks in priest lake on a green kayak.

Upper Priest Lake is the northernmost section of the lake and can not be driven to. It can only be accessed via foot, bike, kayak, or boat. One of the best ways to get there is to kayak the Thorofare, which connects the larger Priest Lake and the more secluded Upper Priest Lake. If visiting in the height of summer, the water will be calm and sheltered, providing a smooth paddling experience free from strong currents. It is a designated no-wake zone, so ideally, boats will slowly come through as well. It is popular, so it’s unlikely you’ll be alone. If you want that, you’ll need to leave early in the morning to avoid the biggest swell of crowds.

The journey through the Thorofare is approximately 2.5 miles one way, making it 5-miles round trip. It can be comfortably completed in a couple of hours or a half day if you stop to play in the water or have a waterside picnic. It’s a gorgeous setting, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot the occasional moose grazing near the water’s edge and eagles soaring above.

One launch area is at Beaver Creek Campground, located on the lake’s western side. You can either put in from the boat launch at the campground or walk the 1/4 mile portage trail. While the boat launch doesn’t require lugging a heavy kayak on a trail, it does mean you’ll add an extra 1/2 mile (one way) of kayaking in open water to get to the Thorofare. It can be difficult and hard on windy days, especially for young children. You’ll have to use your best judgment when you get there.

The portage trail is a 1 /4-mile trail, so it requires walking your kayaks and gear. Kayaks are heavy! I highly suggest using a kayak cart to make it easier. The advantage of walking the portage trail is you avoid adding an extra mile to your trip, and you don’t have to kayak through the sometimes heavy currents of open water.

The second launch area is Lionshead Campground on the eastern side of the lake. If you don’t have your own kayaks, this is a good spot to start since you can rent them from the campground.

TIP: The best time to kayak the Thorofare is late June to early September. If you want to kayak before summertime, I highly suggest calling the Priest Lake Ranger Office for advice on current conditions. We called when we were planning to kayak it in early June, and they advised against it because the water was too cold and the winter snowmelt was causing higher currents that would make it unsafe. You can reach the office at 208-443-2512.

Hike Or Bike To Upper Priest Lake

Mother and son walk along a creek on a trail in Priest Lake.

If you’re not up for kayaking the Thorofare, you can hike or mountain bike to Upper Priest Lake. The Upper Priest Lake Trail is a well-maintained trail and an easy hike that takes you through the forest and along the shoreline. It’s 9.3 miles out and back, so many choose to cut the hike short by hiking to Plowboy Campground and turning around, making it a six-mile out-and-back hike. If it’s summer, bring a bathing suit so you can play in the water.

TIP: The mosquitos can be FIERCE in Priest Lake. Plan ahead and have bug spray with you.

Hike To An Alpine Lake Or Mountain Vista

Woman and young son sit on green mountain top looking out at Priest Lake.

Priest Lake has miles and miles of hiking trails worth exploring. You can go lakeside with the calm and family-friendly Lakeshore Trail, or you can take it up a notch and hike to a mountaintop vista or an alpine lake. Here are some popular hiking trails in the area. I recommend reading the reviews linked to All Trails so you can know which trails are better suited for a high-clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead.

  • Mount Roothann: 3 miles out and back, 1099 feet elevation gain
  • Chimney Rock: 10.5 miles out and back, 2860 feet elevation gain
  • Lookout Mountain: 4.8 miles out and back, 1719 feet elevation gain
  • Caribou Lake: 4,2 miles out and back, 1023 feet elevation gain
  • Hunt Lake: 2.2 miles out and back, 583 feet elevation gain

The picture above is from the Viewpoint Trail Hike that starts at Indian Creek Campground. It’s a good viewpoint hike for anyone visiting with young children since it has a nice view, but it’s only 1.2 miles out and back.

Photograph The Northern Lights

Northern Lights at Priest Lake State Park.
What you capture on camera isn’t always what you can see with the naked eye. Bring a DSLR camera and use the right settings!

Did you know you can see the Aurora Borealis in Idaho? Not only that, Priest Lake is one of the best spots to view the Northern Lights in Idaho because of its minimal light pollution and its north-facing views. Peak viewing times are typically between late September and early April. Although the auroras can appear at any hour of the night, the best chances are often late at night or in the early hours before dawn.

The best way to know when you can see the Northern Lights is to use an Aurora Forecaster that notifies you when conditions are optimal for viewing the lights. To maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, you should seek out spots within the Priest Lake area that offer expansive, unobstructed views of the northern horizon and are far from artificial lights. Some recommended locations include:

  • Hills Resort: The resort has fantastic open views and useful amenities like chairs and fire pits that make it accessible for the average person.
  • Lionhead Campground is located on the northern end of Priest Lake. The beach spot offers expansive views over the water, providing a natural, dark backdrop ideal for aurora viewing.
  • Eightmile Island: Accessible by boat, the island offers a unique vantage point for viewing the lights with minimal light pollution.
  • Upper Priest Lake: This more secluded area, accessible by hiking or boating, offers pristine skies for those willing to venture a bit further.

Photographing the Northern Lights requires some preparation and the right equipment to best capture the colors and movements effectively. I’m going to level with you and say that while you can see the Northern Lights here, what you capture on your camera will be way more vivid and spectacular than what your naked eye can see. To maximize your photos, you’ll want a tripod, a wide angle lens, a DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual settings, a long exposure, and ideally, a remote shutter release.

Most of all…be patient! Dress warm, bring some spiked hot chocolate, and wait for nature’s best light show.

The Roosevelt Grove Of Ancient Cedars

Woman in orange shirt stands at the trunk of a wide and tall old cedar tree. She touches it with one hand and looks up to he top of the tree.

The Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars is a stunning forest sanctuary for old-growth cedar trees. Located a reasonable driving distance from Priest Lake, the park has some of the tallest and oldest cedar trees in the Pacific Northwest. It is estimated that the trees are around 800 years old, with a few ancient ones over 2000 years old!

It also has a fantastic waterfall, Granite Falls, that is a must-see in late spring when it will be at full gush. The park is excellent for families since it’s an easy 3-mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of 450 feet. The hike will take you to see the waterfall and the upper and lower cedar groves.

TIP: Bring a lunch, and you can eat at the picnic tables at the Lower Grove.

Lakeside Sunset Dinner

Drinks and dinner at Hill’s Resort.

There are a handful of fun places to eat in the Priest Lake area, most of them around the Coolin area. With its lakeside views, reserving a lakeside dinner at golden hour is a treat so you can enjoy the beautiful sunset colors. Cavanaughs, Hill’s Resort, and Elkins Resort are all excellent choices for lakeside restaurants. Hills and Elkins are more upscale and what I would consider “a nice night out” in terms of prices. It’s still Idaho, though, so the restaurants retain a casual charm. Hills is great for families because your kids can run out to the playground while waiting for food, and you can still see them!

Sleep Under The Stars

Mother and son sit around a campfire making smores with their RV in the background.
Our campsite at Indian Creek Campground.

Priest Lake is where you come to camp. Whether you enjoy front country camping, RV camping, backpacking, boat-in camping, or glamping…it has it all. Once we renovated our 1979 camper, we became dedicated RV campers, so we always choose to stay at Indian Creek Campground at Priest Lake State Park. We love it there, and it fits our needs perfectly. That being said, there are SO MANY great places to camp in Priest Lake. It would be impossible to recommend since everyone enjoys different things. A great place to start is this website that lists all the campsites in Priest Lake. At the bottom of that page is a link to a map of the campgrounds. It’s great for a visual reference of where all the campgrounds are.

Foraging For Huckleberries or Mushrooms

Mother and son forage for huckleberries in Priest  Lake.

Foraging is one of the most unique things to do in Priest Lake. The area’s fertile environment supports a wide variety of edible plants, berries, mushrooms, and other natural foods that thrive in the area’s unique climate and geography. The most accessible to a novice forager are huckleberries and morel mushrooms. Huckleberries are the state fruit of Idaho and are abundant in the North Idaho region. The berries tend to ripen from July to August but can vary each season. They are a sweet tart berry that resemble a small blueberry. You can often find them on trails and forested areas around the lake. Check out this map from the Forest Service on prime huckleberry-picking corridors.

In the spring, morel mushrooms pop up from the wet soil, exciting fungi enthusiasts everywhere. Morel mushrooms have a rich, nutty flavor with a distinctive honeycomb appearance. A great addition to a campfire burger! They are commonly found in areas that have experienced forest fires. Here’s a great article from Visit Idaho about how to find huckleberries and morel mushrooms in Idaho.

In truth, you will have much better luck finding huckleberries. Since foragers are notoriously secretive about their spots, you won’t find many people offering up where to go. You can ask a Priest Lake State Park ranger, and they’ll give you some useful tips.

Both huckleberries and morel mushrooms require knowledge and respect for the environment to forage responsibly. Be gentle with the plants, and don’t take more than you need!

Tips And FAQ’s About Visiting Priest Lake

Deep green forest with large granite rocks.

What is the best time of year to visit Priest Lake, Idaho?

The best time of year to visit Priest Lake if you want to enjoy the lake fully is in the summer months of late June to early September. However, I think the best time is largely subjective since many people love the quiet time in early June and late September when the hiking trails are free of snow and mud, and the crowds have disappeared. Others love the winter for snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, winter camping, and snowshoeing.

If you are not from Idaho, it’s important to note that winters are long here, and snow and rain can significantly alter the roads and affect access to places till June. It’s entirely dependent on the year and what it was like. The safest bet for full access to everything is summer.

To learn more about the weather in Idaho and when to visit, you can read our detailed guide on the best times to visit Idaho.

Can I find luxury accommodations in Priest Lake?

Priest Lake is not a fancy place, so you aren’t going to find five-star hotels in the area. However, there are two lovely resorts, Hill’s Resort and Elkins Resort, that offer more upscale accommodations. If you want a cabin or a secluded home in the forest, your best bet is to rent a house through VRBO or Booking. There are several options that range from simple and affordable to decadent and luxurious.

Can you drive around Priest Lake?

No, the lake does not have a road that goes around the entirety of Priest Lake and Upper Priest Lake.

What kind of car do I need to drive?

The best kind of car will be a high clearance vehicle with 4-wheel drive. If you plan to hike or visit sights off the main area, you will likely have to take mountainous, unpaved roads with dips and rutted-out sections. If you need to rent a car when visiting Priest Lake, you can check out for the best prices.

That’s our list of 10 amazing and adventurous things to do in Priest Lake, Idaho. Enjoy your time in one of Idaho’s most beautiful lake towns. Happy adventures!


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