The Idaho Panhandle is rich in wildlife. Species include elk, whitetail deer, black bear and the woodland caribou, an endangered species living in northernmost Idaho, its last remaining home in the lower 48 states. The grizzly bear, another endangered species, lives in small numbers in remote regions of the forest. Abundant surface water attracts a wide variety of waterfowl, eagles and osprey.
A hundred years ago, silver, lead, and gold mining brought wealth-seekers from around the world. Today, the hot prospects have all but vanished. A few large mines remain in the Silver Valley east of Coeur d'Alene, at the mining towns of Wallace, Silverton, Kellogg and Mullan along Interstate 90. Folks with a yen to dig can still glean prizes from the earth at Emerald Creek near Clarkia. Here the Forest Service operates the world's only star garnet (the state gem) grounds outside India.
Nearby is the St. Joe River, a special place. Its lower reaches at an altitude of 2,128 feet make it the highest navigable river in the world. On this working river, tug boats pull rafts or "brailes" of logs to lumber mills in St. Maries and Coeur d'Alene. The tugs are living history, operating where paddle-wheelers once did. Part of the St. Joe River, which rises in the vast Bitterroot Range, is a Wild and Scenic River. Accessible by road and trail, the river attracts whitewater runners and fishermen. Campgrounds are nearby.
While few prospectors ever found the lead or silver of their dreams, some harvested the "green gold" of white pine, western red cedar, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine. The timber shored up mine tunnels and finished lumber provided commercial and residential buildings, including mansions for the timber and mining barons of Wallace, Coeur d'Alene, and Spokane.
In some places the logger's axe remained sheathed. Near Priest Lake, the Hanna Flats Botanical Area and Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedar Area recall a time long before Europeans arrived in North America. Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area near Clarkia is an outstanding example of the giant trees that once filled the wet valley bottoms of the region.
Much of the timber was transported from the forest by railroad between 1900 and 1940. Today the abandoned train routes are used by logging trucks, automobiles, hikers, cyclists, snowmobiles, cross-country skiers and other recreationalists.
Remnants of the railroading era are still here including tunnels, soaring trestles and all types of old logging equipment and structures. But many are disappearing into the new forests growing up around them.
In some places, nature needs a helping hand. The Coeur d'Alene Tree Nursery produces nearly 20 million tree seedlings a year. The public is welcome to tour the facility throughout the year, but "lift and pack" season in early spring is the busiest time.The Selkirk, Cabinet, Coeur d'Alene and Bitterroot mountain ranges feature glacial cirques and gem-like lakes high above timberline and craggy ridge tops. The country, remote and rough to travel, is a special place for those seeking solitude.