Back Country Bonanza
For snowmobilers, Trestle Creek and Pack River areas offer wide-open territory
By David Kilmer
The Sundance Fire of '68 took no prisoners. Flaring to life near Priest Lake, it gathered strength as it rumbled east.
By the time Sundance hit the mountains north of Sandpoint, it packed the power of a warhead. Boulders the size of pickup trucks exploded. Metal bridges twisted. Entire hillsides of trees were flattened in the winds generated by its flames.
Today, backcountry adventurers benefit from the fire's destruction. Sundance left wide open spaces, clearing a giant playground for backcountry snowmobile riders. You can soar through immense snowfields where flames once licked the ground.
Diehard rider Tim Koerner still remembers his first ride through Sundance country.
"There was just bowl, after bowl, after bowl, after bowl," he says happily.
Sundance burned with a vengeance here. Mid-winter, with several feet of snow on the ground, all that remains are blackened snags scattered across the hills. Uncut by trees, the snowfields are spectacular.
In Sundance country you can choose your adventure. You can ride groomed trails straight out the tailgate of your truck. You can discover glacial mountain lakes and towering fire lookouts. When you feel the need to explore, there's plenty of routes leading off the main trail.
"There's climbing for all abilities, from beginners to jumping off cornices," Koerner says.
And for the truly bold, there's a steep, unforgiving climb to the ultimate winter destination, 7,200-foot Roman Nose peak.
"It's pretty neat to go up on top of a mountain and look down on Schweitzer," Koerner says.
Bill Bennett, who's been riding this area for years, says Roman Nose is one of the prettiest views around. You're standing on top of Apache Ridge, one of the real hot spots of the Sundance Fire. From here, you can look west to the distinct vista of Chimney Rock.
"It is just fantastic," Bennett says.
Bennett is a member of the Winter Riders, a Sandpoint snowmobiling club of about 80 members. Don't let him catch you out there without your grooming sticker. He's the guy who makes sure the region's seven major trails are groomed each time it snows.
For casual snowcatters who want a taste of the area's superb trail riding, he suggests the following route: Take the Drew Creek Loop to Pearson Creek Road, and follow that route through the Pearson Creek Basin. When you arrive at the Falls Creek parking lot, turn and retrace your tracks. It's about five hours to six hours of the best snowcatting around. Hard-core riders will find an abundance of play spots off the main trail.
For another perspective of the Sundance Fire, view the area from a distance with a ride through the Trestle Creek area.
Tim Koerner's first day at Trestle Creek was filled with joy. "There was three feet of powder and nobody'd been in there."
Trestle Creek is another groomed trail. From here, you will find an abundance of short climbs and bowls. There's also Moose Lake. The adventurous can climb to Lunch Peak for a sweeping view of the Cabinets, Schweitzer Mountain and Roman Nose. After about five miles of riding on singletrack trail, you come out into clearcut areas. If this already has tracks, keep going. After another 5 miles to 10 miles, you'll find plenty of uncut powder waiting. "It's a great ride," Koerner says. "It's easy, quick and simple."
For Koerner, who's been riding a sled since age 13, his Polaris Indy is an explorer's dream when venturing into the wilds of the Sundance Fire. "The snow lets people access an area they couldn't get to any other time of year," he says.
Here are a few words of caution before you go into the backcountry: Always be aware of avalanche danger. Get the avalanche forecast, take transceivers and shovels, and know how to use them.
Get there early. Both trailheads have limited parking.
Be sure to have your groomer sticker. You'll find Bonner County is pretty strict about this, and they should be. It's a bargain. For just $5 per year, if your machine is registered in Idaho, they'll make sure your favorite trails are groomed. If your sled is registered out of state, you can choose between a 5-day, $5 pass, or a $20 pass good for the year.
The Winter Riders snowmobile club hosts group rides on select weekends. The club is also considering the possibility of drag races and hill climb events. Info: Rick Hoffman (208) 263-4930 or Bill Bennett at (208) 263-2876.
Getting there: Both areas are primarily Forest Service land. Access to Sundance country begins from the Pack River Road trailhead. To get there, turn left off Highway 95 onto Pack River Road. The trailhead is about 14 miles from the turnoff. To reach Trestle Creek from Sandpoint, take Highway 200 toward Hope. Turn left at the sign for Trestle Creek. Parking is limited.