by Nick Heil
Population: 8,200 Median income: $32,461 (household)
Overview: Nobody moves to Sandpoint, Idaho, to get rich—unless your idea of wealth is a waterfront cabin with access to wall-mount lake trout, 2,400 vertical feet of lift-served Selkirk powder skiing, and 2.5 million acres of neighboring National Forest. Situated a short drive below the Canadian border, Sandpoint sits on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille (say: "pond-or-ray"), a glacier-gouged, ear-shaped natural reservoir so deep that the U.S. Navy once tested nuclear submarines in it. Today the naval base is a state park and the lake a haven for sailors, paddlers, and fishermen (about 80 percent of the 111-mile shoreline is undeveloped). Once stigmatized by nearby Hayden Lake resident and Aryan Nation's leader Richard Butler, who died in 2004, the region has reclaimed its reputation as an artsy hideaway well off the tourist trade routes. Homegrown amenities like a popular summer music shindig (the Festival at Sandpoint), a renowned historic theater (the Panida), a bustling brew pub (Eichardt's), and a handful of four-star restaurants have drawn a growing population of musicians, writers, and outdoor enthusiasts—many of whom fled big-city tumult for the tranquility of the panhandle. Because of the proximity of mountains, water, and wilderness, there is really no shoulder season here. Springtime brings rock climbers to the crack-climbing hotspot at Chimney Rock—a 450-foot granite shark fin jutting up from the crest of the Selkirk range. Lazy days at the city beach (bikinis, volleyball, you get the picture) segue into fall elk-hunting outings and epic mountain bike rides like the Strong Creek Trail in Clark Fork. Winter means ski touring at Priest Lake, or forays into southern British Columbia, less than an hour drive away. Or just stay home for the deep steeps of Schweitzer Mountain (about 15 miles from downtown).
The skiing: Schweitzer opened in 1968 and boasts the kind of stats that easily rank it among the best in the West: 2,900 skiable acres, 92 runs, 300 inches of annual snowfall, three high-speed lifts (one six-pack, two quads), and 32 klicks of groomed Nordic track. But its location—75 miles from Spokane, Washington—keeps the vibe languid and local. It might be the biggest little mountain in the Pacific Northwest: Weekday runs can feel like the place is members-only. "I'll hit the mountain midweek and ski as much vertical as I can handle before noon," says 25-year-resident Chris Bessler, publisher of Sandpoint Online, "and I'll still get in a decent afternoon back at my desk." A surface lift added to Little Blue Peak eased access to Outback Bowl's hike-to terrain. Open boundaries mean there's more pow to plunder if you're willing to carry avalanche gear and hike Big Blue Peak. If that's not your thing, burn laps in the Lakeside Chutes from the Snowghost Double Chair.
Real estate: Slopeside condo? Downtown bungalow? Woodsy acreage? Waterfront cottage? Like a lot of places, Sandpoint's inventory is fast outpacing sales—and bargains abound. "In 2004, people were buying up property here sight-unseen," says realtor Bill Schaudt, of Tomlinson/Sotheby's. "Now, great properties are sitting around for months." Exhibit A: a 1,400 square-foot cottage with lake frontage and a private dock that listed for $600,000 two years ago and now at $407,000. Land is coming down to firesale prices, too: Five acres, with Schweitzer views, two miles from town, for $149,000.
From the Winter 2009-10 issue