WOOSH. The curtains swing open exposing a white winter wonderland. Massive flakes plummet to the ground at a solid pace. Today is going to be epic backcountry skiing Lookout Pass! Long before our Idaho arrival, we researched the terrain and its snowpack for access. Every season has its share of good and bad days, but Idaho has the best of both worlds with their type of snow. It settles like a maritime snowpack yet is dry like their inter-continental neighbors.
What’s our plan? It’s snowing hard and we’re inexperienced in these mountains. For us, every backcountry mission, regardless of location, starts with the avalanche forecast, period! Reviewing all the information, we decide the mission is a ‘Go’, but we would avoid all North facing slopes and anything over 30°. Speaking with Jason, Marketing Director at Lookout Pass Ski area, we learned the forested area across the Highway from Lookout Pass is a great introduction to what the region has to offer. With the zone picked, avalanche forecast reviewed, and plan set, it was time to head to breakfast.
The Brooks Hotel – Where everybody knows your name
Swinging open the main door, I am transported back to one of the many older buildings in Chicago. The interior has a hallway that meanders through the first floor with multiple storefronts, much like the Edgewater building. On the left is the door to the Brooks restaurant. Finding a few seats by the window, the server gives us a couple cups of coffee. Our trust in taking the local’s tips continues as she says we should try the chicken fried steak and a veggie omelet.
With our order in, we immediately spot a couple we met yesterday. We exchange “Hello’s” and they ask if we’re having a good time while in Wallace. “Absolutely” we reply, giving big smiles back their way. The veggie omelet is out first and perfectly cooked with the vegetables soft but with a wonderful little crunch. One thing that is a bit different about the omelet is the house-made Hollandaise sauce blanketing it. By far the best Hollandaise I’ve ever had! Topping that, the star of the morning is the Chicken fried steak. The breading is caramelized and crispy on the outside while the inside is tender and juicy where you don’t even need the sauce. Of course the house-made sausage gravy is amazing too, but this breakfast meat could stand on its own. With stomachs full and coffee cups filled, it was off to backcountry ski Lookout Pass.
“Hello. Is anybody out there?”
We swing by Lookout Pass Ski area to give Jason our route plan, part of our backcountry avalanche safety checklist. Pulling up to the trail head entrance, are we really the ONLY ones venturing into the wilderness? Hopping out of the car, our feet hit the ground with a large POOF. While the resort across the way is only reporting a few inches, it’s nearly a foot deep where we’re standing. With nobody around, we feel both nervous and excited that no one is here. To ease our fears we review the plan again and make sure we’re not missing anything. “Snow? Check. Route option to avoid North slopes and stay away from terrain greater than 30°? Check.” With our plan still in tact, we start putting on our gear.
How do you climb a mountain in the backcountry?
For those inexperienced with heading into the snowy wild, you might ask how do we climb up a mountain without having to post hole the entire way up? Simple. There’s a piece of equipment called ‘skins’ which attach to the bottom of your skis, allowing you to go up instead of down. Originally made out of animal skin, these are now made of synthetic material that act very similar to cross country skis. When you slide your ski upward, the bottom surface is smooth but once you put weight on them leaning back, they lock into the snow allowing you to schuss up a 40° slope without sliding back down. (It’s not really that easy but practice makes better.) Once you reach the top, all you have to do is pull off the ‘skins’, throw them in your pack and ride down!
What’s a splitboard?
Besides ‘skins’, another amazing invention, if you love to snowboard, is the splitboard. It’s ultimately a snowboard cut in half. With a locking mechanism, you use it as skis to climb up the mountain, then clip the skis back together to make your snowboard and shred back down. Sweet idea!
Easiest Backcountry Access EVER!
With the ‘skins’ on our splitboards, we begin to plug our way up. After a few minutes, we quickly exit the thick forest and enter a huge burn area. The slope isn’t too steep but we could tell it was going to be perfect for those huge swooping-like turns.
6″ in Idaho is like 4′ in Tahoe!
After about an hour, we reach the summit. The view is spectacular, but surveying the area, we literally can’t see more than a 100 yards in front of us. With the weather deteriorating, we decide it is a ‘one lap kind of day.’ Enjoying every minute of it, we pull off our ‘skins’, snap our splitboards back together, and we’re set to drop in!
The snow is nearly thigh deep, cold, and most of all, perfect to take nice easy turns all the way down. 6″ in Idaho really is like 4′ in Tahoe! Turn after turn come easy as we head back into the forest. Letting the boards float, we arrive back at the car slapping high fives.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! It may have only been a small mountain and a couple hours of work, but it felt like Mt Everest in triumph to us. A new mountain with unfamiliar snow and conditions – we studied, we planned, we conquered! With the day still young, it’s time to celebrate with lunch at the Blackboard Café.
Local Freshies® tips: What to know about backcountry skiing Lookout Pass
- Easiest introduction to backcountry – One of the coolest things about the Lookout Pass backcountry is the now defunct rail grade that slowly meanders its way to the summit. No need to engineer a zigzag skin track all the way up – you get a perfectly graded road-width path. This makes it the EASIEST backcountry ascent I’ve EVER done. Nice slow sweeping turns allow you to climb easily while enjoying the serenity.
- Not just for backcountry skiers – Be aware this area is also snowmobile accessible so be sure to stay on the side of the trail if you’re there on a busy day. When we visited there wasn’t a single person, motorized or not out there, but you never know who or what may show up!
Blackboard Café – How a pro skier found his calling
Right in the center of Wallace is a café that seems unpretentious and unassuming. Rather, they should have a blinking sign outside that glaringly waves you inside. Rob and Luanne, the masterminds behind it all, have a fascinating story of how they got here. Rob skied professionally for years but fell in love with the culinary arts. After a skiing accident sidelined his career, he made the decision to follow his other passion… crafting amazing food! From studying in Europe to designing a culinary experience in the Caribbean and a world famous restaurant in Taos, they were looking for a place that was a bit different and off the beaten path. This is how they found Wallace. With so much skiing, hiking, and mountain biking surrounding this little gem, they knew it was home and couldn’t pass up on the opportunity.
The greatest food for the price EVER!
All things food in Wallace is amazing, but the creative level that Rob is on is out of this world! If you are within a few hundred miles of Wallace, we HIGHLY suggest making a detour and eating here. His sandwiches are some of the best I’ve had in YEARS!!! The Cuban sandwich will live in my memory forever. The shredded pork is tender but has a secret spice, Garam Masala, bringing it to another level along with the perfect paring of mustard and cheese. I would personally travel back to Wallace just to eat here… it’s that good.
Turkey sandwich… the likes I’ve never had
Just when we thought we had the best sandwich on the menu, Rob comes out with a Turkey variety. Sure, it sounds like nothing special. BOY were we wrong! The turkey is incredibly tender and covered with a sweet bacon and caramelized onion schmear. If that wasn’t enough, the cheese is melted to the point where it has the texture of a warm brie… so soft and creamy. All the ingredients combine, making it taste like a French onion soup sandwich. Blown away with all the flavors, Rob just smiles and says, “We don’t take shortcuts.” That is an understatement. Stumbling out of the café in pure shock at what we just ate, we had some time to check out a few more cool spots in town.
Glow-in-the-dark, chocolates and a wedding
On the same block sits a cool little spot called Johnson’s Gems. Filled with everything from baseball cards, memorabilia, and beautiful minerals, one of the coolest things you’ll see is a display of glow-in-the-dark stones. When the lights turn off in the special rock room, you’ll experience rock displays glowing in the darkness.
From there it was off to meet up with Eureka Sally. A free spirit originally from Michigan, she still has the candor of a Midwesterner. Her storefront is filled with amazing art and in the back, she’s created a ‘classroom’ for people to let their own inner artist reign free. To top that, she also crafts some AMAZING chocolate. Our favorite is a dark chocolate made with Ecuadorian Cacao, infused with locally picked huckleberries. Eureka Sally is diligent about her ingredients and quality. She buys direct from the source or picks it herself!
Walking down Cedar Street, we noticed an adorable place called the Woodland Market. Filled with locally made Idaho products, this is definitely a place to check out. T-shirts, wooden trail signs, and even locally roasted coffee from Silver Valley Coffee Roasters, there’s something for everyone. Oh, and in the back room, they have a charming little chapel for weddings!
A historic bar + SmokeHouse = BBQ galore!
Hungry again, it was time for dinner. Entering the SmokeHouse BBQ and Saloon, you’re shifted back in time, expecting to see old-time miners from the 1800’s sitting at the bar. This location has been a bar for over 116 years and you can feel the memories! On the wall is a mural spanning the entire length of the building. Painted by a man named Johnny Hart, he traveled through mining towns creating elaborate murals for $300 and all the beer he could drink. His mural at the SmokeHouse is one of the largest he’d ever done. The owners, Sheila and Max, came to Wallace because of the skiing and the outdoors. Originally from New Orleans, Sheila’s inspiration to serve good southern BBQ came naturally.
Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are gifted with tons of wild huckleberries. The SmokeHouse BBQ and Saloon is ingenious in their huckleberry creativity. It might’ve been cold outside but we were having a Huckleberry Margarita. Normally, a margarita is quite sweet but since the huckleberry is tart, it really transforms into a refreshing drink that is addicting. Regardless of weather, this is definitely a must try for anyone.
Besides an epic drink, what should you order if you do visit The SmokeHouse? Their trout dinner is super flavorful, but the star of this show is the Ribs. Through his travels, Max experienced many styles of
BBQ. Memphis-style is the standout for him and the inspiration for the ribs he crafts today. They’re seasoned perfectly with a dry-rub and incredibly tender to the point that the meat just falls off the bone.
They make a killer house-made BBQ sauce, but honestly, these ribs don’t even need any! For the sides, you must try one of their true southern-style fixin’s. From jambalaya to baked beans, you won’t go wrong in any direction. With another amazing meal under our belt and nighttime upon us, it was time to head back to home base.