canoe on upper priest lake idaho
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Upper Priest Lake, Idaho (Complete Guide)

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Upper Priest Lake is nestled in the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho. It’s a serene and beautiful area only accessible by foot or boat. The upper shore of the lake is within 15 miles of the Canadian border. It is connected to Priest Lake by a 2.5 mile thoroughfare, a slowly flowing passage of water between the lakes.

Upper Priest Lake

Upper Priest Lake is a little more remote than lower Priest. The only way of accessing it is by foot or boat. This makes it much quieter and peaceful than the bigger Priest Lake to the south.

Look at the map above. Upper Priest is a lot smaller than lower Priest Lake. This makes canoeing and kayaking the lake much easier and more enjoyable. You would be able to explore a good part of the lake on a camping trip weekend.

Motor boats are permitted to go to Upper Priest Lake. The only caveat is that they have to pass through the 2.5-3 mile thoroughfare without creating a wake and at 5 mph or less.

The shoreline along the thoroughfare is fragile, so there’s quite a bit of effort put forth to protect it. Lots of boats and traffic could damage the natural makeup of the shore. This has been an ongoing issue with heavy summer use.

Upper Priest Lake Sunset
View from Geisingers Campground on Upper Priest Lake at Sunset

How to get to Upper Priest Lake

The only way to get to Upper Priest Lake is boating or hiking. Arguably the best way is by paddling kayak or canoe. The Beaver Creek Campground Boat Launch is the best spot to park your vehicle and launch your boat.

If you’re planning to take a paddling trip to Upper Priest Lake before mid-June, it’s a good idea to call the Priest Lake ranger district at 208-443-2512 for information on the strength of the current.

The Thoroughfare can be difficult to paddle before the late spring snowmelt has ended. Only experienced paddlers should attempt it during this time.

When the snow melts, the current can become much stronger, and there may be hazards hidden underwater. It’s best to call the rangers and get an accurate idea of the current conditions before you go.

Beaver Creek Campground is managed by the US Forest Service. The Lionhead Campground is operated by Idaho State Parks. Check the official websites above for the most accurate information.

Where to launch a boat to go to Upper Priest Lake?

There are two launching points from the west side of Priest Lake by Beaver Creek Campground. Both of them work, but also have minor downsides that you should consider.

  • Option 1: Launch from Beaver Creek Boat Launch and paddle to the Thoroughfare
  • Option 2: Hike the Portage Trail (part of the Navigation Trail #291) with your canoe or kayak directly to the Thoroughfare

Launch a boat from the Beaver Creek Boat Launch

There is a public boat launch just south of Beaver Creek Campground. It has a few boat docks for launching, and a nice beach that you can swim at. From the boat launch there is a beautiful view of the Selkirk Crest.

How to make a reservation at Beaver Creek Campground

If you’re coming from a distance, Beaver Creek campground is a nice place to camp the night before you plan to paddle to Upper Priest Lake. Beaver Creek is 32 miles from Coolin, and it takes almost an hour to drive from there.

The campground can be very full in the summer and on weekends so keep that in mind. It’s also not the cheapest way to spend a night in the woods.

Reservations for Beaver Creek Campground can be made at recreation.gov.

Season DatesSite TypeNightly/Daily Rates
May 25, 2023 – September 24, 2023(Peak Season)Double Standard Nonelectric$48.00
Standard Nonelectric$24.00
Group Tent Only Area Nonelectric$85.00

Launch from Beaver Creek boat launch

Launching from the Beaver Creek campground is easy and straightforward.

One consideration to take into account is that you’ll have to paddle across 1/2 mile of open water before even reaching the Thoroughfare. There are plenty of days where this is no problem. The water is shallow, especially as you stay close to the shore and approach the north end.

Pros

  • Great beach
  • Easy to launch
  • Parking
  • Great views of the Selkirk Crest

Cons

  • 1/2 mile of open water before reaching the Thoroughfare
  • Can be very windy!

However, there is often a strong wind that comes whipping up from the south end of the lake. If your canoe is loaded down, this makes it pretty difficult to get across this 1/2 mile section of open water. Be wise. Understand the risks if it is windy, and don’t make an attempt if you’re not experienced.

When you’re approaching the jetty that protects entrance to the Thoroughfare, look for a small sandy beach on the west end. Here you can easily beach your canoe or kayak and slide it over the sand to the other side directly into the calmer water of the Thoroughfare.

This mini-portage will save you a bunch of time. You will avoid paddling all the way around the new 1,500 foot breakwater that extends to the east of the jetty. This is especially helpful to remember when you’re heading back out, especially if it is windy.

Launch from the portage trail directly into the Thoroughfare

The second option for reaching the Thoroughfare from Beaver Creek is taking the Portage Trail. Just a short distance from the campground is a small parking lot at the Navigation Trail #291 Trailhead.

Trail #291 doubles as the Portage Trail to the Thoroughfare.

Pros

  • Easy parking
  • Protected from the wind
  • Launch directly into the Thoroughfare

Cons

  • 1/4 mile walk with all your gear
  • Lots of mosquitoes in early summer

You can park your car and and portage your gear to the water. It’s a quarter of a mile through the forest to reach the water. It’s a gentle hillside and a fairly easy walk. The trail is bumpy and can make using a canoe cart a little difficult.

Once you reach the water you’re already about a half of a mile upstream from the jetty that protects the entrance of the Thoroughfare. Especially on windy days, this is a great option as it’s much more protected from the wind.

Best value

Vortex Diamondback 10×42 Binoculars

These binoculars have a full unlimited lifetime warranty. I’ve spoken to the team at Vortex HQ in Wisconsin and they are the most down to earth and fun people. I don’t hesitate at all recommending these binoculars.

Paddle the Thoroughfare to Upper Priest Lake

From the jetty that protects the entrance to the Thoroughfare it is about 3 miles to Upper Priest. It depends on how fast you can paddle but I’d plan for 45 minutes to an hour. The Thoroughfare is a natural outlet for Upper Priest Lake so there is a small current flowing south. But because it’s well protected from the wind the water is often very calm.

The clear water here is a real treat. Look close and you might see big pike minnows or other fish swimming around below you. There are some great sandy spots to jump in and take a swim yourself. The overhanging trees on each side of this passage create perfect, green reflections in the water on still days. Gliding peacefully and silently along in a canoe makes this wilderness feel even more pristine.

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. The Thoroughfare is a great place to see some of the more common and rare species of North Idaho. It’s a home to deer, moose, osprey, heron, eagles and bears.

One time I found moose tracks in the sand below my canoe. The water was about 3 feet deep and crystal clear. After exclaiming about the discovery and before rounding the next bend, we looked back and saw a cow moose come down to the water for a drink. We stopped paddling and let the slow current drift us past as we watched silently from a distance.

Paddling the Thoroughfare is the perfect prelude to arriving at Upper Priest Lake.

Canoe camping at Upper Priest Lake

Where to camp at Upper Priest Lake

There are four campsites to choose from once you reach Upper Priest Lake. Each of them are on a first come first serve basis and follow a pack it in, pack it out policy. Each campground is accessed via boat or hiking trail.

Fire Restrictions

Check the Idaho Department of Lands website for current fire restrictions and accurate information.

Geisingers Campground

  • No fee
  • Open May-September
  • 3 campsites
  • Southeast end of Upper Priest Lake, accessible by boat or hiking in via Upper Priest Lake Trail #302.
  • Forest Service website: Geisingers Campground

There are two campsites here and it can accommodate quite a few people. It’s the most popular campsite on Upper Priest Lake probably due to the location. It’s located on the East side of Upper Priest Lake, right at the mouth of the Thoroughfare. During the summer there is quite a bit of boat traffic going by so it is not the quietest of the campsites.

Geisingers Campground is the best sunset spot of any of the campsites on Upper Priest.

Plowboy Campground

  • No fee
  • Open June-September
  • 5 campsites
  • Southwest end of Upper Priest Lake, accessible by boat or trail.
  • Forest Service website: Plowboy Campground

Plowboy Campground has five campsites that each include fire rings, picnic tables, and bear-proof storage containers. It’s on the southwest shore of Upper Priest Lake, and has amazing views of the Selkirk Crest. Plowboy Campground can be reached easily by boat or by the Navigation Trail.

Plowboy Campground is named after Plowboy Peak just to the west of the lake.

Trapper Creek Campground

  • No fee
  • Open May-September
  • 5 campsites
  • Northeast end of Upper Priest Lake, accessible by boat or trail.
  • Forest Service website: Trapper Creek Campground

Trapper Creek Campground up on the northern shore of Upper Priest Lake. It’s a pretty long paddle on kayak or canoe from the Thoroughfare. However you can hike into it quite easily on Upper Priest Lake Trail #302. Trapper Creek has five campsites available, with beautiful views of Plowboy Mountain. There are fire rings, picnic tables, and bear-proof food storage boxes.

Very popular site for boaters where Trapper Creek enters the lake.

Navigation Campground

  • No fee
  • Open June-September
  • 4 campsites
  • Northwest end of Upper Priest Lake, accessible by boat or the Navigation Trail #291.
  • Forest Service website: Navigation Campground

Navigation Campground is located on the northwest shore of Upper Priest Lake. It has really pretty views of the Selkirk Crest. Like Trapper Creek Campground it is a long ways by boat on Upper Priest Lake from the thoroughfare but easily accessed by Trail #291.

Navigation Campground has good view of the outlet where Upper Priest River flows into the lake.

Upper Priest Lake Idaho Camping

Camping on Upper Priest Lake is an amazing experience. It’s much more remote than any of the more established campgrounds around Lower Priest Lake. None of the campsites on Upper Priest have drinking water available. You’ll need to bring enough water with you, or plan for a water filter system to purify the lake water.

Easiest to use

Sawyer Products SP137 Squeeze Water Filtration System

This filter is ultralight and has a great flow rate. It’s meant for personal use and is easy to use.

In any of the Upper Priest campsites, pack-in and pack-out policies are in effect. Any garbage needs to be hauled out with you when you leave. Make sure your fires are dead out, and be considerate of the campers that will come after you.

Photos for License

Priest Lake

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Importance of Protecting Upper Priest Lake

“We’re going to the lake”. This is a common thing to hear in North Idaho in the summer time.

For good reason we all want to go to the lake. It’s beautiful, fun and full of fond memories. But due to all of this the area receives a great deal of impact.

On nice summer weekends there may be as many as a hundred boats entering and exiting Upper Priest Lake through the Thoroughfare. The older ones in our community have said how the erosion from boat traffic has widened considerably the passage between the two lakes. As a result this has changed the dynamics of the fishery and the ability to navigate the channel in the same way.

Like any heavily used area, sadly there are those that don’t take the same responsibility on leaving it as pristine and clean as it should be. This community wants Upper Priest Lake to hold a special place for all of the future generations. So when you visit, be careful and be kind. Take your trash with you and respect the rules and regulations put in place for the purpose of managing this wonderful area.

Frequently
Asked
Questions

What else did you need to know that we didn’t cover? Send us an email and we’ll help you find the answer.

Upper Priest Lake is 112 feet deep at its deepest point. It is shallower than it’s bigger brother Priest Lake to the south. Here’s a link to GPS Nautical Map showing the depth contours of the lake.

Yes, you can swim in Upper Priest Lake! The lake water is very clean, and there are various spots with sandy beaches along the shore. The Thoroughfare is also a great spot to go swimming.

Yes, you can see northern lights from Upper Priest Lake. From Geisingers campground you have a nearly direct view to the north. There is very little light pollution near Priest Lake. Take a look at this dark sky map to see for yourself: Upper Priest Lake Light Pollution map.

Of Idaho’s major lakes, Priest Lake, and Upper Priest Lake are among the cleanest with exceptionally clear and pristine water.

Upper Priest Lake is located in Bonner County, which is referred to as 7B on auto license plates.

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