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Heyburn State Park

Park manager Ron Hise has spent his entire career at Heyburn State Park. “It’s awesome fishing, lots of things to do, lots of things to see, and cool places to explore,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a power boater or a kayaker; we’ve got places for everybody here.”  Hise says this is the park for him.

Sunset at Heyburn State Park [Courtesy IDPR]
Sunset at Heyburn State Park [Courtesy IDPR]

At the turn of the 20th century, this area was plenty busy. Steamboats and railroads connected the area to Spokane. Idaho's U.S. Senator Weldon Heyburn decided it was a great place for a national park.

There was a problem, however:  it was part of the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation. But Congress was in the process of terminating the reservation system, in favor of giving each tribal member a tract of land.  Senator Heyburn did not want them to be able to choose this particular land. His solution was to introduce a bill to create a national park, thereby officially withdrawing the land around Lake Chatcolet.

He hoped to capitalize on the wealth and traffic of nearby Spokane. The automobile revolution was underway, and the well-to-do were fleeing the cities to find temporary relief in the great outdoors.

His bill, to create Chatcolet National Park, easily passed the U.S. Senate; but it languished in the House of Representatives.  Eventually, though, Congress did allow the state of Idaho to acquire the land, and in 1908 Idaho lawmakers purchased it and named the park after Weldon Heyburn.

The irony is that Senator Heyburn did not like the idea of a state park. He only wanted a national park. In fact, he once argued that state parks “are always a subject of political embarrassment.”

US Senator Weldon Heyburn
US Senator Weldon Heyburn

When former Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Loftus was writing a guidebook on State Parks for Idaho’s Centennial celebration, he brought along his kids. He says it helped instill in them a love of adventure.

“I think that’s really true. If you spend any time in Idaho state parks you do see a lot of families there, and a lot of young kids,” said Loftus. “State parks in Idaho are community efforts, in a way. It’s a comfortable place to go; people have a good time. It’s not like Idaho wilderness, where you really are exposed to a lot of the raw forces of nature. The Parks and Recreation Department staff is really well trained, in my opinion; they are very friendly, very customer service oriented.”

When you visit Heyburn State Park, you may be surprised at all the residences inside the park. Back at the turn of the century, it was not uncommon to lease land in American parks.

St. Joe River flows between Round Lake on the right and Chatcolet on the left.
St. Joe River flows between Round Lake on the right and Chatcolet on the left.

 “The unique thing about Heyburn is that we have 167 privately leased cottage sites here in the park,” said park manager Hise; “and a lot of those are in families who have owned those places since the 1930’s. Twenty three of those are actually floating homes that float in a little bay we call Hidden Lake, and some of those float homes have been there since before the park was even created.  We don’t allow people to live here year round. The whole purpose of our cottage leases here is for recreation use only.”

The leases have made Heyburn one of a handful of Idaho parks that is self sufficient. “We make about $500,000 off these cottage leases, so it’s a pretty good source of revenue for the state of Idaho for our department.”

In 1906 a dam on the Spokane River raised the water level, connecting three small lakes – Benewah, Chatcolet and Hidden Lake – to the larger Lake Coeur d’Alene. Perhaps if Senator Heyburn had emphasized the effect of the dam on the St. Joe River, he might have made a stronger case for national park status, or at least national monument status. From above and from below, the effect is bewitching, as the shadowy St. Joe meanders through the lakes that lie within the park boundary.

The bridge is part of the bike path.
The bridge is part of the bike path.

There are also dozens of buildings on the National Historic Register, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The CCC had a camp here in the 1930’s; the young men actually built much of this park, including a trail that leads to a diverse group of trees:  huge ponderosa pines and doug fir and cedar.  It’s definitely worth the hike.

And there’s a truly remarkable bike trail that runs through this park. It’s a remnant of the original railroad system that connected Heyburn to the outside world. Called The Trail of the Coeurd’Alenes, these 72 miles of smooth asphalt is a unique partnership between the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Union Pacific Railroad, the State of Idaho, and the federal government.

And, for many, it is reason enough to visit Idaho’s first state park.

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