About the wonder

Name: The Great Lakes of Idaho. The big three North Idaho lakes are Pend Oreille, Coeur d'Alene and Priest lakes.

Size: Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho's largest lake, has more than 128 square miles of surface water. Lake Coeur d'Alene is about 49 square miles. Priest Lake, not counting the much smaller Upper Priest Lake, is about 36 square miles.

Depth: Lake Pend Oreille has been measured at slightly less than €- mile deep, making it the fifth-deepest lake in the U.S. and 13th-deepest in the world. Priest Lake has a maximum depth of 369 feet. Lake Coeur d'Alene is 179 feet deep at its deepest.

How The LAKES WERE NAMED: Legend has it that the French named Pend Oreille for the ear pendants once favored by local Indian tribes, but the point is arguable. Legend also claims that French traders named Coeur d'Alene, which means "heart of the awl" and allegedly referred to the perceived shrewdness of local Indians in negotiating trades. Historians have disputed that claim as well, so the true origin may be lost in time. The original name of Priest Lake was Rootham Lake, named by a Jesuit missionary for his superior in Rome. American Indians renamed it Kaniksu, a reference in their language to the Jesuits' black robes. The name "Priest Lake" evolved from that.

How to get there: Take Idaho 55 and U.S. 95 north to Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint to get to Lake Coeur d'Alene and Lake Pend Oreille. To get to Priest Lake, take U.S. 2 out of Sandpoint to Priest River. From there, turn north and follow the signs. It's a long day's drive, and in winter the roads can be challenging to impassable. To significantly cut driving time, fly to Spokane and rent a vehicle there. Rental companies will provide maps and directions from Spokane to the lakes. Though all three lakes offer some winter activities, summer is the most popular time to visit.

Wildlife: Wildlife abounds at the big lakes, from chipmunks to moose. You're likely to see bald eagles, osprey, kingfishers, ducks, hawks, herons, pelicans and seagulls. Fish species range from small trout and kokanee to giant Mackinaws.

If you visit: Prepare for winter if you go now. Snow tires, chains and emergency supplies are recommended for winter driving at Priest Lake, which is the most isolated and gets the most snow. Check first to make sure you can get reservations. Coeur d'Alene won't be a problem, but winter options are somewhat limited in the Sandpoint area and most, if not all, motels and resorts at Priest Lake close for the winter. To see the lakes at their best and enjoy most of the activities they have to offer, the best times to visit are summer and early fall.

Did you know?

• Priest Lake is one of a few lakes in the U.S. where the water is so clean people drink it. Homes and businesses use the lake's water as their domestic water supply.

• First lady Eleanor Roosevelt flew over Lake Pend Oreille during World War II and told her husband it would be ideal for the secure inland site he wanted for a naval training center. FDR made a secret trip to see it himself and agreed. The result was the second-largest U.S. Naval training base, which is now Farragut State Park.

• An electric railroad once connected Spokane with the pier at Coeur d'Alene. Passengers boarded steamboats there for lake and river excursions. When the steamboats became obsolete, they were burned and sunk. Approximately 90 of them dot the lake bottom.

Key places

• Coeur d'Alene for a full range of water sports, including guided tours of the lake and some of its tributaries. Coeur d'Alene also is an attractive city with a college, many good hotels, restaurants and cultural activities. (It also can have gridlock.)

• Sandpoint for fishing and other recreation and a pleasant interlude in a picturesque town with a ski area as well as cultural activities. For a more laid-back experience, drive 15 miles to Hope, population 80. The views of the lake are stunning, and the local pizzeria (closed until spring) is said to draw customers from as far away as Spokane.

• Priest Lake: Some say Priest Lake is like Lake Tahoe was before it was "discovered." It's pristine and quietly beautiful. Upper Priest Lake is even more so. Snowmobilers will find miles of trails, but for most this is a summer destination.

Tim Woodward

Sources: "Idaho for the Curious," Geology.com, Sandy Emerson, Scott Hill, Hope Mayor Larry Keith, Ed "Bear" Weiner, the Guide to North Idaho