WORLEY, Idaho - When the Coeur d'Alene Tribe in Northern Idaho was looking to build Circling Raven Golf Club next to its casino and hotel, it brought in six architects to make their best pitch.
Only one of them threw the curveball by choosing the more difficult side of the available land, the part with protected wetlands and a railroad track.
"I saw this as a huge challenge," said architect Gene Bates, "which typically leads to bigger rewards."
Indeed, Bates routed his course through and around the wetlands, and after the first hole, he even called for the digging of a tunnel under the Burlington Railroad track to connect the rest of the course. In all, Circling Raven covers 420 acres with more than eight miles of cart path.
Not exactly walkable, but nobody's complaining because this course, which opened in 2003, has been basking in accolades. It was ranked 93rd on Golf Magazine's 2008 Top 100 Courses You Can Play list and is regarded as the best tribal golf course in America.
Circling Raven, with its rolling meadows, tall pine trees and wide-open vistas, has gained a reputation as one of the best golf courses of any kind in the Northwest, just as Bates, who has been at this game for a long time, is finally getting his due as an A-1 course designer.
Oh yeah, and you can play here for $75 during peak season, including holidays and weekends.
Circling Raven is a big, natural golf course
Golf, at its best, is a commune with nature. Great golf means there's little or no out-of-bounds, you don't notice homes and you get to hit all your clubs.
Circling Raven comes through on all accounts. If you're lucky, you'll spot the course's namesake up above in Idaho's big skies, or perhaps you'll spot a moose behind a green. There are tees perched up above large fairways, inviting you to drive it over well-crafted bunkers or around protected wetlands.
Circling Raven is a big golf course. At 7,189 yards from the back tees, you can let the driver fly on most of the par 72's non-par 3s. Heck, if you play the tips, you might even need driver for a par 3, the 253-yard 13 that carries over wetlands.
To even it out, though, Bates created a few short holes to balance out the long ones - but not many. The eighth and 10th are both drivable par 4s if you play the proper tees. "I like doing that," Bates said.
The par-4 ninth, at 474 yards from the back tees, on the other hand, requires a big drive just to have a reasonable approach.
Bates also did a good job planning for the prevailing wind, which varies depending on the seasons. The holes here go in many different directions so the course doesn't play demonstratively more difficult when the wind direction switches.
Circling Raven Golf Club: The verdict
Simply put, Circling Raven is one of the best golf courses in the Pacific Northwest and certainly one of the best public golf venues in the country.
With no homes on the course, it's pure golf. There are views as far as the eye can see from some of the tees, shot values are tremendous and course conditions, which include bentgrass greens, are outstanding.
Circling Raven also has tremendous practice facilities. Unique to the club is a range just for wedges, where players can warm up hitting various pitch shots to practice greens. There's also a large, full-scale driving range on the 25-acre practice facility as well as chipping and putting greens.
The golf shop is also exemplary with a wide variety of apparel, equipment and local memorabilia for sale. Lessons are also available from Director of Golf Tom Davidson and his staff.
With its Northern Idaho neighbor, the famed Coeur d'Alene Resort Course within a half hour, and the new Palouse Ridge Golf Club across the Washington border in Pullman, travelers to Northern Idaho have three outstanding golf courses to choose from. Spend a week in the area playing a couple rounds at each, and you'll never get bored.
Stay and Play at Circling Raven
Visitors might want to consider the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel as their home base. The hotel features 202 well-appointed rooms as well as a lounge with live entertainment, a couple of restaurants and casino. An expansion project, which will include more luxurious accommodations and meeting space, is in the works.
The casino offers off-track betting, more than 1,600 video gaming machines as well as live professional boxing and concerts in the ballroom. There's also an indoor pool and Jacuzzi.
If you fly in, Spokane, Wash., is your best bet. From there, the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel is about a 45-minute drive east on Interstate 90.