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Finding a campsite in Idaho on Memorial Day weekend can be challenging

Many campsites on public land have been reserved ahead of the holiday weekend, but there are some still available on a first-come first served basis.
Credit: IDPR
Campers at Lake Cascade State Park.

BOISE, Idaho — If you are heading to one of Idaho’s two dozen state parks that offer camping this Memorial Day weekend, you better have a reservation.

There is not one campsite available across the state, according to Chelsea Chambers, public information specialist for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.

Thousands of campsites were reserved nine months in advance using the department’s online reservation system. Chambers says places like Ponderosa State Park in McCall are already booked on all holidays and weekends through the summer.

Getting into one the parks in very inexpensive. It costs just $10 to get an annual Idaho State Parks Passport, which is usually purchased when you register your vehicle. Most visitors are now choosing this option, Chambers said since the cost of one vehicle entering a state park went up from $5 to $7 in April.

There are first-come first-served campsites available in some parks. If that is your plan, Chambers advises taking a couple of extra days off and leave no later than Thursday. She says by Friday, all those sites will likely be full.

2020 was record year for the number of people who wanted to get outdoors and do some camping in Idaho.

“COVID inspired people to explore their local campgrounds,” Chambers said.

She said Idaho is working to open more campgrounds, but it will be a challenge to keep up with the demand. Fifty campsites are expected open at Thousand Springs near Hagerman in the summer of 2022.

In the Boise National Forest, there are more than 75 campgrounds and about half of them require a reservation.

Venetia Gempler is the public affairs officer and says they expect the forest to be very busy during the holiday weekend. “If you don’t have a campsite reserved, it’ll be hard to come by,” she said.

She says there are some first-come first served campsites available but advises heading out before the weekend and says to have a back-up plan if your first option is not available. Some campgrounds are more developed than others with paved roads, pressurized water systems and restrooms. Others are more primitive with dirt or gravel roads, hand-pumped water or no water. Fees vary bases on the services provided.

The Boise National Forest’s website is a great source for information about the campgrounds you will find there. You can also make reservations online. And there’s a complete list of the recreational opportunities available.

Gempler says if you are headed to the mountains, expect spring conditions. Nighttime temperatures are usually much cooler than in the valley. And there may be snow is some higher elevations.

It’s still early in the season so not all developed campgrounds may be open. Gempler says crews inspect them for public safety, remove tree hazards, sites are cleaned and the water is tested before opening them to the public.  

She advises bringing your own water, extra food and warm clothing. And be sure to store food, including dog food, in your vehicle so it does not attract wild animals like bears.

Many campsites do not have trash service, so you will need to pack out your garbage. Gempler says they had a problem last summer with people who left their trash next to outhouses. That attracts wild animals. So do your part and take your trash with you when you leave.

“It was extremely busy last year. We had lots of new campers discover how fun it was to get away and want to use the forest,” Gempler said. And with the continue growth in Idaho’s population she does not expect it to be any slower this year.

One other thing, there is usually no cell phone service in the woods. So, it is a good idea to let people know where you are going and plan to return.

Credit: IDPR
Heyburn State Park

There are dozens of campgrounds in the Sawtooth National Forest. Officials are encouraging visitors to “Know Before You Go.”  Many of the campsites are first-come first-serve but there are also campsites that can be reserved in advance. 

People planning on recreating on the Sawtooth National Forest over the Memorial Day holiday weekend will find most facilities are open and operating; however, due to the lingering snowpack at the higher elevations a number of roads and trails will be closed. 

Visitors should avoid driving or riding on muddy roads or trails to avoid damaging the surface. You can check ahead with your local Forest Service office for current road and trail conditions.

Julie Thomas is the public affairs officer for the Sawtooth National Forest. She says use of the facilities went up exponentially last summer as more Idahoans were getting outside and enjoying a safe experience. Be prepared for big crowds again this year.

She does have a warning for visitors.

“We’ve had three fires on the Sawtooth in recent weeks. Conditions are very dry. We did not have much rain this spring,” Thomas said. “Be vigilant. Put out your campfire.”

She says remember the rule: If it is too hot to touch the embers, then it is too hot to leave. Make sure the fire is cold to the touch before you leave. A lot of the campsites in the Sawtooth National Forest do have campfire rings.

Public drinking systems may not be operational. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own drinking water and be prepared to haul their trash back home. Even though many of the developed campgrounds will be open, there may be sites that do not have full service.

There are fees to use some campgrounds while others are free. Roads and trails are wet and there is snow is some of the higher elevations. Be prepared to dress warmly.

And a couple of reminders, as of May 1, there is now a 10-day stay limit in effect for all developed and dispersed camping on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. After 10 days in a 30-day period, people need to move their stuff 30 miles away. That's down from a 16-day limit in certain areas last year.

The Forest Service says a new food storage order goes into effect on May 29 and is will be enforced through Labor Day weekend. The order requires recreational users to store their food in locked vehicles or bear-resistant containers. Violators could face a fine up to $5,000.

Just in time for summer, the Payette National Forest has released a recreation app for public use and it is now available to download to smart phones and other devices. The app makes it easier to find and gain information for recreation sites on the forest.

The app includes a Google map of the forest with locations of recreation sites, trail heads, campsites, lakes, interpretive sites, and district offices. It provides a great way enjoy and learn more about the Payette National Forest.

“This app will provide the visitors with the opportunity to learn about the forest and recreation opportunities as they explore the forest,” said Emily Simpson, Forest recreation specialist. “Visitors can now gather information anytime and anywhere with their mobile devices. Visitors can use the app to orient themselves as they travel to find campgrounds and trails, or to discover historic sites and points of interest. There is so much handy info, right in your pocket.”

The app is now available on the web, or available for mobile devices on the Google Play and Apple Store through the National Forest Explorer app. Once in the National Forest Explorer app, users can simply scroll to find the Payette National Forest.

And finally, forest officials say please practice Leave No Trace principles:

• Plan ahead and prepare — know before you go. Do you have a forest map or motor vehicle use map?

• Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

• Dispose of waste properly — whatever you pack in and pack out all trash.

• Leave what you find

• Minimize campfire impacts

• Respect wildlife

• Be considerate of other visitors

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