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Escape to the great outdoors

photo of kids in tent

Payette Lake camping, Photo courtesy of Idaho Tourism

While COVID may have slowed down some businesses in 2020, it certainly didn’t seem to slow down tourism in Idaho.  

Attendance at Idaho state parks has skyrocketed since COVID, according to Idaho State Parks & Recreation’s Public Information Specialist Chelsea Chambers — with 2020 having record visitation — and reservations for sites getting booked a lot faster than previous years. “Several of our parks, Lake Cascade and Ponderosa included, do have walk-up camping, but it fills up very fast, so I would always recommend for visitors to make a reservation beforehand,” she said.  

The McCall Chamber of Commerce reported that visitation has been high and there seemed to be no dip at all in the number of tourists flocking to the city. In fact, board member April Whitney said it felt more full than normal, as more people wanted to be in a less populated, remote location.  

For those of us with fond memories of summer weekends with the family of often spontaneous camping adventures in a tent or RV, unfortunately those last-minute “pack up and go” weekend trips are not as easy as they used to be. Planning has become almost a necessity — not just a month before, but in peak season (anywhere between Memorial Day and Labor Day), if you haven’t booked a site up to nine months in advance, you run a pretty good risk of not finding any sites available for the days you were hoping for.  

At Lake Cascade State Park, the percentage of camping went up by almost 30% last year, according to Park Manager Theresa Perry. “We have always been busy at Lake Cascade, but this was a huge increase,” she said, speculating that the parks have seen a new group of people who recognized that outdoor settings were a great option during COVID but who maybe hadn’t visited before or not as frequently.  

COVID isn’t necessarily responsible for the push for required reservations across the board. It’s not out of the norm for many of the high-demand parks, such as Lake Cascade and Ponderosa, to have all sites for peak weekends regularly taken within minutes after the reservation system opens. “Ponderosa is a very difficult campground to get into because it’s so popular,” said Matt Linde, park manager at Ponderosa State Park in McCall. “For this park specifically, it’s not uncommon for us to fill up with all of our camping by January.” 

Does the first-come, first-serve option still exist? 

While most parks don’t change to a no-reservation-needed model until after Labor Day, during peak season, many parks do have a few sites dedicated for walk-ins for people without reservations. For example, Ponderosa State Park has one 23-site campground on the North End of the lake that operates only on a first-come, first-serve basis all summer long.  

Linde’s best advice for people looking for a non-reservable site would be to arrive early in the morning. “Folks typically pull out of a campsite between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. so that would probably be the best timeframe to look for those spots, because they do fill up so fast.” 

Chambers suggested leaving the house very early — like 4 a.m. — and being a flexible camper — say, during the week on a Wednesday — to have the best chances of walking on. While she said she remains cautiously optimistic about the prospects of getting a last-minute reservation, she offered a recommendation for hopeful campers to set up cancellation reminders to receive an email message if someone cancels for a specific timeframe at a location you are interested in.  

“If you go to our reservation system, search for a weekend at an individual park and it says ‘no sites found’ (which is likely), there’s a pop-up option (a little yellow bar) you can select to set an availability reminder so the system will automatically notify you (and anyone else who set that reminder) when someone makes a cancellation,” Chambers said. “Then you can jump online and try to reserve it.” 

Lake Cascade Park has fewer than 40 first-come, first-serve sites, a pretty small percentage of the nearly 300 sites the park has. Perry agreed having flexibility to arrive mid-week or on a Sunday afternoon — basically any time other than Thursday night through Sunday morning — would give people a better opportunity to acquire a site. “July is the busiest month for recreation in Idaho and certainly plays true here at Lake Cascade,” she said.  “If people have opportunities to come visit in the spring and the fall, those are nice times to come as well. We always encourage people to reach out to us specifically at the park and we are always glad to give updates of what we have available for first come, first serve.” 

Smaller parks also offer walk-on sites. For instance, The RV Landing at Carlson Ranch in Riggins, which opened in 2020 and has 14 sites in the main park as well as additional sites along the Salmon River, has two sites dedicated to first-come, first-serve. The park has one cabin that sleeps five and plans to expand next year, adding tent sites and one-room cabins, according to Ashlyn Carlson, social media and marketing manager for The RV Landing. “We are already almost completely booked for the summer,” she said. “A lot of people really enjoy our group site on the river because they have their own campsite on a private beach, secluded with no one around.” 

Parks that are geared toward more long-term visitors also offer a walk-on option. Arrowhead RV Park in Cascade, which mainly caters toward whole-summer stays, dedicates around 20 of its 125 spaces to short-term visitors who might just be coming in for the weekend, according to park owner Bobbie Patterson. In addition, the park rents out four cabins and three yurts for short-term stays. “Our demand is somewhat different from other parks that have a lot of transient guests saying overnight,” she said. “Most of our park is filled up with people who come in May and stay for four or five months. We are kind of a summer camp for people.” 

Finally, remember to have a good time, if this is your first time, and start planning for your next trip. “I hope as we roll back to whatever our new normal is going to look like that we will have gained a new set of visitors who have a new appreciation and desire to be in the outdoors in state parks — participating in either overnight camping or day-use activity — and see it as a good opportunity to get out and have a good, safe time,” Perry said. 

Every park has its own unique features 

Arrowhead RV Park, possibly due to its long-term stayers, is unique in that it offers its visitors a wide variety of activities to participate in, according to Patterson. In addition to offering quilting and beading classes and karaoke night, the park also has had a long-standing tradition of a woodcarving program open to the public. “People carve everything from a holiday decoration to a totem pole,” she said. During COVID, the park put up barriers in the office and followed pandemic protocols. However, she noted that life still continued on as planned without much change in the activities offered. “If people choose to isolate and not participate, then that is their choice, but we still do potluck meals, karaoke night and sundaes on Monday,” she said. 

The RV Landing at Carlson Ranch is special not just in that it is located right on the river in a canyon with cliffs on each side — on a former sheep ranch that now has cattle and horses — but more so in that it offers helicopter tours on site. “Part of our office is actually a hangar, and we run a full helicopter business right next to the RV park,” Carlson said. “Right from the ranch, you can go to Hells Canyon or the Frank Church Wilderness toward McCall, which is where I grew up. I’ve snowmobiled all over there, but I really like going in the helicopter because the country is just incredible from the air.” 

Ponderosa State Park is uniquely situated on a peninsula that pokes out into Payette Lake so it has great views, stays nice and cool in the summertime and offers all kinds of recreation right at your fingertips, according to Linde. There’s a non-motorized river corridor that visitors can use as a canoe, kayak or paddleboard trail. “It’s an absolutely wonderful gem of crystal-clear water that a lot of people take advantage of, taking a one- two- or three-hour journey to unplug from the world and have a good chance of seeing wildlife,” he said. “This region also has a multitude of things to do aside from playing on the lake, so I recommend that people not limit themselves but look at the breadth of possibilities this place offers and try something different when they come camping, such as mountain biking, hiking or berry picking. There’s typically a three-week window in mid-July to early August when huckleberry plants do really well.” 

Lake Cascade State Park has multiple entry points and units of campgrounds, day-use areas and boat ramps spread out all the way around 86 miles of shoreline on Lake Cascade, according to Perry. “The park offers tons of water-based activities, whether it’s playing along the shoreline or boating, and we have rentals for standup paddleboards and kayaks,” she said. All six boat ramps across the park have life-jacket loaner stations where people can grab life jackets to use for the day if they forgot them. The park also provides services such as the first-time adventurer program, which lets visitors check out free camping gear — such as tents, lanterns and sleeping pads — to get introduced to tent camping. Another service is the loaner backpack program, which lets visitors borrow backpacks filled with bird and tree identification books, binoculars and bug collection boxes for day use. However, those programs are currently on hold for the 2021 season. 

Tips on being a good neighbor

Remember sound travels. Adhere to quiet hours. At most parks, this means beginning at 10 p.m. loud sounds should end. Be respectful of people trying to sleep. Be sure to lower volumes — this means voices and music — and yes that includes 3 a.m. kumbaya guitar playing. 

Be mindful who is around you. Act the same way you would want your neighbors to act. If your neighbor has a newborn baby or young child and you are there to party with your friends, you should both be able to have a nice time without affecting each other.  

Leave no traceBe respectful to the land and minimize your impact. Pick up your trash when you leave. This includes ALL trash. Yes, toilet paper should not be left either, even if the package says biodegradable.  

Please don’t feed the animals. That squirrel, duck or deer may look cute, and you might want to feed it. But don’t. Keep the wildlife wild. 

Don’t leave pets unattended. It’s great that you want to travel with your pets and they are part of the family. But treat them as such. You wouldn’t leave your one-year old in your RV when you head to the lake for the day or off to town for dinner, so don’t leave your puppy there either. A distressed animal or barking dog left alone can quickly disturb the whole campground.  

Keep a clean campsite. Other people have to walk or drive by your space. Just because you are outdoors isn’t an excuse for mess or clutter. Treat your site like you would your house and yard.  

Observe fire safety rules. Keep fires in the dedicated fire ring. Don’t go to bed until the fire is fully out. Don’t dump hot ashes anywhere, even on concrete. 

Be a happy camper. Teach and share good outdoor ethics and manners with new campers. It might sound basic but just being a model of how to be considerate and share the space in a respectful way can help build good behaviors in others.  

Packing list/what to remember

Check whether there are fire restrictions before you leave. That way you will now how much firewood you need to bring, if any. Burn bans are not uncommon in summer months. Check the Idaho Parks and Recreation website to see whether there are any fire bans (parksandrecreation.idaho.gov) or for updates on each individual park’s site.  

Check for road closures. If you are coming from Boise to McCall or Cascade on 55, there could be anywhere from a minimum of a 15-minute delay to total road closure (starting March 8). This two-year project is expected to go through spring of 2022. And in summer, roads could be closed due to fire.  

Remember to pack necessary items: sunscreen, bug repellant, charcoal, lighter, salt/pepper, milk and personal items such as sunglasses, prescriptions, contact lens solution, jackets, hats and appropriate layers for rapidly changing weather conditions. 

Remember stuff for s’mores. Don’t leave home without graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows. The necessary item people most often forget is skewers to cook the marshmallows over the fire. You won’t always find the perfect stick on the ground of your campsite. And you don’t want to disappoint the little ones. 

Be sure you have enough ice. If your campground or park is close enough to a town or has a trading post, you might be OK. But investigate beforehand so your food won’t spoil a day into 100-degree heat.  

Bring entertainment you don’t have to plug in. Most people are so used to being consumed by their phones that when they get somewhere they don’t have service, they don’t know what to do with themselves. To ensure you have something fun to keep you occupied, bring items like a game, sporting equipment, a camera, playing cards, a book and hammock  unless, of course, what you like to do when you are in nature is just sit there and do nothing.  

Be prepared with a GPS transponder if you’re going off grid. There are always unexpected events such as dead batteries or medical emergencies that can intensify situations when you are far from service. With a personal device that uses satellite communication and a locator beacon for GPS tracking, you can communicate when you are not in service to text or call someone for help. Anyone who has had to use one in an emergency will surely tell you they were well worth the cost. 

This piece originally appeared in Heartland Living.


About Lauren Bonneau