Camping

Camping with the stars: Sweet spots in Idaho and beyond

Anthony Lakes Recreation Area in Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is so far from a city that it presents epic star-gazing potential.
Anthony Lakes Recreation Area in Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is so far from a city that it presents epic star-gazing potential. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

If you’re looking for a new camping adventure to add to your summer plans, you’ll likely find one here. We asked staff members to write about a favorite camping spot — and they delivered some gems, from the flatlands of eastern Oregon to the massive mountain peaks of Central Idaho. Whether you’re searching for solitude, family fun, a history lesson, scenery or star-gazing, we’ve got you covered.

FRENCH CREEK

French Creek is a shady, lush oasis on Lake Cascade.

To get to the campground, drive past the poor souls out on the exposed, scorching, treeless east side of Lake Cascade in Donnelly. Soon, you swing around the tip of the lake and onto West Mountain Road, into the cool shade of the Boise National Forest on the west side.

The site features 21 campsites in the towering pines. The choicest spots to pitch your tent are sites 1-8, which are on the lake side of the road and along the namesake creek. If you reserve a site early enough, you can snag one that is along the creek —sites 1, 3, 5, 7 and 8. No. 1 is the most private — you’ll nearly feel alone there.

It doesn’t get much better than drifting off to sleep to the sounds of a rushing creek just outside your tent. And Lake Cascade is a short walk away from the campsite, a good spot to let the kids and dog splash around in the shallow water. Though be warned, the shore in this area tends to be muddy. A couple inflatable pool toys could be fun to float on in the placid water.

Along with a nice flat pad to pitch your tent and a parking spot, each site also features a fire ring and metal grill for easy barbecuing. Dogs are allowed and so are RVs and generators, which makes the white noise of the creek even more valuable for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Joe Jaszewski

Idaho Fish and Game provides tips for identifying black and grizzly bears and what to do when you encounter each.

ANTHONY LAKES

Mountain goats, the Milky Way and mountain biking.

One of my favorite camping spots is Anthony Lakes Recreation Area in Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. The campground is 170 miles from Boise, about 2 hours and 45 minutes away, and sits in the Elkhorn Mountains at 7,200 feet.

The area features hiking, running, canoeing, fishing, camping, swimming, photography, picnicking, dogs on leash and wonderful mountain biking at nearby Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort.

Hiking is our favorite family activity and I recommend the Hoffer Lakes hike, or the hike to Black Lake. From the campground, you can hike around Anthony Lake in about 45 minutes, or take a more challenging, 1,300-foot elevation gain, 8.2-mile loop around Gunsight Mountain.

My wife, kids and in-laws have been doing the Hoffer Lakes hike since the children were able to walk. An easy, 1.2-mile round trip hike gets you to the twin lakes. Walk through a beautiful meadow, and a small waterfall greets you. From this point there are easily climbable granite rocks, which give you a great view of the lakes.

Being so far from a major population area, the star-gazing at night is incredible. Expect to see the Milky Way easily visible to the naked eye framed against the backdrop of pine trees (see cover photo) if you happen to leave your tent and brave the cold night temperatures.

For the mountain bike enthusiast, the third annual Anthony Lakes Mountain Bike Festival is July 30. The area features many single-track beginner, intermediate and advanced trails.

Where to stay: Anthony Lake campground has 37 sites and includes drive-in and hike-in campsites. The campground is open late June though mid-September. Anthony Lakes Guard Station is also available to rent. The guard station is a rustic, two-story cabin with a kitchen, bathroom, shower and three bedrooms.

Nearby: Sumpter is a former mining town where you can pan for gold and take a train ride that will be robbed by “bandit” actors on horseback. This was a favorite for our kids since we didn’t tell them about the robbery beforehand. The Elkhorn Crest Scenic Byway is a 106-mile loop that starts and ends in Baker City, Ore. It’s a wonderful drive with a constant backdrop of the Elkhorn mountains.

Kyle Green

SUCCOR CREEK

Desert camping is the best camping this time of year. Wildflowers are blooming. At night, the starry sky is on display, with no trees to break the view. In the morning, your campfire breakfast won’t be as chilly, and your clothes and shoes won’t be clammy from the humidity of a forest.

My favorite desert camping is two hours west of Boise, at Succor Creek just over the border in Oregon. The drive is bland until you start into the Owyhee wilderness. Then the scenery is breathtaking — slate- and rust-colored crags and spires surrounded by the sages, taupes and tans of the high desert.

It’s ideal for a quick overnight away from the city. You can spend hours wandering the trails in nearby Leslie Gulch, where the towering rock formations make it easy to imagine you’re on another planet. If you stay longer, there’s plenty to see and do in the vast Owyhee Canyonlands.

Now is a good time to go. Even as late as mid-June, it’s possible to grab a spot on a Friday after work. Be prepared for intense heat and sun if you go later in the summer.

Directions: From Homedale, take Idaho 19 west. (It will turn into Oregon 201 after you cross the Oregon border.) Just past Ridgeview Road, take a left on Succor Creek Road. You’ll stay on the gravel and dirt road for 30 to 45 minutes to your destination.

Practical tip: Make sure you have emergency supplies, lots of water and a fully inflated spare tire. (Or bring a bike.) It’s easy to forget the obvious when you’re camping so close to home. But there’s no cell service, few campers nearby and it’s a 14-mile walk back to the road. If you get a flat tire here, like we did once, you’ll be glad you were prepared.

Audrey Dutton

WARM LAKE

I was introduced to Warm Lake by friends who take an annual trip there in mid-summer. We stay at Shoreline Campground, which is a perfect place for a group because of the large sites that can accommodate a wide variety of campers.

The roads and parking pads are paved. By combining two adjacent double sites, we can fit three camp trailers, a fishing boat, the trucks that pulled them and four tents. That still leaves ample room for campfires, cooking, lounging — and even horseshoes, bocce and other games.

The sites are separated by forest, which gives kids a place to explore. And the campground road system is a popular spot for youngsters to ride their bikes.

The scenic lake provides good fishing — we’ve caught rainbow trout there (brook trout and lake trout also are available) — and we’ve seen an elk taking a dip. A swimming beach is the adults’ favorite spot to lounge during the day, while the kids swim and paddle around in kayaks.

If you get tired of camp food — or, more likely, forgot to pack something — the North Shore Lodge & Resort (built in 1937) has a store, restaurant and bar. It also has WiFi, which I’ve used to get some work done from the woods a couple times.

Former Idaho Statesman outdoors writer Pete Zimowsky shows you how to make a chocolate cake in a Dutch oven.

The lake is wake-free from 6 p.m. to 11 a.m. You’ll see some water skiers and maybe a seaplane in the afternoon. Our group has had success fishing out of a boat and from kayaks.

To get to Warm Lake, take Idaho 55 north to Cascade. On the north end of town, turn right on Warm Lake Road. It’s 26 miles to the lake.

Chadd Cripe

ALTURAS LAKE

The best thing about camping at Alturas Lake may be the nights.

Far from the light pollution of a modern age, the stars and planets pop out of the heavens over Alturas Lake.

I remember several years ago my daughter Anna and I laying on our back at the Smokey Bear campground looking skyward. I thought we would stay a few minutes. We stayed for hours watching the stars.

But there is plenty to do during the day, too. Smokey Bear campground has a small, sandy beach and a short pier — a perfect place for kids to dangle a line or play on the beach.

If I have a favorite spot, it is Alturas Lake Inlet Campground at the west end of Alturas Lake. Under tall tress there are plenty of campsites. And room for RVs, too.

Campgrounds have bathrooms and running water.

It’s a short walk from the campground to the beach where kids can swim in an area marked by buoys.

Feeling adventurous? There’s a nine-mile, round-trip hike nearby at Alpine Creek.

Alturas Lake also has a day-use picnic area at its eastern end with a spectacular view of the lake and the Sawtooth Mountain range.

How to get there: From Stanley, drive 25 miles along Idaho 75 toward Sun Valley. The Alturas Lake sign will be on your right.

Bill Roberts

SOUTH FORK BOISE RIVER

Camping doesn’t always have to be a complicated adventure, with days of planning or stressful hours leading up to departure. Sometimes on a Friday afternoon, at the last second, you want to grab the organized blue camping crate, jump in the SUV and find a weekend getaway before nightfall.

The South Fork of the Boise River is your place.

And it comes with a wow factor.

There’s nothing fancy or complicated about camping along the 12-mile stretch between Anderson Ranch Dam and the Danskin access point. From driveway to campground, you can arrive in less than two hours. No-fee camping is first-come, first-served and spots are primitive, though a few restroom facilities are scattered along the dirt road that parallels the South Fork.

The reward for finding this tent-camping paradise is a riverbank spot alongside one of the most beautiful rivers in Idaho, known mostly for its slow stream of driftboats and trophy rainbows. If you’re the adventurous type, this probably isn’t the place for you, though you will encounter the occasional four-wheeler or rattlesnake. Mostly, you wander through the cottonwoods, take a quick hike, shoot some pictures, take a nap, read a book, dangle your toes in the cold waters and warm up at night next to a fire.

Now about that wow factor.

The South Fork below Anderson Dam flows through a desert canyon, which becomes something much more if you return home via Prairie and Blacks Creek Road. The desert canyon of green trees and brown vegetation suddenly morphs into a black basalt beauty, with massive drop-offs, jagged ridges and a giant meandering river that appears to be miles away.

More than a half-million people live just over the mountaintops to the west. The rugged terrain and breathtaking scenery, so close to the city, just doesn’t seem possible.

But that’s the beauty of the South Fork of the Boise River.

Getting there: From Mountain Home, take U.S. 20 to Anderson Ranch Dam Road, and turn left onto the dam. Turn left after the dam, head into the canyon and look for marked camping spots on the left.

Mike Prater

STANLEY/CHALLIS

For a little history with your camping, head east from Stanley along the Salmon River. There’s a string of campgrounds just off of that stretch of Idaho 75. They’re a great place to base from to explore Land of the Yankee Fork State Park.

Fourteen miles from Stanley are the remains of the Sunbeam Dam, built in 1910 to briefly power the Sunbeam mine and later breached in the 1930s to allow fish to pass through.

Head north from the dam along the Yankee Fork for a guided tour of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge, which searched the river for gold and silver off and on in the middle of the last century. From there, the road passes through ghost towns and through stunning Idaho mountains.

When you head back to 75, follow the river east and north to the turnoff for the ghost town of Bayhorse, 11 miles south of Challis. You’ll find pleasant camping and fishing at Bayhorse Lake, a great place to wrap up your trip — or to linger a few days.

Nate Poppino

MACKAY RESERVOIR

This is camping advice from an unusual perspective: Mackay Reservoir is a great campsite to get away from.

Not that I don’t love Mackay Reservoir. But the reason I love it is because it gives me quick access to the Lost River Range, where seven of Idaho’s nine tallest (12,000-foot-plus) peaks lie.

The reservoir is a great place to rest and have a beer and cook a quesedilla after your climb, or get a quick pre-dawn start. Borah Peak has its own campground, which is where you want to be if you’re climbing Idaho’s tallest mountain. But the less-user-friendly 12,000-footers don’t offer any formal campsites for ascending from the south.

If you’re looking for a nice place to park your land yacht, the Fallini Recreation Site at the reservoir has 22 RV/trailer spots. I stake out one of the four tent sites at the far east edge, where you can get away from the RVs and often have the place to yourself on weekdays.

The area has boat docks, fishing (never tried it, can’t tell you) and a nice, paved nature trail. The rates — $6 for a tent, up to $16 for an RV — are a bargain. Especially with the spectacular view of sunset on the Lost River Range at no extra charge.

The sites have shade/rain cover, picnic tables and grills. And you’ll need shade in summer because this place gets hot. You can cool off in the water — but you want to be exploring, not hanging around camp.

On your down days, you can adventure along Trail Creek or zip over to Challis for groceries, food and coffee (a stay at the friendly Challis Hot Springs is a worthy destination itself). If you have the day, there’s no better way to spend it than touring the historic Challis Motorway and traveling back in time with the gold-boom-era ghosts at Custer, Bonanza, Sunbeam and Bayhorse.

But little Mackay is one of my favorite places in Idaho. The folks at Ivie’s IGA grocery store will help you if you left home without pans or can openers, and send you over to M&C Quick Lube & Tire when you hit one of the notorious sharp rocks on the Mackay mine hill tour. (The guys at M&C will fix your flat even if it’s 4:45 p.m. — and you don’t want to be without a spare!)

And Mackay’s not far from Trail Creek or Arco or Craters of the Moon, all places any self-respecting Idahoan needs to explore. I’ve never gotten anything but good, friendly advice at the Lost River Ranger District on the main drag (U.S. 93) in Mackay.

And the Mackay School District thoughtfully keeps its web cam trained on the Lost River Range, so you can watch the weather and snowpack as you dream all winter about that next mountain.

Getting there is half the fun. From Boise, you can take the interstate to Mountain Home and then U.S. 20 and U.S 93 through Craters of the Moon and Arco; it’s fast highways the whole way, about three and a half hours.

You can take the scenic route through Stanley, up the Salmon River canyon to Challis then right on U.S. 93, which adds a couple hours.

When weather and road conditions permit, the fastest and shortest (and bumpiest) route is through Ketchum and then up over Trail Creek Summit, a gorgeous drive that saves you time but is not for the acrophobic.

The campground/recreation area is about six miles northwest of Mackay on U.S. 93, and not quite 50 miles southeast of Challis.

Groups shelter is reservable (208-879-6200); other sites are first-come, first-served.

Bill Manny

UPPER PAYETTE LAKE

Upper Payette Lake has some of the most pristine views from a campground in the McCall area. It’s quiet, relaxing and isolated. But that means it’s in high demand. The area, 16 miles north of McCall, is one of the most popular camping spots in the Payette National Forest.

But with a little planning, you can score a sweet spot and camp in bliss all weekend long.

Two group sites are available for $30 a piece per night, as well as 24 campsites within the Upper Payette Lake Campground ($10 for single, $15 for double). Several trails for hiking start at the campground and there are paved trails along the shore.

There is a ramp for no-wake boating, canoeing or standup paddleboarding, and fish are plentiful. There is a delightful campground library you can borrow from and enjoy a book in the sun.

The best camping is to be found in the dispersed sites located before and after the main campground. We have camped in half a dozen of them, and they were all memorable experiences. One, that we dubbed Squirrel Spot, had a host of friendly woodland visitors and two large stumps that looked like squirrel heads that gazed at us as we paddled our blowup raft around the lake. Another spot, past the campground, was only reachable via canoe. Thankfully we transferred all of our gear without getting too wet.

The crown jewel of spots, “our spot,” is right before the campground, and right off the road. The site is on a lovely jut of land that offers you an almost 250-degree view of the lake from the picnic table. There’s nothing better than waking up and unzipping your tent to a breathtaking view of the lake. Pick huckleberries on site for your breakfast pancakes, and hunt for dinner plate-sized king bolete (porcini) mushrooms for your stroganoff dinner.

Nearby, there are lots of day activities for the family. Start early (before noon) and hike to Loon Lake and check out the crashed B-23 bomber, or drive to Burgdorf Hot Springs about 30 minutes up Warren Wagon Road. Or head into McCall for lunch and supplies. The Payette Lakes Boat Show, July 29-31, is a good event to attend during the day.

Getting there: Take Idaho 55 north toward McCall. In McCall, turn right onto Warren Wagon Road. Upper Payette Lake is 16 miles farther, a 30-minute drive.

Reservations: Call 877-444-6777 or online at Recreation.gov. First-come, first-served sites available inside and out of the campground.

Lindsie Bergevin

Middle Fork Boise River

Only 50-some miles from Boise, the campgrounds along the Middle Fork of the Boise River feel like another world away. If you’re willing to drive the windy, bumpy, sometimes-sketchy road between Arrowrock Dam and Atlanta, you’re rewarded with more than a dozen public hot springs (plus the private Twin Springs Resort), fishing, mountain biking and hiking.

Many of the hot springs are submerged by high river flows this time of year but emerge late summer and early fall. A handful of exceptions include one of our favorites — Loftus Hot Spring, a bowl of hot water beneath a rocky outcropping at mile marker 34.

With its easy access and space for camping, we’ve heard it’s a popular soak. When we’ve been mid-week and offseason, however, we’ve rarely had to share.

Another favorite requires a river crossing in mid-summer or fall, depending on flows. Ninemeyer Hot Spring at mile marker 38 is directly across from Ninemeyer Campground. When water levels are just right, the spring is like a heated swimming hole in the middle of the Boise River; wait too long and it’s a thermal wading pool.

A few basic Forest Service campgrounds dot the way, as well as some primitive sites. Troutdale Campground has five sites on a first-come, first-served basis, picnic tables and a toilet.

Upstream, Ninemeyer Campground is an eight-site, no-fee campground with no amenities — unless you count its proximity to great hot-springing.

Ruth Paul

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