Outdoors Blog

Frustrated by the unavailability of Idaho’s choice camping spots? Here’s Plan B

Priest Lake State Park is the most in-demand camping destination in the Idaho state parks system. The photogenic lake is one of the big draws.
Priest Lake State Park is the most in-demand camping destination in the Idaho state parks system. The photogenic lake is one of the big draws. Idaho State Parks and Recreation

If you’re trying to go camping on a weekend in one of Idaho’s most popular areas this summer, you are probably too late to get a reservation.

Most of Idaho’s camping destinations become available six months (Forest Service properties offered through recreation.gov) or nine months (Idaho State Parks and Recreation) in advance. Recreation.gov extends the reservation window to one year for its group sites. Reservation windows open at 8 a.m. Mountain for both services.

The most popular state parks usually are Priest Lake and Farragut in North Idaho and Ponderosa in McCall.

“If it’s a weekend, especially a holiday weekend, you need to utilize the nine-month window for sure,” said Jennifer Okerlund, the communications manager for Idaho State Parks and Recreation.

Here are some campsites that book up early and some that usually have in-season availability.


Most popular: Priest Lake in Coolin, which is 517 miles north of Boise and 30 miles south of Canada. The Lionhead group camp, which includes a cabin that sleeps 12 and surrounding RV hookups, nearly brought down the reservation system when it was first implemented.

“It’s just a beloved park, and families have been going there for decades,” Okerlund said. “It has white-sand beaches, which are pretty unique to anywhere else in the state. Priest Lake, on its own, is aesthetically one of the most beautiful bodies of water we have in the state of Idaho. A lot of boaters choose to stay at Priest Lake because of the easy access for them. It’s surrounded by other federal and state lands, so it’s seen as a jumping-off point to a lot of trails in the area.”

Alternative gem: If you’re not a planner, try Lake Cascade. “For the longest time, whenever people would call and ask about Fourth of July, the best camping bet in the area would have been Lake Cascade because it has so many sites scattered around the lake,” Okerlund said. “We have areas that are more primitive. For folks that will accept more primitive or are looking for a more primitive experience, Lake Cascade is a little jewel that will typically have a site for you.”


Most popular: The three campgrounds that accept reservations at Redfish Lake south of Stanley: Point, Glacier View and Outlet. The entire Sawtooth Valley is a reservation challenge but particularly the ones with easy access to scenic Redfish and its namesake lodge.

The pace of reservations in 2015 triggered a review to make sure the system wasn’t being misused.

“There were some concerns that somebody was reserving them and selling them to somebody else,” said Jenni Blake, a recreation staff officer for the Sawtooth National Forest.

Alternative gem: Alturas Lake Inlet Campground is about 25 miles south of Stanley. It’s a quieter, less-commercial setting than Redfish but trail access isn’t as convenient. “Stanley Lake is a similar situation — more low-key,” Blake said.


Most popular: Upper Payette Lake. Fishing, canoeing, hiking and biking (there’s a 1-mile paved trail) are among the popular activities at this gorgeous spot in the mountains 19 miles north of McCall. It’s a no-wake lake. Half of the campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis. “For summer, you definitely have to do it six months out,” said Brian Harris, public affairs officer for the Payette.

Alternative gem: Cold Springs Campground is less than a mile from Lost Valley Reservoir, which offers quality fishing and a chance to see the rare Northern Idaho ground squirrel. It’s 10 miles west of New Meadows. “It doesn’t get used all that much because people don’t know much about it,” Harris said.


Most popular: The forest staff was unable to identify the most in-demand campground but some of the contenders: Shoreline at Warm Lake (near Cascade), Grayback (near Idaho City), Big Trinity Lake (highest drivable area in Idaho) and Sagehen Creek (near Smiths Ferry).

Alternative gem: Boise National Forest cabins provide a “unique experience in restored Forest Service guard stations and one lookout (Deadwood),” public affairs officer Venetia Gempler said.