Thursday, September 1, 2011

Here are 6 last-minute ideas for camping away from crowds on Labor Day weekend

Ah, a campfire completes the camping experience

Don't forget the s'mores!

Bear Valley Creek offers fishing and hiking
Try mountain biking to the top of Whitehawk Lookout

Bear Valley in the foreground, with the Sawtooths in the background
Hi all,

We've got beautiful weather coming up here for Labor Day weekend, and it's the last unofficial weekend to take the family camping. So I'm serving up some last-minute ideas on where to go where you might not run into mobs of people.

If you DO want to run into tons of people, you'll find them at Redfish Lake near Stanley, Stanley Lake, the North Fork of the Boise area, the Middle Fork of the Boise area, Ponderosa State Park in McCall or the giant beaches along the Salmon River upstream of Riggins.

Before I list my recommendations, I'd like to remind folks to bring some extra clothes and warm sleeping bags this weekend. The wonderful cool weather that passed through SW during the middle of this week is still somewhat at play, especially in the early morning hours. Bring a winter stocking cap to be on the safe side.

Be aware that many of my recommendations are more self-support-type camping areas with no services, meaning you'll need to bring your own water. Outhouses may or may not be present, so bring a small garden hand shovel for digging rabbit holes just in case.

Now, here are some off-the-beaten path camping recommendations:
  • South Fork of the Boise River, between Featherville and Big Smoky Creek guard station. The best way to access this area is to drive to Fairfield on U.S. 20, and go north to Couch Summit on Forest Road 227, drop over the summit, and look for a cool spot off the main forest road. Activities in the area include fishing on the South Fork, mountain biking on Big Smoky Creek Trail (possible 3-mile ride one-way to Skillern Hot Springs), or hiking. Big Smoky Creek is great for hiking or biking, and the Willow Creek Trail, west of Big Smoky Guard station, is a great place for hiking. It's part of the Idaho Centennial Trail. A Sawtooth National Forest map from the Fairfield Ranger District and a Boise National Forest map would be helpful for this trip.
  • Graham, located in the Boise National Forest to the west of the Sawtooth Wilderness. Take Idaho 21 to the Edna Creek Road, which is the main route to Atlanta. Turn left on Forest Road 385, and then right on Forest Road 312 on Pikes Fork. This is your long bumpy road to Graham. A high-clearance 4WD vehicle is recommended. Two campgrounds exist near Graham, Graham Bridge and Johnson Creek. There's a sweet hiking and biking trail from Johnson Creek campground along the North Fork of the Boise River. You also could hike Johnson Creek into the Sawtooth Wilderness.
  • Black Canyon area along the West Fork of the Bruneau River. This one is fairly obscure and you should have plenty of elbow room. Take ID 51 south of Bruneau to Grasmere. Turn left and take the main dirt road to Black Canyon. You'll need a BLM Sheep Creek map for navigation as there are many minor side roads that peel off to the left and right. The Black Canyon cliffs are spectacular. Find a suitable camping spot to your liking and go for it. You can go mountain biking on the secondary roads in the area, and you can hike along the West Fork.
  • Seafoam Area north of Cape Horn. A fair number of people know about this area but you'll see fewer people the farther you go to Seafoam and Rapid River campground. Take Idaho 21 toward Stanley. After going over Banner Summit, watch for a turnoff on the left for Forest Road 008, which goes to Lola Creek Campground and Beaver Creek Campground. Keep going on 008 to Seafoam guard station, and then consider camping at Rapid River Campground. With a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, you could drive to a small campground at Josephus Lake. From here, you can hike to a bunch of lakes tucked inside the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. A Frank Church Wilderness map (south half) is needed for this trip.
  • Landmark to Yellow Pine. There are a number of cool camping areas in this area, east of Cascade, in the Boise National Forest. Take ID 55 to Cascade. Go right on the north end of town to Warm Lake. Most campers go to Stolle Meadows and Warm Lake. Stay on the Warm Lake Road heading east and drive up the next pass to Landmark guard station. Penn Basin is a cool camping area right by that junction. If that doesn't suit your fancy, head north on Forest Road 413 along Johnson Creek and look for a good camping spot. There are a ton of unofficial camping spots along here, especially as you get closer to Yellow Pine, which has a bar and food. Explore side roads and trails for hiking or biking. A Boise National Forest map works well for this trip.
  • Southern end of Bear Valley. Most people camp near Elk Creek Guard Station and Bear Valley Campground in this area, but the southern end of Bear Valley Creek is absolutely beautiful and doesn't get much use until rifle hunting season kicks into gear. Drive to Lowman and take the Clear Creek Road #582 over a big pass to Bear Valley. Look for your own personal Shangri La from here. Side trips include going to Lost Lake from Clear Creek Summit, fishing Bear Valley Creek, or biking or driving to Whitehawk Mountain, an official lookout on the west side of the valley. I dragged my son Quinn up there on a mountain bike a couple years ago when he was 11, and he made it to the top. A Boise National Forest map works for this trip.
There you have it. Consult with the Statesman's Southwest Idaho Camping Guide, available at most outdoor stores in Boise, if you'd like to search for more ideas.

National forest and BLM maps can be obtained from REI, Idaho Mountain Touring, the Benchmark, and the Forest Service-BLM service center at their state headquarters off of Vinnell Way near Walmart, Edwards 21 and Overland-Maple Grove junction.

Have fun!

Steve shares his weekly outdoor tips with Ken and Tim on 94.9 FM The River each Friday morning in Boise at approximately 7:10 a.m. If you miss the program, you can hear the segments on River Detailed descriptions and color maps of Steve's hikes, bike rides and paddling trips are available for 99 cents each, plus the full ebooks and hard-copy guidebooks.


Tim Bondy Votes said...

Loved this article. I've never been to Bear Valley nor Graham areas. Some day I'll explore these places. The Yellow Pine area is quite a long haul but I'm planning a long weekend there next summer and am quite excited about it. If your readers have never been to the Seafoam/Josephus's a wonderful place to explore. I did a post on my website about that place and you can search for it if you wish. You pretty much captured the essence of of southern/central Idaho for me. Thanks.

Tim Bondy

Steve Stuebner said...

Thanks Tim! We're blessed with tons of public land in Idaho and many places to explore!

JW said...


I somewhere vaguely remember I think reading the road to Graham was impasssable this year, maybe Zimo in the Statesman. This was on my list of "to do's" this year but I didnt make the trip. Do you have any info? Is it open as I would love to go, as September still counts!