BOISE – With snow blanketing the ground in the Boise area (and more in the forecast), summer camping feels like a distant thought. But it’s prime time for people to book next year’s camping sites through state and federal reservation systems, and many popular Idaho spots are filling up fast.
Reservation dates on Recreation.gov, which handles federal campsites, and through Idaho State Parks and Recreation open months ahead of camping season. Many of the federal sites open on a rolling basis, often six months out, meaning prime June camping started to open up on Dec. 1.
Federal and state officials told the Idaho Statesman campers still have plenty of opportunities for spots, but urged planning ahead and being flexible if you want to snag your preferred campsite.
Craig Quintana, spokesperson for Idaho State Parks and Recreation, said in a phone interview that the agency has had 2023 campsites open for reservations for some time. Most of its campsites can be booked nine months ahead – meaning they opened this fall – with some cabins or group sites available as early as a year ahead.
Quintana said the peak demand is for the traditional camping season: Memorial Day through Labor Day. Already, that time frame is filling up at some of the state’s most popular parks. Quintana said Ponderosa State Park near McCall, Farragut State Park near Coeur d’Alene and Priest Lake State Park in North Idaho are among the busiest.
Across more than a dozen parks that offer camping, Quintana said the 2023 season is already 27% booked.
The popular parks’ booking percentages are much higher, with Ponderosa near 70% already, Farragut at 47%, Bear Lake at 58% and Island Park-area Harriman State Park at 48%. Even campsites at Thousand Springs, near Twin Falls, are 61% booked – site unseen. The park, which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, will unveil new campsites and a visitor center this spring, Quintana said.
Still, other campgrounds have seen barely any reservations. Massacre Rocks State Park near Pocatello is just 3% booked. Bruneau Dunes is just 1% booked despite its proximity to Boise, just over an hour’s drive. Quintana said Bruneau will open an improved observatory in May.
All of State Parks and Rec’s campsites must be reserved, Quintana said, though the agency is piloting a new program for same-day reservations at Massacre, Bear Lake and Lake Walcott state parks. He said those parks have reported that the same-day system is a success.
Quintana said Parks and Rec knows the demand for camping is high, according to a recent survey the agency performed.
Likewise, for years campers have bemoaned the difficulty of reserving some of Idaho’s most popular campsites on National Forest land, particularly sites on the shores of Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Campsites on federal land open for booking on a rolling basis – most of them six months in advance – at Recreation.gov. For sought-after campgrounds, hopeful campers will plan to log in precisely at 8 a.m., when reservations become available, in hopes of booking the perfect spot. Janelle Smith, spokesperson for Recreation.gov, told the Statesman in a video interview that it’s common for people to recruit a group of friends and family to vie for coveted reservations.
But there are only so many reservations to go around. This summer, officials with the Sawtooth National Forest said they have no plans to expand existing campgrounds or add new ones.
Smith said sites are still available at several of the popular Redfish campsites, but with a caveat – nearly all the weekend slots have been booked. Point and Glacier View campground still have weekday availability.
According to Smith, competition for these sites has always been stiff. But with Idaho’s recent population growth and the boom in outdoor recreation following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand has only ramped up. Recreation.gov saw users nearly double from 5.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to more than 10 million in the last fiscal year.
Smith noted the national forests manage the booking windows on Recreation.gov. They choose how far out the booking window will be and which dates will be reservation-only or first-come, first-served.
“It’s different from forest to forest,” she said.
Smith said campers should plan ahead to know where they want to camp and when those reservations open. It also helps to be flexible. Offseason reservations and weekdays are much more available than coveted weekend spots.
And if your dream site is booked, consider a different location.
“Through Recreation.gov, when a place is pretty booked up for the times you’re looking for, there will be a recommendation engine,” Smith said. It shows campers nearby amenities that are available during that same time frame.
Recreation.gov doesn’t have a cancellation notification system like Idaho Parks and Rec does, so Smith said checking back on the site can sometimes yield an available slot.
Third-party services like Campnab can also notify you when your preferred site becomes available – for a fee. Smith said Recreation.gov officials don’t recommend using those services.
Smith noted that it’s important to be courteous and prepared when you do book a campsite. Observe quiet hours, be aware of potential hazards like wildfire or storms and honor your reservation times – showing up when you’ve booked a site and leaving when your time is up.
“We’re hearing (sometimes when) people don’t cancel, visitors show up to a fully booked campground and there are empty spaces all over the place, and that’s super frustrating,” Smith said. “If you can’t go, please cancel and give other people the opportunity to have that experience.”
Smith said Recreation.gov continues to work to improve its site and protect against bots that might try to book up popular reservations and resell them for a profit. But the real issue is the immense demand for a limited number of campsites.
“Recreation is really such a dominant part of our lives and what (Idaho has) to offer,” she said. “With more and more people engaging, it’s just going to require more planning, more know-how, more awareness.”