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5 Best Camping Spots in Idaho

Located in the northwest region of the United States, Idaho is one of the most beautiful states in America and a literal playground for outdoor and camping enthusiasts. Idaho, with its rugged majesty projecting in every direction, is surrounded by the states of Montana to the east and northeast, Wyoming to the east, Nevada and Utah to the south, and Washington and Oregon to the west. To its direct north, the state of Idaho shares a very small portion of the Canadian border with the province of British Columbia.

Idaho has a total area of 83,569 square miles and a population of 1.7 million residents, making it the 14th largest and the 39th-most populous of America’s 50 states. Its state capital, largest city and the economic, political and cultural center is Boise, a town that boasts a wide variety of amazing camping opportunities for the young and young at heart.

Comprising a portion of the Cascadian region and Pacific Northwest, Idaho is divided into a number of distinct geographic and climatic regions. To the north visitors will find the little-traveled Idaho panhandle, which is closely associated with Eastern Washington with which it shares the same Pacific Time Zone as Oregon, Washington and California.  The remainder of the state lies within the Mountain Time Zone. To Idaho’s south is the Snake River Plain, an area which contains the bulk of the state’s population; and to the southeast one will find the Great Basin Region.  The state of Idaho is extremely mountainous and includes miles of stretches along the Rocky Mountain Range.  Around 40 percent of Idaho’s total land space is controlled by the United States Forest Service.

Given Idaho’s mountainous and forested land, the state is one of the most coveted places to visit among campers and outdoor explorers.  To illustrate this point, below we will profile 5 of the state’s most popular and oft-visited campgrounds, and provide a brief description of each site that will outline the amenities, characteristics and available activities that make each campground so popular among tourists and nearby residents.

Bruneau Dunes State Park

Bruneau sand dunes

With one of the lengthiest camping seasons in the Idaho Parks system, Bruneau Dunes State Park offers unique camping opportunities throughout the year. Here visitors will find both campsites and cabins that can be reserved up to 6 months in advance, as well as plenty of sites available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Perhaps Bruneau Dunes State Park’s biggest claim to fame is the sand dune it plays host to—the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America, with a peak rising 470 feet above the surrounding desert floor.  Campers can explore the dunes in their hiking boots or rent a sand board from the Visitor Center. However, off-road vehicles are only permitted on the main road.  Visitors can also fish for bluegill in the lakes at the foot of the dune; unlock the secrecy of the desert with a breathtaking hike or horseback ride; plan a group picnic or visit the Bruneau Dunes Observatory and gaze at the night sky through the Observatory’s vast collection of telescopes.

When it comes to horseback riding, Bruneau Dunes State Park has some of the greatest equestrian facilities in the state. The full-service equestrian area has corrals and water spigots for horses, and there is a vault toilet and a small shelter with picnic tables. The area includes 15 first-come, first-served campsites, reserved mainly for those who require the use of these horse facilities.

Visitors and campers are also invited to star gaze at the Bruneau Dunes Observatory. Here guests can espy the night sky as they’ve never done before. In addition, observatory tours and solar viewing (through a specially adapted telescope) can be scheduled. These tours and viewings begin one hour before sunset, and are free of cost.  Following the tour, visitors can view a short orientation program and later have the chance to survey the heavens through the observatory’s collection of telescopes. There is a small per-person viewing fee (children 5 and under are free of cost) for this service.

In addition to the many great campsites at Bruneau Dunes State Park, there are two cabins that rent for $50 per night each. The one-room cabins sleep up to five on bunk beds and futons.  Guests can cook outside on the grill-covered fire pit, and both cabins are fully powered, heated and air conditioned. Visitors are required to bring their own bedding and bath towels.

The following are the fees for Bruneau Dunes State Park:

  • Motor Vehicle Entry Fee:      $5 per vehicle
  • Standard campsites:             $12-$21 per night
  • Serviced campsites:              $24-$29 per night
  • Equestrian campsites:          $12-$21 per night
  • Cabins $50 per night

Three Island Crossing State Park

Three Island Crossing State Park is one of the most popular outdoor recreation areas in the state of Idaho and a great place for overnight camping.  The campground is situated on the Snake River and is home to the Oregon Trail History & Education Center—a great facility where visitors can learn about topics such as pioneer emigrants and Native American history.

Located just four miles off I-84, Three Island Crossing State Park is a convenient rest stop for highway travelers looking for a place to camp as well as for golf enthusiasts looking to play a round or two at the nearby Carmela Winery & Golf Course, located less than 500 yards from the park. Visitors are often surprised to find soft grass and shady trees in this high desert area.

Three Island Crossing State Park offers a number of amenities, activities and services.  All campsites come complete with tent pads; a picnic table and picnic shelter; BBQ grills and fire rings; and trash receptacles (and a central dump station).  Within the park visitors will find restrooms; a bath house; a camp store that sells fishing supplies, firewood, ice and cold drinks; a bird-watching facility; a fishing pond; a group/community facility; great hiking trails; and a number of historic sites and landmarks.

Guests of the Three Island Crossing State Park can participate in a number of fun activities, including fishing, hiking, backpacking, nature walks, and more.  During the summer camping season, the staff at the park hosts a number of fun, family-friendly activities, such as bonfires, movie night, hot dog cookouts, and relays.  There is also an interpretive trail and interpretive center, where guests can learn more about the history of the campground and its surroundings.  All campsites are approved for ADA access, as are the few cabins that can be rented at an extra cost.

Reservations for most campsites must be made at least 1 day before arrival, although there are several outer campgrounds that are available on a first-come, first-served basis.  Reservations for the few cabins at Three Island Crossing State Park must be made at least a week in advance, as these tend to book very quickly during the main camping season.

Craters of the Moon National Monument

One of the most interesting places on earth, Craters of the Moon National Monument is a wonderful place to visit and camp, offering scenic beauty like no other place in the world.  Craters of the Moon National Monument boasts a vast ocean of lava flows with scattered islands of cinder cones and sagebrush in between. The national park invites guests to come and explore this “weird and scenic landscape” where yesterday’s volcanic events are likely to continue well into tomorrow.

The campground at Craters of the Moon National Monument is as unique as its name, hosting campsites that are surrounded by a young lava flow near the visitor center.  The campground plays host to 42 pristine sites, each of which are available on a first come-first served basis; no reservations are accepted.

Fees to camp at Craters of the Moon National Monument are run from $15 per site/per night during the main season to $8 per site/per night after the water is turned off to the campground. The cost is half price with Senior or Access passes, the latter of which are available to regular campers and nearby residents. Guests can pay with a credit card at any time using the automated fee machine, located near the campground entrance.

While the campsites are fairly primitive at Craters of the Moon National Monument, guests will find a few important amenities, such as running water (during the prime camping season), restrooms with vault toilets, charcoal grills, fire rings, picnic tables and trash receptacles. There are no hookups, showers or waste water dump stations here, and large RV’s and trailers can only be accommodated at a limited number of sites. No wood fires are permitted in the campground, but charcoal-based fires are allowed for open-air cooking.

Winter Camping:  The Craters of the Moon National Monument Campground is not plowed of snow in the winter and the loop drive is closed at the visitor center. Skiers and snowshoers may winter camp at the campground (located 1/4 mile from the visitor center) or at Devil’s Orchard (a 2 1/4 mile ski or snowshoe from the visitor center). A shovel may be required to access the water-less restrooms at these locations.

Besides vending machines in the visitor center, there is no food service available in the park. The nearest lodging, restaurants, and other services are available in the town of Arco, Idaho, some 18 miles east of the visitor center on US Highway 20/26/93.

Black Rock Campground

If a pristine natural setting is important to you in a camping adventure, you simply cannot beat the views at the Black Rock Campground.  The Black Rock Campground is located along the North Fork of the Boise River, nestled down in a pine covered valley on a bench above the river. This gorgeous campground, which boasts sites that are able to accommodate both tent and RV campers, offers plenty of space, peace and seclusion for campers to enjoy. Some of the sites are positioned along the hillsides so there is plenty of room for spreading out. There are also benches along the river for viewing the gorgeous mountain scenery, and the river itself is a great place to hook a trophy rainbow trout or two during the fishing season.

The Black Rock Campground boasts 11 RV / tent camping sites scattered throughout the park. Picnic tables, overhead shelters, BBQ grills and fire pits w/grates are available at each site—sites that can accommodate tents of all sizes. There is plenty of room for Recreational Vehicles here, although the dirt road to get into the campground tends to be a bit windy and narrow, providing a washboard-type ride. There are a multitude of off-road sites in the area that are well used for camping if you are self-contained. The cost to camp at the Black Rock Campground is $15 per night and the maximum stay is seven consecutive nights.  You may reserve your campsite on Idaho’s national parks website, or take your chances on the first-come, first-served sites that are always available for rent.

Fisherman love Black Rock Campground for its excellent trout fishing, but all fishing here must be done from the shore, as there are no boating facilities in the park.  Many hiking trails originate from the campground, giving campers the opportunity to explore their beautiful surroundings.  Visitors will occasionally notice bear warning signs, even on the outhouse door, so it’s important to always hike with a buddy.  Other wildlife in the area includes deer, beaver and many colorful bird species representative of the northwest.

The Black Rock Campground features running water, vault-style toilets, trash receptacles, picnic tables and fire rings.  Pets are always welcome here, provided they remain on a leash the entire time.  The nearest town to the Black Rock Campground is Idaho City, where tourists will find all the supplies and services they need to prepare for their camping adventure.

Ponderosa State Park

Ponderosa State Park is one of the most popular and well-loved outdoor destinations in the state of Idaho and a wonderful place for camping and the various activities that go along with it.

Sparkling Payette Lake is the centerpiece of Ponderosa State Park, which is situated in the heart of one of Idaho’s most popular year-round destinations.  There is always something fun to do and see here. Day visitors and campers at this park can hike, bike and explore the beautiful scenery on their own or with a trained guide who can explain the history of the state park and its various characteristics. They can also listen to a park naturalist around an evening campfire; allow the kids ride to the Visitor Center for ice cream treats; rent a canoe or kayak and meander along the Payette River; snowshoe on a groomed trail or simply sit on the front porch of a park cabin and enjoy the spectacular view.

Whether you enjoy cooking over an open fire at a primitive camp site or at an indoor stove in the comfort of a deluxe, lake view cabin, Ponderosa State Park has every kind of overnight experience imaginable. The park boasts a variety of standard and serviced campsites, as well as cabins for small or large groups. Cabin dwellers must bring their own linens and towels, while everything else they need, except for food, is provided.

The cabins at Ponderosa State Park sleep anywhere from 6-10 people comfortably, and two of these cabins are fully ADA accessible.  All cabins are nestled along the shores of Payette Lake with beautiful views and easy access to the same.  Cabins have fully equipped kitchens with full size appliances, cookware, dinnerware, utensils, glasses, cutlery, bake ware, coffee maker, and toaster.  Most cabins are divided into a bedroom with a queen bed, a living room with a double hide-a-bed and two (2) twin mattresses in the loft and 1 bathroom. Pets are not allowed at the cabins. The cost for these cabins ranges from $75-$150 per night, along with additional reservation and cleaning deposit fees.

The tent camping sites at Ponderosa State Park are equipped with tent pads, BBQ grills, fire rings, trash receptacles and more.  The cost for these campsites ranges from $12-$21 per night, and they are all available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Image By Steve Spring (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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