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Be prepared, Idaho. Memorial Day outdoors outlook calls for cold, unpredictable weather

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Higher elevation areas will still be covered by snow this Memorial Day weekend, just as this lake within the Boise National Forest was on May 30, 2020. (Clark Corbin/Idaho Capital Sun)

U.S. Forest Service officials urge multiple backup plans as camping, recreation season begins in the Gem State

Idahoans heading into the forests, mountains and campgrounds over Memorial Day weekend may encounter some unexpected snow and delayed campground openings as they look to begin their outdoor recreation season.

Typically the time from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend is bustling with campers, boaters, hikers and all sorts of recreationists enjoying summer-style activities on public lands throughout Idaho. But due to unusual May snowstorms that bombarded the mountains and even blanketed the valley floors earlier this month, U.S. Forest Service officials are urging Idahoans and visitors to be prepared for unpredictable weather and lingering snow at higher elevations across the region’s public lands.

On top of that, the U.S. National Weather Service in Boise is forecasting a cold, wet holiday weekend, with chances for snow in the mountains and high elevation areas.

“This year you want to plan out your trip in advance and have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,” said outdoor expert and Recreate Responsibly Idaho coordinator Steve Stuebner.

Forest Service roads are not plowed, may be covered in snow at higher elevations and cell phone service is not available in most of the forest. Some campgrounds and areas of the Boise National Forest situated at higher elevations are not scheduled to open until June or July due to snowpack, including Bull Trout Campground, Deadwood Reservoir and the Trinity Mountain Recreation Area, Forest Service officials said.

“One thing to keep in mind is we try to open our campgrounds as soon as possible, but every developed campground has to be inspected for public safety and just cleaned up,” said Venetia Gempler, a public affairs officer for the Boise National Forest. “Right now most of our lower elevation campgrounds would be open, but upper elevation campgrounds aren’t open, and that is primarily because of snow.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of chances to enjoy Idaho’s trails, forests, campgrounds this holiday weekend. Most of the 80 campgrounds in the Boise National Forest opened May 21, including the Riverside, Edna Creek and Hayfork campgrounds in the Idaho City Ranger District and the Pine Flats, Helende and Bonneville campgrounds located in the Lowman Ranger District. (Some campgrounds are available to reserve in advance and are likely already booked. Others, including the Riverside and Whoop Um Up campgrounds in the Idaho City Ranger District opened May 21 and are first-come, first served. Visit www.recreation.gov for reservations and more information.)

Most lower elevation campgrounds are also open and accessible in the Payette National Forest.

Idaho outdoors experts expect surge in usage and reservations to continue

Even with recent cold, wet weather, officials are bracing for another increase in public lands and campground usage.

“Since 2020 we’ve seen a huge uptick in visitor use on the forest and I think that is across the nation, frankly, at national forests, and the Boise National Forest is no different,” Gempler said. “We are very close to a major population center in Idaho, so it is kind of a gateway forest to nature, basically. And so we expect we will have lots of visitors. People who live in Idaho love their public lands and they like to be outside.”

That’s not to say you can’t find peace and solitude in Idaho’s forests and public lands.

“Our most accessible and popular areas have seen quite a tremendous uptick in use, but there are still areas of the forest where you can find your own little space,” said Payette National Forest recreation specialist Emily Simpson.

At this point, the word is out about Idaho’s beautiful public lands and recreation opportunities, and Stuebner expects that to continue unless gas prices deter summer travel plans.

The increase in public lands usage over the past two summers has led to some trashed campgrounds and hot springs, damage to trails, conflicts between recreation user groups, lots of poop (human and canine) near trails and campgrounds and crowded trailheads, to the point some experts wonder if we are loving Idaho’s wild places to death.

Part of the focus of the Recreate Responsibly Idaho campaign to educate outdoors users on leaving no trace and recreating responsibly, Stuebner said. The three-year-old initiative is a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission and more. The campaign maintains a website with tips on getting outdoors safely and responsibly.

“We are hoping to see people do a better job this summer, but we know we have tens of thousands of new people moving to Idaho and we have lots of tourists and visitors coming to Idaho as well,” Stuebner said.

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Trashed campgrounds, forests and public lands have become more common as usage of Idaho’s public lands increases. (Courtesy of Steve Stuebner/Recreate Responsibly Idaho)

Stuebner said anyone heading outdoors can use the Recreate Responsibly Idaho website to find tips on putting out campfires and trail and camp etiquette.

One personal tip he’d add for anybody heading outdoors this Memorial Day is to bring a good tarp with all the rain forecast for popular areas such as McCall and Stanley.

Payette National Forest reduces camping stay limit to 14 days

Payette National Forest forest supervisor Linda Jackson has issued an order shortening the camp stay limit from 18 days to 14 days. The 14-day limit is consistent with many other public lands across the country and in the neighboring forests in Idaho, including the Boise National Forest, Forest Service officials said.

“Fourteen days is not only consistent with most of the neighboring federal lands, but really across the country too, giving people that consistency,” said Simpson, the Payette National Forest recreation specialist. “We’re also trying to avoid any complaints about long term occupancy of sites and trying to ensure folks can get a site when they come out in the forest.”

As far as tips for heading outdoors this weekend, Simpson would encourage everyone to get as early as a start as possible heading outdoors for the holiday weekend and plan multiple backup options.

“The earlier you can get here the better, and if you leave early enough if you need to you can change plans from Plan A to Plan B and even Plan C,” Simpson said.