BOISE – Dozens of Idaho campgrounds will be open just in time for Memorial Day weekend, officials at various Idaho national forests announced last week.
But many others will remain closed – some, as usual, because of snowy mountain conditions, but some because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For weeks, campsites were among the areas of Idaho national forests that were closed to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Some U.S. Forest Service-managed hot springs outside of Boise are still closed, and the forest service has directed visitors to keep their groups to 10 people or fewer. But the agency made it a point to try to reopen campsites by Memorial Day weekend, which is often considered the start of camping season.
“We’ve been trying to figure out basically from the beginning how we could get our campgrounds open for Memorial Day, because we know how important it is to our communities with that being the kickoff to the camping season,” said Danelle Highfill, recreation manager for the Boise National Forest.
Normally, some Boise National Forest campgrounds are open by early May. Highfill said it was a challenge to prepare the campgrounds thanks to a shortage of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, as well as delays in bringing on the forest service’s seasonal workforce. Also, employees had to work around forest visitors who disregarded campground closures, leaving behind garbage and, in some cases, human waste.
“Our developed campgrounds, we can’t just swing open the gate to open them,” Highfill said. “We have to make sure that it’s safe to camp there. … That time frame has been compressed to get going.”
The Idaho Panhandle National Forest hopes to reopen developed campgrounds by the end of May, or as access conditions allow, according to an agency news release.
As of last week, the following day-use sites will be available for public access. Developed campgrounds and rental cabins remain temporarily closed.
Priest Lake Ranger District
Kalispel day-use site
Kalispel boat launch
Dickensheet Information center
Bonners Ferry Ranger District
Sinclair Lake fishing site
St. Joe Ranger District
Boise National Forest officials announced last week that they would open 40 campgrounds by Friday. Several of the Boise National Forest campgrounds will remain closed, but the majority of those are inaccessible due to high-elevation snow. The same is true in the Payette National Forest.
“For this Memorial Day weekend, being where it lands in the month of May, the vast majority of our campgrounds are not open but not because of COVID-19,” said Brian Harris, spokesman for the Payette National Forest, in a phone interview.
Harris said many of the Payette’s campsites are at higher elevations and are not often open by Memorial Day weekend in normal circumstances.
The Sawtooth National Forest, the other national forest nearest Boise, will have fewer campgrounds open than usual for the holiday weekend. All campgrounds in the popular Sawtooth National Recreation Area remain closed.
“All of us try to have all of our campgrounds open and running and serviced by Memorial Day weekend, so this is unusual,” said Julie Thomas, spokeswoman for the Sawtooth National Forest, in a phone interview. “The campgrounds on the SNRA are operated by a concessionaire – we contract a company to take care of the campgrounds and hire a host. … Between all the rules and regulations (because of COVID-19), we couldn’t meet those guidelines to open the campgrounds until later.”
Sawtooth National Recreation Area campsites are slated to open June 5, but their absence could be keenly felt by campers over the long weekend. The area has dozens of camping areas, including what are perhaps Idaho’s most sought-after campsites – those at Redfish Lake.
National forests are already seeing “unprecedented use,” Highfill said, as cooped-up residents head outdoors. With fewer available sites, there could be more competition for open campgrounds. To make matters more complicated, Idaho State Parks and Recreation won’t open its campgrounds until May 30, which could put more pressure on the national forests.
Dispersed camping, or camping outside of a developed site, is still an option if campgrounds are busy. Forest Service officials stressed that it’s important to follow standard Leave No Trace principles of packing out trash, taking care with campfires and planning ahead. In addition, campers are urged to maintain social distance and prepare to be fully self-contained to avoid spreading the virus.
Despite the unusual circumstances, the forest service is bracing for the usual crowds that come this time of year.
“I fully expect it will be a normal Memorial Day weekend in the mountains,” Thomas said.
Eli Francovich contributed to this report.
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