Ponderosa State Park

Idaho's four-season treasure.

Amelia Nielson-Stowell Mar 1, 2017

A visit to Ponderosa State Park is like stepping into a fairytale — towering pines scrape the clouds, wild huckleberries dot the meadows and a lake gently laps against the forest edge.

The central Idaho state park preserves a 1,000-acre peninsula that juts out into Payette Lake. Though Ponderosa is a mere two miles from the downtown business district of McCall, it feels like you’re in a piece of isolated wilderness.

“It’s really a place where you can have your own private Idaho,” says Julie Conrad, a McCall resident who lives within blocks of the park. Originally from Caldwell, Conrad spent her childhood summer and winter vacations in McCall at her family’s cabin. “Ponderosa captured my heart as a young child. It’s a true four-season gem.”

Locals like Conrad use Ponderosa State Park as their playground. It’s a prime piece of Long Valley with hiking, biking, boating and camping in the summer, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

One of Idaho’s First Protected Spaces

Visitors have been enjoying the shores of the glacial waters of Payette Lake since the turn of the century when Ponderosa became the state’s first unofficial state park. The Idaho Legislature passed a resolution protecting the southern shores of the peninsula in 1907 — decades before establishing state parks — and later forbade timber harvesting along the shoreline. It wasn’t until 1965 when Ponderosa was officially crowned a state park.

“When we started rebuilding the park, it was in shambles,” wrote Herman Koppes, the first park manager. There was garbage everywhere, no running water and few campers. Park staff spent a year cleaning the site and building new facilities, transforming the park’s image.

Today, Ponderosa is one of Idaho’s top three most popular state parks, with more than half a million visitors annually. There are 163 serviced campsites and five deluxe cabins in Ponderosa, which book fast. Randy Stapilus in his guide “Camping Idaho” calls it one of the plushest public campgrounds in Idaho.

Also unique to Ponderosa: It’s a field campus for the University of Idaho. “Ponderosa became a state park and thankfully so because it has now protected some of the best lakeside real estate and views for public access in perpetuity,” says Jennifer Okerlund, communications manager for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. “It’s one of those beautiful shining examples of what state parks can be and contribute.”

Endless Activities in Four-season Setting

Ponderosa State Park is a highly coveted destination because of its proximity to Idaho’s state capital in Boise.

“The journey making your way up to Ponderosa is along one of Idaho’s beautiful scenic byways,” Okerlund says of the 107-mile drive along state Highway 55. “Once you get around Payette Lake, the scenery is different. The elevation changes, the trees are taller. And you have the choice to explore McCall or just stay in the park. Not many of our parks offer that, which makes it special.”

Winter activities at Ponderosa are premium — 12 miles of cross-country ski trails are groomed daily. The park has hosted major cross-country skiing competitions, including the World Masters, Junior Olympics and Special Olympics.

For a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, from December through March guests can ski through the park to Blue Moon Yurt for dinner by candlelight in an off-the-grid yurt. A team of six people haul in food and water on toboggans to serve dishes like sesame grilled salmon with Asian jade sauce and chili coconut soup to 26 guests, five days a week.

Now in its 22nd season, yurt owner Lisa Whisnant says it’s an intimate experience, “like having old friends over to dinner in your house.” She loves the camaraderie it creates among guests, and the ambiance of operating in the middle of the forest with no electricity or running water.

When Whisnant dreamed up the idea with her husband, Bruce Rumbaugh, Ponderosa was her first choice. It was park management that went to bat for her proposal and pushed it through the state’s approval.

“We’re in an old growth forest that’s just beautiful. These ponderosa trees are huge. They’re old majestic giants,” Whisnant says. “The beauty just blows my mind — I’m never tired of it.”

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