- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

MCCALL, Idaho — Close your eyes and imagine a perfectly blue alpine lake, ringed with rolling pine forest and dotted with quaint cabins and vacation homes.

Out on the water, gleaming white sailboats jostle at the starting line for a friendly late-morning race. Pontoon boats bob over gentle waves as race spectators grandly sip bloody marys and nosh on sweet rolls and eggs.

This is the life of the lake people at Ponderosa State Park, and you can be one, too, even if you’re not a zillionaire.

Ponderosa Park is on Payette Lake. While private lakeshore property gets more expensive every year, Idaho’s most popular state park keeps the woods and the water accessible to just about everyone. Staying the night at one of the park’s 222 campsites costs $22.

Besides the obvious water attractions and amenities, including boat ramps, docks and beaches, park visitors have access to about 1,000 acres of prime forest filled with songbirds, deer and other wildlife.

Cort Conley’s staple Idaho guidebook, “Idaho for the Curious,” rates McCall as the third-most-popular destination in the state, behind Sun Valley and Coeur d’Alene. However, that doesn’t mean McCall is third-rate. Far from it.

The trees for which the park is named, ponderosa pines, tower up to 150 feet overhead, providing a welcome canopy of coniferous shade.

On the pine-needle-covered forest floor, squirrels and chipmunks dart between the tents and trailers, trying to steal bits of food off the tables while avoiding the ever-present threat of overly curious canines.

The campgrounds are a buzz of activity during the day, with bicycles cruising up and down the paved road loops and trails, Frisbees whizzing between the trees and children shouting and playing games.

In the evening, the children hold sticks of flaming marshmallows, waving them around like medieval torches.

On weekends, the state offers evening programs at the camp amphitheater.

One recent Saturday, Diane Evans Mack, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, gave a lecture to about 40 people on how to pick out birds by their calls, a handy skill for wildlife watchers in the dense forest.

“The Western tanger sounds like a robin with a sore throat,” she said before the group marched through the forest to try out their new listening skills. Right on cue, a tanger started singing with its bluesy voice somewhere in the not-too-far distance.

One favorite on-the-water activity is to drive to the north side of the lake and canoe upstream against the slow-moving North Fork of the Payette River, also known simply as the Meanders.

There are few powerboats on this shallow stretch, and wakes are prohibited, so it’s ideal for the beginning paddler. It’s also a wonderfully productive area from which to view wildlife, such as deer and beaver and smaller mammals, particularly during low-light hours.

Don’t have a canoe or kayak? No problem. They’re available for rent in the parking lot just south of the river mouth for a nominal fee.

Because Ponderosa is one of the most popular sites in the state, it’s best to make reservations weeks or even a couple of seasons in advance.

I have taken my family to Ponderosa at least once a year for each of the past four years. We have found the campsites clean, though well-used. Like most Idaho state park campgrounds, they’re an upgrade over the standard Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management campgrounds common in the rest of the state.

There are some challenges to camping at Ponderosa besides getting a reservation. For instance, you may find yourself holding your towel and waiting in line for the restroom, particularly during the morning rush.

This year in particular, there seems to be an overabundance of crows in the park, which begin squawking at dawn and don’t quit until late in the evening.

Still, $22 and a 10-minute wait for the facilities are small prices to pay for the natural beauty and convenience of Ponderosa State Park.

• • •

Ponderosa State Park is two miles northeast of McCall’s city center off Idaho Route 55, about 107 miles north of Boise. The drive takes about two hours, 40 minutes, depending on traffic through the Payette River canyon.

For $22 a night, the campground offers flush toilets, group shelters, electrical hookups, nature store, dump station, rental yurts, firewood, hiking trails, boat ramps, hard-path biking, guided walks, fishing, swimming, education center, volleyball area and horseshoe pits. At the North Beach area on the north end of the lake is another 630-acre park where primitive camping is available.

“Idaho for the Curious,” by Cort Conley; $19.95 plus $3.25 shipping and handling from Backeddy Books, PO Box 301, Cambridge, Idaho, 83610.

For more information, visit www.idahoparks.org/parks/ponderosa.html or call 208/634-2164.

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