Central Idaho in Payette National Forest is situated on a peninsula jutting into the southern end of Payette Lake. At its commercial center is McCall, a lakeside mountain idyll with year-round allure. Its downtown has everything from breweries and eateries to shopping and skating on a community ice rink and skiing at nearby Brundage. In all seasons, the outdoors are the draw. In summer, Airstream adventures in Idaho are the way to go.
When it comes to glamping, the best policy is reserve, then roam. That is—reserve the best spot that you can live with, then, once in the area, seek the prized spot not listed on any website.
We booked a spot at Ponderosa State Park campground at the southern end of Payette Lake. The park lies at the base of a peninsula that juts well into the lake. A trail outlines the peninsula and goes for almost 7 miles. It’s a good trail run or hike with varied and scenic terrain as it meanders into a deep forest and along the lake.
We later drove the short 10 miles into McCall to spend the rest of the day there. At the marina, the Ski-Doos were all in action, so we rented standup paddleboards and set out across the lake. Vacation houses line the shore. Motor boats towed kids, who bumped along behind, beaming glee and tension at once. I added a wrinkle of thrill and stupidity by paddling with my phone in my pocket, hoping to get one good photo. Wakes of speed boats came at me in waves of anxiety.
On the shore, pickup sand volleyball was in play. Families sat in the surrounding grass and watched. Watching others in athletic pursuit has a way of making me hungry.
The top deck of McCall Brewing Co. offers a tall, wide view of McCall and Payette Lake. It has a more local feel than being down in the harbor with map-in-hand tourists. We ordered up the Mackinaw Red and Hippie Hopped Pale, leaving some room for the McCall burger and Asian lettuce wraps.
More options with a brewery setting are Salmon River Brewery down on the lake and Broken Horn a mile from downtown. Or hop over to Rupert’s at Hotel McCall for a more cosmopolitan menu of duck confit crepes and Basque croquetas.
That night we sought a more secluded camping spot and went for a walk. Farther out along Payette Lake, we found the perfect lakeside slip with spectacular views. Minutes later we arrived to a setting yellow sun and the white blooms of forest fire over Sawtooth Peak to the east billowing into an ocean of blue sky.
We knew that in a few months, we would return to these peaks when they were covered with snow, and it would be time to get cozy and a little crazy. The charming Shore Lodge is the perfect retreat after skiing at Brundage Mountain. Shore Lodge along the western bank of Payette Lake has all the trimmings of a resort but styled as a lodge. New eateries Cutwater and The Narrows Steakhouse along with Shore Lodge’s renowned Cove Spa make for a romantic retreat during the winter months.
Brundage Mountain has 1,900 feet of vertical, 1,920 acres of lift-served trails, 18,000 acres of backcountry and a notable story to tell. In the late 1950s, locals Warren Brown and Corey Engen enlisted the financial support of potato mogul J.R. Simplot, who had a summer house in McCall. Engen was a Norwegian immigrant and former captain of the U.S. Nordic Ski Team during the 1948 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo. The controversial Avery Brundage was then the International Olympic Committee chairman, though the name may be a bizarre coincidence with the naming of Brundage Mountain. In 1961, Brundage Mountain was christened with Engen as its manager. The name, Brundage, reportedly comes from a shepherd who grazed his sheep in the area.
No matter what time of year, Burgdorf Hot Springs proffer warmth and rusticity. In a wooded area 30 miles north of McCall a young German immigrant, Fred C. Burgdorf, made a claim to this plot in 1870 after being tipped off by a Chinese miner. In winter, visitors can rent snowmobiles from Cheap Thrills in McCall to make the trek to the natural springs soaking pools surrounded by fifteen cabins with wood stoves and little more.
At the end of our McCall visit, we headed out highways 21 and 75 along a 220-mile scenic route through the Boise National Forest and eventually into the Sawtooths, toward Ketchum and Sun Valley. Along the way, we found Jug Mountain Ranch, an out-of-the-way resort that sits adjacent to a network of mountain bike trails. A hearty mile-long climb takes you from parking lot to nirvana. After the climb, we zoomed our bikes down thrilling single track. In that blur, something caught our attention—a shipping container hidden in dense trees and jutting out into Jub Creek Reservoir. We pulled hard on our brakes and investigated. Looking through the windows, we spied a renovated container with beds, a wood stove, a small kitchen and an open porch to the water. We put this on our list to come back to next time we’re escaping to McCall.
Cutwater, Shore Lodge
Salmon River Brewery
Ponderosa State Park, camping
Ponderosa State Park
Jug Mountain Ranch