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McCall, Idaho

‘Lake City’ Steps Out of Sun Valley’s shadow

About a 100-mile, winding drive north of Boise along the scenic Payette River, McCall has served as a mountain getaway for the nearby Treasure Valley for decades.

Maybe it’s the blue-collar history of this mill-and-mining town — once called “Lake City” by early settlers — that gives McCall a reputation as the more affordable and no-frills choice compared to the flashier Sun Valley further east. Think galoshes instead of Gore-Tex. If Ketchum has Ernest Hemingway, McCall will proudly claim astronaut Barbara Morgan.

But McCall has created its own orbit, never mind the regional comparisons or outside influence (even if Hollywood “discovered” it back in 1938 as the film location for “Northwest Passage,” a frontier pic starring Spencer Tracy). Pick a season, and McCall will give you a reason to visit.

Snow biking
Snow bike racing in McCall, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Ride McCall

Sleds, Skis and Carnivals

Unlike the black bears that sometimes make an appearance, McCall becomes even more active when the mercury drops. Known as a skiers’ haven, McCall’s ski hills include nearby Brundage Mountain Resort, offering 18,000 acres of backcountry terrain and more than 26 feet of annual snowfall. For those looking to explore, McCall’s five cross-country ski areas boast more than 70 miles of both groomed and untouched trails.

Two wintry features set McCall apart from mountain destinations of similar size: sled dogs and snow bikes. January’s Idaho Sled Dog Challenge is one of the Northwest’s only Iditarod qualifiers and the only 300-mile Northwest qualifier for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile race in the cold, dark days of February that is considered the most difficult sled dog race in the world.

McCall is one of the few locales in the Intermountain West (outside of Utah) to offer motorized snow bike rentals. With a narrow footprint similar to a dirt bike and lighter than a snowmobile, snow bikes are built to make first tracks in untouched snow, even when it’s getting warm and slushy.

McCall’s signature snowy event is the Winter Carnival. Started in the 1920s, this festival at the tail end of January draws 50,000 visitors a year with activities for everyone: Mardi Gras parades, snow bike races, sleigh rides, wine tasting (remember to plan a safe ride home), craft fairs, snowshoe golf, ice skating and a nationally recognized snow-sculpting competition are just a few of the Winter Carnival’s 100-plus events.

Mountain Hollydays, an arts and events program designed around the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, features dozens of events, from “pray for snow” parties to make-your-own-ornament nights to curling, live music and holiday bazaars.

McCall paddleboarding SUP lake credit chad case photography
Stand-up paddleboarding near McCall, Idaho. Photo by Chad Case Photography

Fun on the Lake

As spring turns to summer, the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference each June is more than a local playhouse workshop for aspiring writers. This annual conference draws Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur winners working alongside fresh scribes. Seven Devils events are free to all attendees.

When things heat up, water dogs like to settle over Payette Lake in the morning. With such easy access to water, McCall is ideal for a host of warm-weather activities such as fishing, boating, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and swimming. Payette Lake is one of the best swimming lakes in the Northwest.

Access to mountain biking is another amenity that truly sets McCall apart. McCall earned a label reserved for only a few dozen top-tier mountain biking communities in the world: a Silver Ride Center designation by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). With large-scale facilities designed to offer something for all riders from beginners to experts, McCall is a destination for bikers seeking that elusive flow.

Add in the singular experience of the Lakeside Liberty Fest Fourth of July fireworks on the water and you don’t need another excuse to visit in the relatively mild heat of the summer.

McCall trail creek hotsprings credit idaho tourism
Trail Creek Hot Springs outside Cascade, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Idaho Tourism

Year Round Hot Spot

There are few things you can count on in McCall, no matter the weather: taking in the wildlife and slowing your roll. Elk and moose are a regular sight for paddlers and hikers in the area and around Payette Lake. McCall is also a destination for birders. If you’re interested in checking the red-naped sapsucker or Barrow’s goldeneye off your lifer list, the Idaho Birding Trail includes stops that run right through town.

Visitors on the hunt for a more sedate target need travel no further than the downtown core, which is walkable in ten minutes and has premier shopping and restaurants with a half-dozen spas thrown in.

If you’re looking for that truly Idahoan, all-season relaxation, you’ll find it trickling right out of the ground. The McCall area is a literal hot spot for hot springs, some developed (like Burgdorf and Gold Fork) and some off the beaten path (like Trail Creek and Pine Burl) for those who like a reward at the end of a hike. While Idaho has more hot springs than any other state, few towns can lay claim to six warm springs within 60 miles of its borders.

–Written by Joel Wayne, last updated in September 2022.

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