Camp Out of the Box

Panhandle Forest provides many unique locations

By Colin Anderson

2020 was the summer of camping. Just about every RV sales lot you drove by was nearly empty of inventory as cooped up Idahoans fled to the woods. Campgrounds all across the Panhandle where one might typically pull in and easily find a spot were suddenly in high demand, and those who arrived late sometimes ended up driving around in hopes of landing anywhere to park a trailer or pitch a tent. It’s hard to predict whether this will be a one-off or the new normal in outdoor recreation.


While Idaho boasts many exceptional campgrounds, when at capacity, noise from other campers can detract from the sense of peace, quiet and serenity in nature that many campers seek. One place you are sure to find solitude is by booking some of the Panhandle’s more unique camping options, which can include fire lookouts, outposts and decades-old cabins. One such cabin is Red Ives, which provides a fun and unique shelter far from anything resembling a town.


The Red Ives cabin is located along the St. Joe River about 75 miles from St. Maries, Idaho, and 29 miles from the small town of Avery. The cabin served as living quarters for the St. Joe Ranger Station of the Red Ives Ranger District in the St. Joe National Forest from the early 1930s up until 1984.


As one of the more unique wilderness rentals available, it is extremely popular—and reservations fill up quickly. For a long time reservations were held on a lottery basis, though recently this was switched over to a first-come first-served basis; something I learned in May when the thought of trying to get into the lotto popped back in my head. Red Ives, along with many other lookouts and unique camping areas across the Panhandle, can now be reserved through Recreation.gov. Each cabin, campground or lookout opens up for reservations 180 days before it opens for the season. For example, if Red Ives cabin opens May 30, 2021, then reservations can begin being made November 30, 2020. This will vary for each location. You can check the website or call the Ranger District directly to see when opening day 2021 will be for your desired spot. If you miss out on a prime weekend reservation, don’t let it completely discourage you. Unlike the previous lottery format, reservations booked through Recreation.gov can be canceled without fee, which is how my wife and I ended up with a Saturday and Sunday night in July despite waiting until May to see if anything was available.


From St. Maries, the drive along the shadowy St. Joe is incredibly scenic. The further you get from town the steeper and narrower the river canyon gets. When you reach Avery, you’re about halfway to the cabin time wise. Once a bustling railroad depot, the town is now home to less than 100 people and is used as a fly fishing outpost for those seeking west slope cutthroat trout and also a place for campers in the area to grab something they forgot or a slice of pizza and a draft beer at the newly opened TFP restaurant and bar. From Avery, you drive another 29 miles to the clearly marked Red Ives Road #218. The cabin is 10 miles up the single-lane road. The road is hard packed, but be aware of large potholes; a vehicle with good ground clearance is highly recommended. It’s a one-lane road with a surprising amount of traffic, but there are typically turnouts every ¼ to ½ mile to let vehicles pass one another. The cabin is located a short walk from the ranger station, and keys are accessed in a lock box in which the code is given to you by the forest service before check-in.


The cabin contains two bedrooms: one with a queen, another with two sets of bunk beds, and also a queen futon in the living room. It is surprisingly spacious for a nearly 100-year-old structure. There is no electricity, but there is hot and cold running water as well as a propane refrigerator and stove/oven. Though several large lanterns are provided, be sure to bring additional flashlights or lamps, as the cabin receives very little sunshine. There is an outdoor fire pit and a front porch with chairs to relax on.


The cabin is located at a junction where backwoods campers and other recreationalists can access hiking, mountain biking, backcountry camping and horseback trails. Others take the road all the way into Montana for a scenic drive. The huge increase in popularity of OHV and more stable ATVs have made accessing these locations even easier for recreationalists. We saw a steady stream of traffic throughout the day, which was a little surprising. Yet when evening set in, the traffic subsided, leaving you with a sense of true isolation. The river is directly across from the cabin, as is a large meadow where Forest Service pack horses are held and cared for. We watched a moose wander into the pen and, after dark, a deer crept into our backyard, just 15 yards from our campfire. The sound of the water and the brilliance of the night stars couldn’t have been more peaceful.


From the cabin you can see the area by vehicle or tackle one of the many hiking trails of varying difficulty located in the area. Since implementing catch and release only, the trout fishing on the St. Joe continues to improve, and there are fishing holes within walking distance and a short drive to wet your line. At a cost of $100 per night with the ability to sleep up to eight, Red Ives provides a great wilderness experience with a few extra creature comforts. To reserve Red Ives and other unique locations, visit Recreation.gov and type in Panhandle National Forest.


A few others for your consideration:

Deer Ridge Lookout, 25 miles northeast of Bonners Ferry - 14x14 lookout with two twin beds and views of the Purcell Mountain range in Idaho, Canada and Montana. A well-maintained road provides easy access. Non-electric, and guests should bring plenty of water for drinking and dishes. Fantastic hiking from the lookout, and fishing for brook and rainbow trout is available in the Moyie River.


Magee Ranger Cabin, 60 miles from Kingston Exit, I-90 - One of the larger cabins available for rent, this two-story facility was built in 1922 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The cabin is similar to Red Ives with no electricity but does contain a propane stove and refrigerator. The cabin is located near the Independence Creek Trail System, with 34 miles of trails suitable for hiking, motorcycle riding, horseback riding and mountain biking.


Kalispell Island Boat-In Campground, Priest Lake - As the name implies, the only way to get to the 264-acre island is by boat or paddle. There are 51 single sites available and one group site, which can all be reserved. There are fire pits and picnic tables, but campers will need to bring their own waste buckets as well as all other pack-in pack-out supplies.