Wednesday, April 14, 2021
SNRA Rolls Out New Parking Plans, Campsites and More
Susan James notes a brush provided at the Prairie Creek Trailhead to wipe noxious weeds off boots.
Friday, October 30, 2020


Kirk Flannigan stood on the pull-off along Highway 75 that will soon become parking for cross-country skiers accessing the Prairie Creek trails and gestured towards the space behind him.

With the burgeoning use of the trails, he said, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area plans to create increased parking at that site with a one-way in and out so cars don’t have to back out to get on the highway. In addition, they plan to move a restroom currently a half-mile off the highway next to the Harriman Trail to the parking area.

“It will make it safer for Idaho Transportation Department and people using the parking lot. It will expand capacity. And the restroom will be open for the winter, unlike now when they’re just open for summer use,” he said.

A new sign was designed to include the Mill Lake Trail, but had to be pulled back after the designer realized he had misspelled Prairie.

Flannigan, area ranger for the SNRA, wildlife biologist Robin Garwood and recreation program manager Susan James have spent the summer dealing with projects contained in the Big Wood Travel Plan, which was finalized a couple years ago.

And they came together one day this week to show off some of what they’ve accomplished and talk about what’s yet to come.

The Big Wood Travel Plan encompasses the Big Wood watershed within Sawtooth National Recreation Area boundaries—an area from the North Fork of the Wood River to Galena.

“Folks are already seeing a lot of changes on the ground,” added Flannigan. “As they trickle back to their favorite spot next spring, they may see changes they love, they may see changes they don’t love.”

A rope swing still hangs near one decommissioned camping site.

“It’s about trying to mitigate recreational impacts within the watershed,” said James.


The SNRA has designated 77 campsites in the Prairie Creek area and North Fork Canyon, similar to what the Ketchum Ranger District did along Baker Creek Road. This includes 29 sites in North Fork behind SNRA headquarters, 22 sites in Prairie Creek and 26 sites on the east side of the highway opposite Prairie Creek in the area of Russian John Guard Station.

Sites have been numbered in descending order (9, 8, 7…)  from the beginning so campers know how many are left in case they want to pull over early. Campsites on side roads will be labeled A, B and C.

NO ONE will miss this vintage Forest Service restroom.


The number of days campers can stay—currently 16—will be reduced to 10 next year and there will be more enforcement to make sure someone doesn’t overstay their welcome.

“We have a lot of resident campers. And this year we had people complaining they couldn’t get sites because someone was inhabiting one for 30 days,” said James.


The area behind the new horse trailer parking/camping site looks rough now. But SNRA officials are hopeful it will improve in five years.

A large, spacious designated site for horse trailers and horse trailer camping has been established near the Prairie Creek trailhead.

The area behind the site has been excavated and reseeded so people will no longer be able to drive to the nearby creek as they used to.

“Hopefully, it will look better in five to 10 years, especially if we get a good runoff through here,” said Garwood.

James pointed out where people had parked on the banks and built swings and bathing pools.

“We saw one van parked so they could step out of the van into the creek,” said James.

Driving so close to the creek erodes the bank and destroys the vegetation that stabilizes the bank, sending sediment into the creek, which can be harmful to fish, James said. Vehicles driving in the area also compacted the soil and killed tree roots, she said, pointing out damaged roots.

James spoke wistfully of one area that has always boasted a field of wyethia or mule’s ear daisies every spring. It was completely denuded this year.

“Hopefully we caught it early enough and it will come back,” she said.


The Mill Lake Trailhead has been consolidated with the trailhead for trails leading to Miner and Prairie Lakes.

The former Mill Lake parking site was small and slanted uphill. Hikers had to walk through campsites and wade a creek that was often too high to be safe. As a result, hikers would often go upstream searching for a better crossing spot to take them to the road on the other side.

The new trail starts on the trail leading to Prairie and Miner Lakes and quickly takes a left turn to Mill Lake.

The old Mill Lake trailhead has been torn up and seeded and the Forest Service has taken steps to keep people from driving on a ski trail in the area.

“I imagine some campsites evolved from people thinking the ski trail was a road,” said James.

James said the area should look nice by next July, given that it’s a riparian area.


The SNRA has asked for funding from the Great American Outdoors Act to replace a 25-year-old toilet with a door that sticks at the Prairie Creek trailhead. The new restroom won’t be on the line of a Japanese bidet. But anyone who tried to use the stinky old loo this summer will agree this is cause for celebration.


Those who have broken an ankle, lost a cellphone falling off a log or had some other mishap crossing the Big Wood enroute to Amber Lakes and other trails in that area can rejoice. The SNRA plans to pull back the trailhead at that location, reroute the trail and, yes, improve the stream crossing.

It already has the funding to tackle the roadwork and will probably do that in Fall 2021. Officials hope to  get funding from Idaho Parks and Recreation and some grants to tackle the trail work.


The Forest Service has already taken an excavator to the old Owl Creek Road, and it plans to destroy some unauthorized roads from Spring Creek to Horse Creek near Galena.

Workers will add a new piece of road to the Gladiator Trailhead near Galena Lodge, replacing a sloping steep segment that most vehicles couldn’t navigate.

“It’s a balance between wildlife and things like mountain biking,” Flannigan said about the decision to plow up Owl Creek Road without improving the trail in the area. “We have a thousand miles of trail on the NRA.”


A parking upgrade to that at Prairie Creek will be built at the bottom of Phantom Hill in an area where Nordic skiers currently make U-turns on the highway to access the Harriman Trail just south of Cathedral Pines, Flannigan said. It will be built when funding is available—hopefully, next year.

Parking outside SNRA headquarters will be redesigned to provide space for 30 more cars.

“We saw use growing there even during summer with people using the Harriman Trail,” James said.


Forest Service officials initially thought they might not receive many visitors this summer because of COVID. Instead, they were inundated with pandemic campers. Many had never spent time in the woods, and many camped in places where Forest Service employees have never seen anyone camp before.

James estimated use on the SNRA was up at least 20 percent this year over last year. And, while she couldn’t give hard figures, she noted that’s talking about thousands of people.

“I’ve been here for seven years and we’ve seen at least 40 percent more use during that time,” she said.  

Forest Service workers found more than 350 unattended campfires. Fortunately, only a few got out of hand.

“Most everybody was having a good time, getting along,” James said.

James said she was overwhelmed by the way local conservation organizations came together at the end of summer to pull together volunteers and funds for a massive cleanup.

“We had 150 volunteers!” she said. “I hope we can make it an annual thing.”


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