Payette Lake, Idaho, USA
Also known as: Big Payette Lake
One hundred miles north of Boise, nearly surrounded by Payette National Forest, lies breathtaking Payette Lake. Nestled beneath the peaks of the West Mountains in the Southwestern Region of Idaho, the area around Payette Lake has the well-deserved reputation of being Idaho’s Four-Season Playground. In Idaho’s Long Valley, Payette Lake fills a basin along the Payette River to a depth of over 300 feet spread over more than 5000 acres. Sometimes called Big Payette Lake to distinguish it from Upper Payette Lake upstream and Little Payette to the east, the spectacular lake has been entertaining visitors since the late 1800s. Known to Native American tribes and frontiersmen, the French Canadian fur trapper, Francois Payette roamed these mountain trails and gave the river and hence the lake its name. In the 1860s, gold miners temporarily settled here to pan for gold but were unsuccessful and soon moved on. Although a small settlement called Lardo was located nearby at the outlet of the Payette River, Thomas and Louisa McCall purchased property at the site of the current McCall between 1889 and 1891. Thomas McCall established a school, hotel, saloon, and post office and developed businesses. The town was a success and eventually grew to encompass little Lardo. Farming was developed in the area primarily by Finnish settlers.
Timber and lumbering provided the mainstay of McCall’s economy. McCall supported at least one sawmill until 1977. Before the turn of the 20th century, a character called Anneas “Jews Harp Jack” Wyatte advertised the services of a 30-foot sailing yacht to visitors. Steamships moved freight and personnel up and down the length of Payette Lake far faster and more comfortably than the rough wagon roads in existence. And by the 1920s and 30s, visitors came to ski the slopes of the mountains west of the lake. At some time in the past a small dam used to control water for irrigation was built across the outlet at Lardo which maintains the lake at high pool except during crop irrigation. In 1936, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked at McCall constructing buildings and look-out towers. Idaho’s governor used one of the buildings as a summer residence. Because fire was always a danger in logging country, the Southern Idaho Timber Protective Association eventually formed here to enhance logging practices and fire prevention. The eight-building restored site is now home to the Central Idaho Historical Museum.
Payette Lake early developed a reputation as an excellent fishing lake, particularly for ‘mackinaws’. This lake trout variety was transplanted into the lake, as were rainbow and brown trout – naturals for the cold deep waters of Payette Lake. Whitefish and kokanee salmon were also caught. Many exceeded 25 pounds, attracting anglers from all over the world. Unfortunately, the lake provides little in the way of food sources for a large numbers of fish, so stringent limits have been placed on the sizes and numbers of fish that can be taken. Idaho Fish and Game has planted feeder shrimp varieties and fingerlings regularly to restore the fishery to healthy populations. They also maintain a hatchery southwest of McCall near the old Lardo Dam. The many small inlets and brooks hold trout; fly fishermen often make Payette Lake the centerpiece of their summer vacation. The Payette River inlet at the north end of the lake, called ‘the Meander’ or ‘Meander Lake’, is a favored fishing hole. This area is limited to electric motors, but the rest is an all-sports lake except for a 300-foot no-wake buffer along the shore.
Payette Lake is a favorite among sailors. Local marinas host a sizable summer population of sailboats of all types. Water skiing, wake boarding, jet skis and power boating are all popular, as are pontooning, canoeing and kayaking. The southern portions of the west and east arms of the lake are heavily developed and contain high-end housing. Areas along the northern portion of the shore are too steep for building and remain beautifully wooded. Between the two arms, a 1000-acre peninsula holds the south branch of Ponderosa State Park. The north branch surrounds ‘the Meander’. The park offers fishing, swimming, volleyball area, horseshoe pits, guided walks, camping, picnic areas, hiking and biking trails. A wide variety of wildlife inhabit the park, including Canada geese, mallards, osprey, wood ducks, bald eagles, songbirds, moose, deer, muskrats, beaver and bear. The Payette Lake area is a photographer’s dream, both in scenery and wildlife. Several tour guides and outfitters are located nearby in McCall to assure visitors the perfect fishing or hunting trip. White-water rafting is also available. The movie, “Northwest Passage” with Spencer Tracy and Robert Young, was filmed on the shores of Payette Lake.
Payette Lake freezes completely over, so ice fishing and ice skating keep the winter ‘lake lubber’ entertained. The area around Payette Lake is a nationally-known ski area, with two ski resorts and miles of cross-country trails for skiing and snowshoeing. The Payette National Forest provides all types of hunting and trail exploration. McCall takes winter visitors seriously, with carefully-groomed snowmobile trails, a year-round ice arena and myriad festivals and activities geared toward tourists. One of the largest is the famed McCall Winter Carnival – ten days of outdoor fun and snow activities. Highlights of the festival include incredible ice sculptures, racing and competitions. The local ‘snow sculpting’ team is so talented they compete internationally. And, of course, there are sledding hills, snowboarding and sleigh rides. McCall sponsors winter ski races and summer running competitions. The 4th of July Festival provides yet another reason to celebrate at Payette Lake, with fireworks, carnival and plenty of good food and drink. Nearly any type of outdoor equipment can be rented near McCall, from all types of watercraft, mountain bikes, ATVs and horses for horseback riding.
McCall offers a 27-hole municipal golf course, summer outdoor concerts, craft fairs and art programs. The area around Payette Lake offers several unique locations that visitors may wish to explore. About 30 miles from McCall, privately-owned Burgdorf Hot Springs is located in a ghost town and offers rustic accommodations in cabins ranging from 70 to 132 years old. The location is accessible by snowmobile or skis only in winter. Farther up the trail are unimproved hot springs open to the public. South of McCall, the Roseberry General Store is 1.5 miles east of Donnelly. Built in 1905, the old Finnish store still sells long underwear and Finnish knives. Across the road, the Valley County Museum incorporates an old schoolhouse and church, with nearly 20 other historic buildings scattered around the old town site.
Vacation rentals are plentiful around Payette Lake. Many of the condos, private homes and ski cottages are available for weekly or monthly rental. Many are lakefront. A few bed-and-breakfast facilities are located near the lake. Camping facilities are located along the shore, so every visitor can find just the right location at Payette Lake. Real estate is available both along the lakefront and up the mountain with lake views. One visit, winter or summer, and you’ll be hooked. Pack up the gear and come to Payette Lake for your next vacation.
Things to do at Payette Lake
- Vacation Rentals
- Ice Fishing
- Jet Skiing
- Water Skiing
- Cabin Rentals
- Ice Skating
- Horseback Riding
- Wildlife Viewing
- State Park
- National Forest
Fish species found at Payette Lake
- Brown Trout
- Kokanee Salmon
- Lake Trout
Payette Lake Photo Gallery
Payette Lake Statistics & Helpful Links
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