Dworshak State Park, a 700-acre playground in the middle of Idaho
Along the western side of Dworshak Reservoir sits Dworshak State Park. Our visit to this park was fraught with challenges thanks to a wildfire (keep reading to learn more about that experience). Since we did not visit the park under the best of circumstances, I asked someone who knows the park inside and out to help with this post. Jake Davis, a park ranger at Dworshak, was kind enough to share his inside knowledge and provide a unique look at Dworshak State Park.
State Park Overview
Dworshak State Park consists of three units: Freeman Creek, Three Meadows Group Camp, and Big Eddy Lodge and Marina. Its location next to a large reservoir offers the types of activities you would expect: camping, boating and fishing. But there is more to Dworshak than meets the eye.
“There are a lot of really nice areas throughout the park that the public just never seems to wander into….This park is about 700 acres and it is open for you to explore. We have mossy floored open forests, short grass prairie, south slope ponderosa pine habitats, as well as quite a few creeks that are nice to sit and have your lunch by. For the avid hiker we have a 10 mile one way trail that connects Freeman Creek to Big Eddy. For the not-so-avid hiker, we have a ¾ mile trail. And with any luck I will finish another one mile hiking trail this spring.”Jake Davis, Park Ranger
- Good camping options
- Great water sports
- Pretty views
- No cell phone reception
- Cold winters without enough snow for traditional winter park activities
- Windy road to get to the park
What To Do
- Camp. Dworshak has cabins available as well.
- Play horseshoes.
- Go fishing. Kokanee and Smallmouth Bass could be your prize. In fact, Dworshak is home to several Idaho Smallmouth Bass records, including a 9.72 pounder.
- Swim at the nice swim area.
- Get out on the water. You can rent canoes, kayaks and paddle boards from the park.
They have restrooms (no flush toilets, unfortunately) and the usual picnic tables and such. For all of the specifics, check out the parks and rec’s website for Dworshak State Park.
I cannot speak to the usual crowd situation at Dworshak. Our visit was so unique that we have no real sense of how many people visit this park. But luckily, park ranger Jake has all of the information you could want. In his own words:
- Fall and early winter are beautiful, and the park is generally really slow. We have a good handful of guests through hunting season, then it drops to only one or two cabin rentals a week. If you are looking for solitude, come to Dworshak in the middle of the week in late fall. Our park is about 700 acres and you and me will likely be the only people here (I won’t bug you). The silence is amazing, the night sky is stunning, and the temperatures are still pleasant for hiking or fishing.
- The dead of winter probably isn’t the best time at the park, temperatures are generally low and we don’t often get enough snow for traditional winter park activities like snowshoeing or skiing. We do still have the occasion cabin rental though so apparently some people dig it.
- Spring is my favorite time of year. We are still fairly slow until Memorial Day aside from one weekend when we host an archery tournament. I am a bit of a plant nerd so I love the spring wildflower season. We have at least eight flowering parasitic plants at the park, including three varieties of parasitic orchids. There are fancy mariposas, maidenhair ferns, trillium, etc. I could go on and on.
- Summer is obviously our busiest time. This past season we only had one weekend where we weren’t completely booked.
Unique to Dworshak State Park
“Certainly though, the most unique thing about this park is the dramatic water level fluctuation. Full pool is 1600’ and minimum pool is about 1450’. I don’t believe there is any other water body in Idaho that experiences fluctuations of this magnitude.”Jake Davis
A little history about Dworshak State Park
The reservoir that Dworshak State Park sits beside is the result of the Dworshak Dam, which was built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers from 1966-1972. The dam was named for Idaho U.S. Senator Henry Dworshak.
Technically, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers owns Dworshak State Park and they constructed most of the facilities. However, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR) manages the park. Many Idaho state parks are owned by a federal agency but managed by IDPR.
- Dworshak Dam has tours! I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to power generation, so I probably love this more than the average person. But the tour is interesting and the views from the top of the dam are great.
- Orofino, Idaho, is not a big town, but it has everything you need: lodging, food, supplies, etc. It is about 40 minutes from the state park. We can recommend Krystal’s Cafe. The wait was the longest of my life (thanks to the wildfire), but the food was good and the interactions with the locals made it worth the wait. Ronatta’s Cakery is a local bakery that is tasty as well, but they have weird hours. So good luck with that.
- Lewiston and Moscow are the closest “cities.” Both are a little over an hour away.
- Hells Gate State Park is close to Lewiston and about 1.5 hours away.
- Winchester State Park is also about 1.5 hours away.
Our experience at Dworshak State Park
Our experience at Dworshak was anything but ordinary. In fact, we almost did not get to experience Dworshak State Park at all. It was the last park we planned to visit on a road trip around northern Idaho. It was also our lodging for the night. We were about 20 miles or so from the park when we encountered a local police officer blocking the road. A previously-contained wildfire was no longer contained thanks to a major windstorm and it was now between us and the park. We asked if there was another entrance into the park and the police officer said, “I think so.” He gave us directions and off we went.
Cell phone reception is basically nonexistent in this part of the state so we were navigating the best we could. Our next attempt to get into the park was even less successful. We encountered another blocked road, but no cop to talk to this time. R did try to talk to some locals, but they were not sure if there was another road to the park or not. Things were looking rough and we were trying to decide whether to drive home (four hours away) or get a hotel room in Orofino. Given that this was our last park, we decided not to throw in the towel just yet.
Third time’s a charm
Google Maps showed us one last option: a steep, dirt road that runs near Dworshak Dam. We took this road as the sun was setting. The smoke from the wildfire was beautiful but eerie, and we kept expecting another roadblock. When we got to the top of the hill, we realized we were behind the wildfire. Our nerves were pretty shot at this point and all of the deer on the road did not help. But eventually, we made it to the park. By this time, it was dark and difficult to see. We managed to find our cabin and get inside, but there was no power.
Feeling out of sorts, we headed to the campground in search of answers. Thankfully, most campers are friendly and we quickly found a group who shared with us the news that the entire state park was without power and had been all day. Also, campfires were allowed. They did not know anything about the wildfire happening just a few miles away. R may have gotten a little carried away when she first described it. We decided it was probably better not to encourage the panic that started to arise and instead started to backpedal. We thanked them for their time and got back to our cabin.
Campfires and stargazing
There was not much we could do at that point. We were prepared to spend the night in a cabin with electricity and a heater. We were not prepared to camp. Thankfully, we had procured some firewood and a lighter a few days earlier. We managed to build a decent campfire and spent the evening telling stories from before we met. We also spent a lot of time staring at the sky. The stars that night were some of the most beautiful that I have ever seen.
After putting out our fire, we put on every piece of clothing we had to make up for a heater we could not turn on without electricity. I was sure I was in for a miserable night. Plus, we were a bit worried that we might have to evacuate if the wind shifted and fire moved our way. Thankfully, we stayed warm, slept well and the wildfire stayed away.
Final activities at Dworshak State Park
The next morning we headed to the horseshoe pits. In case you are wondering, we are both terrible at horseshoes. But the weather was nice. We also decided to go down to the reservoir and take a look around. It was much lower than I expected. But thanks to Jake, I now know that is normal for this time of year.
I am not sure if we will ever think of Dworshak State Park without thinking about that wildfire and all of the challenges it presented us. But Jake Davis painted a picture of a park I want to visit again…probably in the springtime.
Note: we visited Dworshak State Park as part of our Idaho State Parks Challenge. The challenge consists of visiting all of Idaho’s state parks in one year. We made up this challenge to see a bit more of our beautiful state and help alleviate the restlessness caused by Covid-19 travel restrictions. Feel free to join the challenge!
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