A Winter Tradition Not to Be Missed
Stephanie Johnstone knows her way around the McCall Winter Carnival.
A longtime resident of Boise, she and her family, including her twin sister, Jennifer, looked forward to skiing at Brundage Mountain Resort and perusing the snow and ice sculptures at the carnival over the course of many winters growing up.
Now that she's a mother of two, Stephanie wants to create memories for her own young daughters that include barreling down the sledding hill, walking across the frozen Payette Lake and bundling up to take in dozens of massive snow sculptures.
“I want them to grow up and have fond memories of their childhood like I did,” Stephanie says. “It's just a fun, festive event. There's fireworks over the lake, and there's so many kids to play with. You make new friends when you're up there.”
For the Johnstones, this year is no different.
They'll join up to 60,000 other people from across the country—and the world—who are anticipated to visit the 53rd annual Winter Carnival from January 26 to February 4 in downtown McCall. Events are also featured in other nearby towns, such as New Meadows and Cascade.
McKenzie Kraemer, who has been the carnival's director for eight years, says the festival was inspired by a 1924 event called the Payette Lake Winter Games. A train from Boise brought 248 visitors to McCall for the first winter games, but the official McCall Winter Carnival as people know it today started in the 1960s.
During the carnival, attendees can enjoy dozens of the event's famous snow sculptures, Torchlight and Mardi Gras parades, live music, daily events spanning everything from comedy shows to art auctions, snowbike races to the Monster Dog Pull and much more.
Each day is packed full of family-friendly events. Festivities on the weekends generally run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and events generally start at noon on weekdays.
“Winter Carnival is, in general, a celebration of all things winter,” McKenzie says. “It's 10 solid days of events. A lot of those events are standard events that everyone looks forward to. The big ones are of course the sculptures, and everyone for the business competition is finished carving and judged that first Friday of the carnival.”
She encourages everyone to look at the chamber's map online to take a peek to see where each sculpture is located and to scope out a route to maximize seeing as many as they can.
Levi Johnstone, Stephanie's husband, said there's simply no way to see everything, including all the sculptures, in just a day. Their family tries to book lodging months in advance and stay over a weekend, he says. This year, the family had their Airbnb booked in October.
McKenzie suggests anyone planning to stay the night book their lodging as soon as they can. She also suggests logging on to the McCall Chamber of Commerce's website and scrolling to the bottom of the Winter Carnival page to check out local property management companies' offerings if hotels are booked up.
“The McCall Chamber is dedicated to listing all these companies, including companies with condos and houses, to offer more options to people,” she says. “Especially if you have a couple of groups coming or have a large family, sometimes it's just as economical as a hotel room. Those don't fill up as fast, and there are still some availabilities.”
Because many of the sculptures are so spread out, the Johnstones both agree that wearing proper snow boots and winter gear is critical to having a good time.
“The sculptures are just incredible,” Levi says. “It's well worth it. Typically we see the ones on the main drag in downtown, and then if we hear through the grapevine about a great one further out, then we'll drive to them and get out and look.”
But the whole event is something to experience, Levi says.
“It's something everyone in Idaho should see,” he says.