Cougar Dispersed Camping Area, Ketchum, ID

Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Sawtooth National Forest

Free Camping Near Ketchum, Idaho

Cougar Dispersed Camping Area is one several dispersed camping areas found in Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It’s often referred to “North Fork Big Wood River” because the North Fork runs through this area. What makes this camping area so popular is that it’s only a few miles from Ketchum, ID, a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Cougar Dispersed Camping Area is located along FR-146, right where the North Fork Visitor Center is located. There’s four developed campgrounds along FR-146, and dispersed camping is permitted in between these campgrounds. FR-146 runs about 5 miles until it ends at the North Fork Trailhead.


Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Sawtooth National Forest

Sawtooth NRA Office:

Tel: (800) 260-5970


GPS: 43.8373, -114.4201

Reservations: First come, first served

Camping Fee: None

Permit: None

Max Stay: 10 days during any 30-day period between May 1st and September 15th , or for more than 16 days during any 30 day period between September 16th and April 30th.

Amenities: None

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Cougar Dispersed Camping Area, Ketchum, ID

Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) covers a large area of land with hundreds of options for boondocking and developed camping.

The most popular area to camp is along the North Fork of the Big Wood River, at a place the Forest Service has named, “Cougar Dispersed Camping Area”. Cougar starts where the North Fork Visitor Center is located, right at the intersection of SR-75 and and FR-146. When driving north from Ketchum, you’ll see a sign for “SNRA Headquarters”.

If you keep going up FR-146, it turns into gravel. The road runs for about 5 miles and ends at the North Fork Trailhead. Along this road there are four developed campgrounds, five if you include the Group Camp. Between these campgrounds, dispersed camping is permitted. There are several clearings where you can set up camp. The closer you camp to North Fork, the wetter, muddier the ground becomes.

Verizon 4G signal tends to be average to good starting at the SNRA Visitor Center, and gets weaker as you go up FR-146. About 3 miles up, you lose all signal.

FR-146 starts out as pavement where it branches from SR-75, but quickly turns to gravel. It remains fairly smooth for about one mile. The road then gets lightly rocky. After two miles, it becomes quite rocky, enough that it might discourage some from towing their trailers. For the next mile it remains very rocky, and then smooths out until it reaches the North Fork Trailhead at the fifth mile. For the most part, it’s all driveable with just 2WD, just very rocky in some parts.

For more information about Cougar Dispersed Camping Area, visit the Sawtooth National Forest website.

Pros and Cons

Pros: Peace and quiet, a rich scent of fresh pine, sounds of song birds  and beautiful views of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s totally free to camp here with a 16-day limit, and there are hiking trails throughout. Cool weather in summer.

Cons: It gets busy here during the summer. Verizon 4G signal becomes weak the further north past the SNRA Visitor Center.


Free dump station with potable water, and free trash dump located along FR-146, about 500 feet from the SNRA Visitor Center.

Cellphone Signal Strength

Verizon 4G comes in average to good the closer you get to Ketchum. But, it weakens as you move further north from the SNRA Visitor Center. Along FR-146, you can usually get 2-3 bars within a mile from the Visitor Center, and you will lose all signal about 3 miles from the Center.

Insects, Pests, & Wildlife

Seemingly very little in the way of gnats and common houseflies. No mice or rats, though raccoons are out and about. Even though coyotes, wolves, and bears are plentiful here, we never saw or heard any.


Mostly peaceful and quiet. FR-146 can be busy within the first 2 miles from the Visitor Center. Most campers don’t go beyond that, usually because the road gets more rocky.

Safe or Sketchy?

Campers and hikers here seem to be friendly and respectful, and boondocking here seems pretty safe. We frequently left our trailer unattended to go into Ketchum numerous times and never had a problem.

How Crowded Is It?

During the Summer it gets pretty busy. You best bet is to get there before July. There are still plenty of places to boondock, but you’ll be left with camping where Verizon 4G signal can’t be found.

Lots of secluded campsites along FR-146, particularly further up the road towards the end.

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