As guest lodging in McCall was limited in the 1920s, overflow visitors were housed by residents who opened their homes for the Carnival. In addition, a train with sleeper cars was positioned at the train station, and reduced rates were offered as another form of accommodation for visitors. The first Sports Carnival was attended by approximately 2,000 people, including then Idaho Governor C. Moore.

The Payette Lakes Sports Carnival lasted several years. Still, it began to fade out as organized clubs and the development of permanent facilities—like the Little Ski Hill—made sporting competitions more formal, reducing the need for competition-based festivals. The Sports Carnival eventually evolved into an “Ice Break-Up Contest.” A person could purchase a ticket and enter a guess as to what day, hour, and minute the ice on Payette Lake would break up in the spring. The last contest was held in 1941 and ended when gambling became illegal.

Motivated by a desire to promote skiing in the area, the community rallied to bring back a winter festival to McCall. The first two-day official Winter Carnival was held that year on the same weekend as the University of Idaho Ski Invitational at Brundage Mountain Ski Resort. The Carnival drew regional visitors to the area and hosted slalom skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, snowshoeing, and snowcat races.

Since then, the McCall Winter Carnival has grown and expanded into the 10-day festival we know today.