In 1974, the writer L.J. Davis published a wonderful piece in Harper’s Magazine predicting the demise of his hometown. The headline: “Tearing down Boise.” The gloomy premise, based largely on the way city leaders were handling development: “If things go on as they are, Boise stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself.”
Davis was wrong, and Boise is booming. The Idaho capital is among the fastest growing cities in the nation, luring expats from more crowded, more expensive metropolises for the same reason French fur trappers exploring the region are said to have shouted “Les bois! Les bois!” (The trees! The trees!) upon seeing the cottonwoods lining the banks of the Boise River: its remarkable outdoor access. From a 25-mile paved trail that winds through town to the Sawtooth Mountains to the east, you’d have to work to avoid stumbling into nature. It’s called “Treasure Valley” for a reason.
Boise regularly lands on top 10 lists: best downtowns, healthiest and so on. But for a city of just over 200,000, what is perhaps most surprising is that its wild spaces are mirrored by an equally vast range of cultural institutions, from vibrant restaurants to a thriving local music scene to impressive art installations in and out of doors. Here are a few of our favorite things to do in Boise.
Hike Camel’s Back Park
Boise’s interconnected Camel’s Back Park, Camel’s Back Reserve and Hulls Gulch Reserve north of downtown are all perfect places to play tennis, volleyball or ultimate frisbee and serve as an urban gateway to the wilderness. From the reserves, hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners can spend days exploring the Ridge to Rivers trail system, more than 190 miles of trail that lead deep into the Boise Foothills, northeast of town. The Ridge to Rivers partnership was formed in 1992 by multiple government agencies and dozens of private landowners who allowed the trails to cross their properties. Among the trail system’s great sections: Table Rock, a grassy plateau that overlooks the city where around a half dozen trails wend their way to sweeping views the city. The most well-known route up the plateau is Table Rock Trail #15, a 3.2-mile round trip that starts at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, once home to some of the West’s most menacing gunslingers, and now houses a spooky collection of well-preserved history.
Eat at Hyde Park
At the base of the undulating Boise Foothills, the Hyde Park neighborhood is a collection of charming, often historic homes and serves as the unofficial headquarters of cyclists and mountain bikers fueling up for an adventure. Don’t miss Hyde House’s vegan curry and turkey caprese sandwich, Camel’s Crossing’s steaks or Parrilla Grill’s Wrap of Khan, which features Thai peanut sauce, bamboo shoots, cilantro-lime rice and a chili-bean smear.
Bike the Boise River Greenbelt
Many of Boise’s streets are five- and six-lane monstrosities, so the city doesn’t feel as welcoming to cyclists as, say, Portland. But then there’s the Boise River Greenbelt, a multiuse path that runs through the city from the Lucky Peak Dam in the east to a bit past Eagle Road to the west, for a total of about 25 miles. On a nice afternoon, of which there are many in a town that sees an average of 234 sunny days per year, expect to find cyclists, joggers, walkers, picnickers and yogis along the trail in droves. The city also recently approved allowing e-bikes on the Greenbelt, and in bike lanes, as long as they top out at 20 miles per hour. For pure pedal power, though, check out the Boise GreenBike bike share, which rents cycles for $5 an hour or $15 a month for up to an hour a day.
Nap in a Hammock
The Greenbelt follows the Boise River, and even in early spring, once the mercury hits 60 degrees, you’ll find people lining the banks in hammocks or spread out on towels suntanning, which is to say you don’t have to enjoy exercise to enjoy the trail. We suggest stringing up your hammock and cracking open a good book.
Fish the Boise River
You’ll find plenty of fishing holes along the Boise River, which runs 102 miles through the heart of the city, from the Boise Mountains to the Oregon border. At different times of the year, the waterway serves up largemouth bass, steelhead, Chinook salmon and rainbow and brown trout, among other species. Try the stretch from Barber Park, 6 miles southeast of downtown, to Parkcenter Park. Fishing not your thing? Once the weather gets hot enough, there’s also a 6-mile float that can be done with inner tubes or giant inflatable kayaks. It starts at Barber Park, where rafts and tubes can be rented and shuttles arranged.
Climb Near Lucky Peak Reservoir
This artificial lake 12 miles from the city center draws boaters, swimmers, fishermen and picnickers to its shores. But Lucky Peak, which was created by the construction of its namesake dam in 1955, is also beloved by climbers for the Black Cliffs, which rise up to 60 feet above the river just downstream of the dam. Climbers of all skill levels attempt both trad and sport routes like Stems and Jammies (5.7+), Dawn Patrol (5.8) and Bolts-n-Burger (5.8+). You can even climb in winter. There may be better rock walls in the world, but the view of the reservoir is hard to beat. If you’re looking for a new challenge, the lake is also the region’s most reliably windy kiteboarding spot, and Idaho Kitesports offers lessons.
Explore the Sawtooths
This 756,000-acre National Recreation Area east of Boise is home to more than 700 miles of trail, 40 mountain peaks above 10,000 feet and more than 300 alpine lakes, meaning it’s perfect for just about everything from car camping and backcountry overnights to day hiking and mountain biking. There are dozens of entry points, but a good place to start is three hours northeast of Boise at Stanley Lake, where a 9.4-mile out-and-back route will take you from the Iron Creek Trailhead to the high-alpine Sawtooth Lake and some of the best views in the region.
Paraglide Horseshoe Bend
Though it lies in a valley just 27 miles north of Boise, the city of Horseshoe Bend feels like a rugged retreat. The best way to experience it may be from the air, gliding off a grassy hillside down to a soft-ish landing at the 910-acre Horseshoe Bend Flight Park, which welcomes beginners with lessons and experts with membership options and year-round flying. The trip also makes for a great road ride from Boise, if you have the stamina.
Ski Bogus Basin
How many major American cities have a ski resort less than 20 miles from town? We’re not sure, but we know it’s not many. The drive to Bogus Basin, which twists up Hulls Gulch, is a gorgeous trek in its own right and rewards you with both day and night skiing seven days a week. If you plan on skiing the mountain, be sure to send it on Upper Paradise, a black diamond twister just off the Pine Creek Express lift that’s a local favorite. Not a skier? The resort has tubing, fat tire mountain biking, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, and lift-access mountain biking, horseback riding, disc golf, a bungee trampoline and a climbing wall in the summer. But the best part? It’s a nonprofit.
Surf Inside the City Limits
Fear not surf bums. Though Boise is a nine-hour drive from the nearest ocean, you can still hang ten. In 2012, the city opened a free whitewater park on the Boise River west of downtown. Jetties provide access for kayakers and river surfers to two waves created by the park’s hydraulic wave shapers and pneumatically operated flashboards. If the man-made wave sounds too intense, nearby Quinn’s Pond is perfect for a quiet paddle under the snowcapped mountains.
Photos by Winston Ross.