by Lee Foster
Citizens of Boise take much pleasure in the great outdoors and in the western history that surrounds them. A traveler will also enjoy both components of this frontier western city.
Within this small city, much civic pride has focused on restoration of historic architecture and the reshaping of downtown for a projected prosperous future.
A traveler can enjoy the downtown by taking a Boise Tour Train trip. The miniature shuttle train, complete with an informed guide, travels through this bucolic yet sophisticated city of around 206,000 people. Pick up the train at the tour train depot in Julia Davis Park.
One highlight of the Tour Train excursion is the Idaho State Capitol Building, a local-sandstone and imported-marble edifice imitating the national Capitol in Washington D.C. Boise’s Capitol is the most handsome building in the city. One unusual aspect of this Capitol is that it is heated by geothermal water.
The downtown Historic District has many brick buildings from the 19th century that have been restored for modern use. In one plaza, the public spirited citizens have each bought a brick, with their name on it, to symbolize a commitment to the city’s future. More than 12,000 people paid $20 apiece to have a centennial brick, in 1990.
Historic walk brochures can be picked up at the drop-in Visitor Information Center, located downtown in The Grove at the Convention Center.
Ironically, Idaho was populated from the west, mainly from California, rather than from the east. Miners came from the West after they heard of gold strikes. The oldest building downtown is the O’Farell Cabin, between 5th and 6th Streets on Fort Street. The cabin dates from 1863.
Earlier, about 200,000 people passed through Idaho on the Oregon Trail, but they tended not to linger on these sagebrush prairies when the lush, green valleys of Washington and Oregon lay ahead.
Grand Regional Architecture
The grand houses of Warm Springs Avenue in Boise amount to a catalog of architectural styles in American homes from 1875 to the present. Houses range from modest bungalows to imposing mansions.
Boise has done an expert job recycling its older institutional buildings. The Old Idaho Penitentiary, started in 1870, was abandoned for penal use in 1974. Fortunately, this structural gem of frontier architecture was saved from demolition and converted into a museum. Of special interest in the complex is the Idaho Transportation Museum. One poignant artifact, Ken Reese’s gospel trailer, recalls the subculture of roadside preachers in America.
Another historic treasure is Fort Boise, a brick and stone complex of frontier fort architecture. The horsemanship required of cavalry officers encouraged recreational playing of polo in Boise in the 1920s. Civilian and military teams competed. Boise’s polo teams became champions throughout the West.
A nostalgic feeling sweeps over a visitor who observes these buildings and savors the small-town, historic side of Boise.
Outdoors Within the City
All this celebration of Boise history should not lead a traveler to think this is a mothballed community. One interesting aspect of the quality of life here is that so much of the famous outdoor world of Idaho is available to citizens and travelers even within the city.
The treat is the so-called Boise River Green Belt, fully 16 miles long, linking Lucky Peak Reservoir to Eagle Island State Park. The Green Belt has 9.5 miles of paved hiking and biking trails, plus trout fishing, inner-tubing, rafting, and picnicking along the banks of the river. Within it is Julia Davis Park and some of the city’s major cultural resources, such as the Boise Art Museum, Idaho Historical Museum, and Morrison Center for the Performing Arts. An outdoor Shakespeare Theater puts on summer performances.
The Green Belt reminds a visitor that the city’s name, Boise, is a corruption of the French for the wooded river, “la riviere boise.” French trappers welcomed the wooded terrain as a relief from the semi-desert that describes much of southern Idaho. The river has stimulated a Boise River Festival in late June, which is as characteristic of the region as the Western Idaho Fair of late August. The wild trout and other native fishes of the river can be seen live at the Morrison-Knudsen Nature Center.
Modern, Progressive Boise
For a small city, Boise has an energetic, progressive look to it. There are several downtown complexes for businesses and a shopping center four miles from the downtown. The downtown structures are the 10-story First Interstate Bank, the West One Bank Building, and the U.S. Bank Capitol Plaza. The regional shopping center has a mall called Boise Town Square and an outlets cluster called Boise Factory Outlets. Boise is the home of several Fortune 500 companies, such as Morrison-Knudsen, Boise Cascade, and Simplot.
Boise now captures its share of high-tech business, but it was agriculture that sustained the state earlier. Potatoes grow exceptionally well in the volcanic soil south of Boise. Mining and cattle/sheep ranching are major businesses today. Tourism ranks third in the Idaho economy. It should be added that lodgings and restaurants offer the traveler good value for the dollar in Idaho.
One intriguing expression of the modern, scientific side of Boise is the Discovery Center of Idaho, 131 Myrtle Street. This science museum has over 90 permanent exhibits that invite visitors of all ages to participate, exciting the imagination.
Among amenities in Boise are specialty shops and restaurants of interest to the traveler.
Taters is a cute souvenir store at The Grove, featuring Idaho products, such as smoked trout. Since Idaho raises about 70 percent of the trout consumed in the U.S., a can of smoked trout makes a fitting gift. Idaho has the edge on trout production because pure, cool water flows continuously out of the aquifers on the Snake River, insuring the fish farmers a good habitat for their operations.
Travelers will find that 8th Street is a downtown mall, where you might stop for a glass of St. Chapelle Chardonnay or lunch. Bangkok House is an example of Boise’s ethnic restaurants. Try the Curried Shrimp. Peter Schott’s presents a fine-dining experience, starting possibly with the Smoked Idaho Trout Salad and then moving on to the Rack of Lamb.
Boise as a Base of Exploration
Boise is a good base from which to plan an Idaho vacation. Several other major travel pleasures could be considered after a start in Boise.
The nearby national forests, such as the Boise National Forest, can be toured by car. A drive up SR21 along the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Route would be a good choice.
Visit the major mountain resort of Sun Valley, with its summer outdoor sports and winter skiing. The Sun Valley Lodge is the premier hostelry here, steeped in history since the days when railroads brought in famous guests.
Linger in McCall, a pleasing small town on Payette Lake, north of Boise. McCall is a favorite summer home for wealthy Idahoans, who like to fish and hike in the area. Morel mushrooms and huckleberries are abundant near McCall.
Jet boat the Hells Canyon of the Snake, the deepest river gorge in North America. The Hells Canyon Tours operation, out of Lewiston, operates a jet boat company for day or overnight trips up the river.
Float in a raft down the Payette River, near Boise, which has Class II to Class V rapids. Further afield, rafting is popular on the Salmon River from Stanley, near Sun Valley, or from Riggins, north of Boise. Raft trips can be one to five days on several rivers in Idaho.
Luxuriate in an Idaho guest ranch. A typical choice among many would be the Shepp Ranch, on the Salmon River above Riggins. You have to fly or boat in. Shepp Ranch offers horseback rides, river jet-boat and float trips, good trout fishing, and tasty home cooking.
Snake River Birds of Prey Area
If you have time to visit only one outdoor wonder near Boise, an excellent choice would be the Snake River Birds of Prey Area. One of the most exciting conservation success stories in America occurred here: the saving of the peregrine falcon from extinction.
You can visit both the research center, the World Center for Birds of Prey, where the falcons were hatched in captivity for re-location to the wilds, and then explore the aerie of many birds of prey, the 483,000-acre Birds of Prey Area along 33 miles of the Snake River. In the wilds you can see many birds of prey, or raptors, as they are called. Raptors include eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls.
Arrangements can be made to boat through the Snake River Birds of Prey Area. Anyone in the public can participate in float trips or jet boat trips along the river, guided by naturalists. The naturalist explains why this special area of Idaho hosts the densest population of nesting raptors in North America. Above the protected cliffs, with their ideal nesting sites, are huge populations of raptor food, ground squirrels burrowing in the soft volcanic soil and jackrabbits hiding in the sage bushes.
The existence of this research center and raptor wild area suggests a profound shift in public opinion from the days where every raptor in flight was a “chicken hawk” to the modern notion of preserving these magnificent soaring birds, which have such a special role in the environment at the apex of the food chain.
Boise’s World Center for Birds of Prey reacted to the twin tragedies of wholesale killing of raptors and of DDT poisoning, which weakened egg shells and decimated the survival rate, by developing an extensive captive breeding program, especially for peregrine falcons. Peregrines hatched in captivity were released throughout the United States in the known historic range of the birds. Thousands of falcons have been raised and released. Many of the released birds are nesting successfully, even in urban areas, where they feed off pigeons.
The progressive spirit of Boise is exemplified by the Birds of Prey success story. This is a community that nurtures it history, appreciates the great outdoors, and has the modern sophistication to act positively in the global environment we all find ourselves in.
Boise Idaho: If You Go
For tourism information on Boise, see the Boise Convention and Visitor Bureau at http://www.boise.org.
The World Center for Birds of Prey website is at http://www.peregrinefund.org.