The story goes that in the early 1800s, a party of French-Canadian trappers, parched and dusty from an arduous journey across the lava rock–riddled Snake River plain, crested a low hill and looked down on a beautiful, tree-lined river. One and all ran headlong for the water. After quenching their thirst and relaxing in the first shade in weeks, they named both the river and the place boisé, French for “wooded.”
The next valley to the north brought another spectacular river with crystalline waters and intimidating rapids. This river was later named after Francois Payette, who commanded the area’s first settlement, Fort Boise, in 1818.
These two rivers with their multiple tributaries, along with the Snake River into which both flow, make modern-day Boise a mecca for all things river-related. Whether for its blue-ribbon trout waters, its world-class white water, or just a Sunday afternoon inner-tube float through the heart of the city, Boise draws river lovers of all stripes. About a five-hour drive or a one-hour flight from Park City, Boise offers plenty of outdoor fun like mountain biking, rock climbing, and backpacking, but it’s the river activities that best complement its already ample outdoor lifestyle.
In river country, you hear the names South Fork, North Fork, Middle Fork, and even compilations like East Fork of the South Fork thrown into conversation on a seemingly indiscriminate basis. Around Boise, the exact tributary to which a river aficionado is referring depends entirely on the speaker’s preferred activity. For example, when a fly-fisher tells you about the huge rainbow he landed on the South Fork yesterday, he’s almost certainly referring to the South Fork of the Boise. On the other hand, when a kayaker says the flows are up and she’s running the South Fork tomorrow, she’s speaking of the South Fork of the Payette. The Middle Fork will almost always mean the Middle Fork of the Salmon, a couple of hours to the north. (See parkcitymagazine.com for more.)
Summer 2012 marks the opening of phase I of the long-awaited Boise River Recreation Park. Boise is home to some of the world’s top white-water paddlers, and this urban white-water park just west of downtown near Pleasanton Avenue is destined to become play-boat central. The automated Wave Shaper system creates an ever-changing array of wave configurations, and from the public viewing area, you can watch kayakers honing their skills, stand-up paddleboarders testing their balance, or, depending on the flow, even a die-hard surfer or two paddling in to catch a standing wave.
The 22-mile Boise River Greenbelt is one of Boise’s best loved and most used features. The tree-lined pathway follows the river through the heart of the city and provides scenic views, wildlife habitat, and pedestrian access to many of the city’s popular riverside parks, including the new white-water park. The Greenbelt also serves as an alternative transportation route for bicycle commuters.
With its prolific and varied aquatic bug life, the 26-mile stretch of the South Fork Boise River (about an hour-and-15-minute drive from downtown Boise) is a veritable fish factory that produces some of the biggest and healthiest wild rainbows in the Lower 48. See idahoangler.com for the scoop on fishing it.
The North Fork, South Fork, and Main sections of the Payette River, all less than an hour’s drive from downtown Boise, create one of the largest and most varied white-water complexes in the country. The Class V lower section of the North Fork is expert-only and tests the mettle of the world’s best kayakers. Above that is a more family-friendly run known as the Cabarton. The South Fork offers a number of different runs through spectacular scenery varying from the Class II Swirly Canyon to the Class IV Staircase and Canyon runs. Below the confluence of the North and South Forks, the Main Payette is probably the most popular white-water run in Idaho with rapids that vary from Class I to Class III. For guided trips and conditions, check out Cascade Raft and Kayak at cascaderaft.com.
For all things fly-fishing, Idaho Angler (1682 Vista Ave, 208.389.9957, idahoangler.com) is the source. Idaho River Sports (3100 W Pleasanton Ave, 208.336.4844) has been outfitting and advising paddlers since 1987.
Boise offers a surprisingly well-rounded restaurant and nightlife scene that is often compared to that of one of its larger Pacific Northwest neighbors, Portland. The downtown area is definitely the hub, with the Hyde Park and Bown Crossing areas offering up distinctive neighborhood backdrops.
Downtown, the adjacent Red Feather and Bittercreek Alehouse (246 N Eighth St, 208.345.1813, bcrfl.com) feature local and regional organic fare—Red Feather in a swanky lounge setting with an award-winning regional wine list, and Bittercreek in a publike setting with 30 regional beers on tap. The Low Power Happy Hour, weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m., serves up half-price appetizers and carbon-footprint consciousness by candlelight.
The upscale Cottonwood Grille (913 W River St, 208.333.9800, cottonwoodgrille.com) offers American and Caribbean specialties with patio dining next to the Boise River.
The historic Idaho Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast (109 W Idaho St, 208.342.8066, idheritageinn.com), a former governor’s mansion furnished in turn-of-the-century antiques, offers convenient access to the downtown area in a quiet, comfortable B&B setting.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Modern Hotel and Bar (1314 Grove St, 208.424.8244, themodernhotel.com) is a “reanimated” Travelodge with modern décor and fixtures and an ultra-hip attitude that bills itself as business-, artist-, and even cowboy-friendly.