Wandering the West
December 13, 2011
Boise, Idaho, gets a lot of attention each fall, courtesy of the Boise State Broncos. They play on what they like to call their "famous" blue turf. It’s actually an artificial blue carpet that hurts the eyes. Still, you see their "Smurf Turf" a lot because they play really good football and landed in the nation’s top ten at season’s end again this year.
Many Utah fans, Utah State University alums especially, will be watching "The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl" in Boise this Saturday. The Aggies will be playing the Ohio Bobcats on the blue grass.
But there’s so much more to Boise than great football and famous potatoes. It reminds me a lot of Salt Lake City. It’s a state capital in a mountain valley bordered by foothills. A half million people now live in the Boise River Valley, about half as many as Salt Lake’s valley. Although half the size, Boise seems twice as progressive. At some point, for different reasons, it makes most magazines’ top-ten lists, whether it’s for its business climate, its technology base, or its livability.
Livability and play-ability are what attract me to the place, whose name is a mangled version of a French word meaning "wooded." Boise unwinds along the banks of the Boise River, a great amenity that flows right through downtown. Imagine spending your lunch hour kayaking or fly-fishing. That’ll make the spreadsheets a little easier to look at.
Along the river, a continuous 25-mile trail awaits bike riders, joggers and walkers. The Ridge to Rivers trailhead connects to more trails 130 miles and counting taking you out of the city and deep into wooded valleys with other streams feeding the Boise. MSN calls Boise the third most bike-able city in America. Imagine leaving your house on your bike and being able to access a trail system that big. It would be like living in, say, Park City.
Boise is also a tech center and a corporate center, which fill the town with hip white-collar young executives. This, of course, is where Boise Cascade is headquartered. It’s where Joe Albertson built and headquartered his huge supermarket chain. It’s where Joe Simplot, inventor of the frozen French fry, built his empire by convincing McDonald’s to buy them. It’s home to the city’s biggest employer, Micron Technology, which in turn has helped turn Boise into a high-tech incubator.
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But it’s the recreation and general pleasantness of the city that might entice you to stay over for a day or two if you’re road tripping to the Northwest. The downtown is really lively, filled with restaurants, bars and shopping. My last trip was in summer and the wide walkways were filled with sidewalk cafés with lots of live music bleeding out from the restaurant spaces. This is not your father’s Boise.
Boise, being a foothills town like Salt Lake City, also has great nearby recreation. The roaring Payette River makes for great whitewater rafting and kayaking. Bogus Basin Resort is just 16 miles away, although driving the winding road takes a long time. You can board a school bus in town to avoid the drive. And Bogus is not bogus. It’s a big mountain, with 2,600 skiable acres and 1,800 vertical feet, with three high-speed quads and four other chairs.
Bogus Basin is a throwback in the sense that it is owned by a nonprofit recreation association created for the benefit of the citizens down in the valley. It holds fundraisers and strives not to raise, but to cut prices whenever it can. If you’re an early bird to the ticket window and buy in the spring, a season pass runs just $199, and a family pass is $800.
Boise is also famous for its Basque population. Basque shepherds were imported here over the past century to be sheepherders on the vast ranges of southern Idaho and northern Nevada. Check out the Basque Block, which is the 600 block of Grove Street downtown. There’s a Basque museum and cultural center, and Basque cafés and restaurants serving up delicacies of the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain like braised beef tongue and squid simmered in its own ink.
If I didn’t already live in the best place in America, I might consider Boise.
Insider tip: Come during the San Inazio Festival July 27-29, 2012, celebrating Basque culture. The Basque Block comes alive with Basque dancing, music, food, and maybe a little drinking too.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.