Basin & Range Inside Guide to The West: Boise, Idaho
From outdoor mecca to foodie friendly downtown, Idaho’s fun-loving capital has a lot going on.
In early May, 2015 Basin & Range Magazine staffers hit the road on a 12 day expedition that spanned 8 states and 3500 miles. We explored Utah, Nevada, Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and eventually returned to our home state of Colorado. Along the way, we came across an innumerable amount of scenic ocean vistas, Rocky Mountain majesties, captivating red rock desert oases, and lush prairielands… not to mention the ever-evolving local cultural landscape that rotated between the sun soaked wine country of central California, to the laid back coastal towns, the vibrant big cities of Portland and Sacramento. Despite all that diversity, I personally didn’t come across a clear favorite place until we were close to the end of our big trip, and it happened to be in a small city in south central Idaho.
A big city vibe with a small city footprint
Boise’s unique blend of deep agriculture heritage, cultural arts, farm to table food scene, legit wine industry, outdoor sports haven, and fast developing downtown fun are putting it in the spotlight.
Let’s quickly dispel with the harsh winter weather myth right away… Boise resides within the Treasure Valley, which as it turns out, creates an easy living “Banana Belt” micro-climate that keeps both the winters and summers milder than you might think. Combine that with 234 days of sunshine per year and it’s relatively low elevation, (especially when compared to places like Denver, Salt Lake City or Cheyenne) and the snow shovels are usually kept in the garage and out of service for most of the winter.
Let’s also quickly dispel another major misconceptions about Boise; the size of the city. If you count the downtown area of Boise by itself, it comes in at around 213,000 residents. If you count its immediately attached suburbs, it weighs in at a respectable 600,000, making it the third most populous metropolitan area in the United States’ Pacific Northwest region, behind Seattle and Portland.
Where Ski Culture meets Wine Culture meets… Basque Culture?
With an estimated 15,000 Basque residents, it was only a matter of time before Boise dedicated an entire block to it’s deep Basque cultural influence. The Basque Block is located in downtown Boise on Grove Street between Capitol Boulevard and 6th Street, and is home to two Basque restaurants, Bar Gernika and Leku Ona, the Basque Museum & Cultural Center and the Basque Market. Grove Street was even painted the traditional green and red and emblazoned with a large “Laubduru,” the Basque cross.
This active cultural community coordinates several festivities like the annual Sheepherder’s Ball, Wine Fest and St. Ignatius Basque Festival. Beyond these local celebrations, the International Jaialdi is held in Boise every five years (coming again in 2015). Jaialdi which means “Festival,” is world famous and Boise’s largest cultural event. It draws 10’s of thousands of Basques from all over the world and celebrates the culture through food, music and dance. It’s also known for it’s sporting competitions as international athletes descend on Boise to compete in the popular wood chopping and strength events.
While both Boise and Idaho in general are already well known for their agricultural contributions to society (the state produces about 13 billion pounds of potatoes per year… that’s right, billions) what isn’t as well known is how the Boise is cultivating a vibrant “Farm to Table” culture of foods, wines, and beers. The region’s rich agricultural heritage, combined with near perfect growing conditions come together to grant the wishes of diehard locavore foodies.
At the FORK Restaurant in downtown Boise, all of their dishes include key ingredients that are sourced from farms harvested nearby and throughout the Northwest. The FORK Restaurant’s owners believe it not only has a profound effect on the quality of their food, but also has a positive impact on Boise’s economy and cultural character.
In addition to FORK, another local favorite is the popular “Low Power Happy Hour” at the combined Bitter Creek Ale House and Red Feather Lounge. Every weekday from 3:00 to 5:30p.m. they turn down the lights and take a few hours to help reduce Idaho’s coal burning footprint. Even though it’s admittedly a small effort in the bigger scheme of things, it creates a fun candle-lit atmosphere and chill vibe that reminds the community that conservation is worthwhile.
Speaking of beer (and wine and spirits)
Idaho has a longstanding relationship with craft beverages of every character, and Boise is at the center of that universe. The nation’s first restaurant distillery, Bardoney, is located on the Basque Block where they distill their own vodka, gin and rum at their on-site still. Be sure to ask the bartender for a seasonal cocktail if you go…
Meanwhile, Idaho’s wine making industry is booming, going from a relatively small 10 wineries only a few decades ago, to nearly 50 today. In 2007, the Snake River Valley became an officially recognized American Viticulture Area as a federally designated grape growing region… that’s an 8000 square mile area with over 1600 acres of grapes planted annually. Needless to say, Idaho plans to continue to mature their wine growing talents in the coming years…
And as for the beer I mentioned earlier… Boise has no less than 10 popular breweries in and around its downtown district. Homegrown beer has been a part of the city since the 1970’s, but they’re just now getting discovered outside of the region. Favorites include Woodland Empire Ale Craft, Payette Brewing, Sockeye Brewery, Crooked Fence Brewing, Highlands Hollow Brewhouse, The Ram, and TableRock.
And of course, there’s the Outdoors
Idaho, like all of the Western States, hosts a panoply of readily accessible outdoor activities for enthusiasts of nearly every variety. Whether the fun you seek comes from whitewater, mountain biking, skiing, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, boating or waterskiing, Boise’s proximity to the region’s rivers, lakes, mountains and open country puts it at the heart of it all. In fact, Boise is building upon its reputation as a whitewater destination by putting the finishing touches on the first phase of their new river park. Billed as a centerpiece to Boise’s new focus on Quality of Living, the water park replaces the old irrigation diversion with a new $3.6 million dam that includes maneuverable wave shapers to create ideal whitewater conditions on the river. Kayakers, Stand Up Paddlers (SUP’pers), tubers and more have fallen in love with the park as the city begins to use it for numerous competitive events all summer long.
If whitewater’s not your thing and you prefer to stay high and dry – Boise boasts no less than 140 miles and 15 trail systems all within a short drive of its central downtown district. The favorite beginner hikes are:
- Hulls Pond Loop #34
- Red Fox/Owls Roost Trails #36
- Camels Back Reserve Trails #40
- Crestline Trail #28
- Hulls Gulch Interpretive Trail #0
- Toll Road Trail #27A
- Cottonwood Creek Trail Loop #27
- Castle Rock Loop #19
- Table Rock Trail #15
- Shane’s Trail #26A
- Red Tail Trail #71
But this is just the tip of the outdoor recreation iceberg for Boise. There’s SO much to cover on this topic that we’ll dig deeper another upcoming article.
All these things come together to help form the focus of life in Boise. Time and time again, the city shows up in print as a “Top Place to Live” by the likes of Entrepreneur Magazine or is featured as one of the healthiest places to live magazines like Sunset and more. Keep an eye on us as we continue to dive into all the things that make this gem of southern Idaho so great.