by Carmel L. Mooney
Recently, my family and I were visiting dear friends just outside Boise, Idaho and we discovered a wonderful vacation destination: Boise. This beautiful area offers families the best in outdoor recreation, history, science, adventure, and the arts.
The Boise Basin encompasses a 200 square mile area that includes Idaho City, Placerville, Centerville, and Pioneer City. These historic gold mining areas offer wonderful outdoor and wilderness activities like fishing, boating, camping, renting yurts (a fancy tent/cabin-like structure), and exploring national forest land.
If city life interests your group, the Boise metropolitan area offers the best of both worlds. With spectacular mountain vistas where the desert meets the Rocky Mountain foothills, high desert scenery, and a clean, gorgeous city proud to have a much lower-than-national-average crime rate, Boise is the perfect place to enjoy big-city culture in a small city environment.
The World Center for Birds of Prey is a must-see for Boise visitors. Just a few miles south of downtown, guests can get up close and personal with giant Bald Eagles, Peregrines, Kestrels, and hawks, as well as various other raptors, through interactive displays, and live bird presentations, and multi-media shows. It’s even the headquarters for The Peregrine Fund and home of the Archives of American Falconry.
Amazingly, this fascinating center offers exhibits and activities for every age. Small children enjoy matching games and touching exhibits while adults and teenagers are entertained and educated by the amazing presentations and films.
General admission for this Boise gem is $4 and children’s tickets are only $2.
Another one of Boise’s vacation musts is the Idaho Botanical Garden. Thirty-three acres nestled in the foothills have blossomed over the years, into 13 specialty gardens, a framework of trees and shrubs, annuals, perennials, bulbs, and herbs. The English Garden, Water Garden, and Children’s Garden all add to the beauty. Open year-round, adults are $4 and children get in for just $2.
Right next to the Botanical Gardens and just two miles from downtown, you’ll find the Old Idaho Penitentiary. I thought this might be a boring tour, but my concerns were completely proven wrong when I discovered there were endless things to explore and learn for all ages.
One of only three prisons left of its kind in the entire nation, more than 13,000 prisoners did time there between 1870-and 1973. Many famous outlaws and children had a part in the captivating history. Admission is $4 for adults and $3 for kids. We liked it better than Alcatraz.
In downtown Boise, there’s so much to do, that you may not know where to start.
Boise has an exceptional zoo in the middle of scenic Julia Davis Park. We took a wonderful guided history tour by miniature train, through the park and the historic downtown area. The Boise Tour Train gave us a wonderful introduction to the area and I recommend doing it when you first arrive, to get your bearings and learn all the must-know Boise facts and spots.
If you like art, science, and history there are almost too many choices: The Basque Museum, Boise Art Museum, Idaho Black History Museum, Idaho Historical Museum, Idaho Museum of Military History, Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, Idaho State Capital, Anne Frank Human Rights, MK Nature Center, Warhawk Air Museum, and World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. But best of all for kids, your trip wouldn’t be complete without a few hours at the Discovery Center of Idaho where 150 hands-on, and bodies-on exhibits make learning a fun and exciting experience for all ages.
A 25-mile riverfront greenbelt winds through the city offering endless walking, jogging, biking, and rafting opportunities.
The ice rink, water park, horse racing track, and 13 golf courses create the perfect arena for both non-stop activity and relaxation.
Less than an hour outside Boise lies Idaho’s spectacular wine country and some of the state’s best white-water rafting.
Boise has mild winters with minimal snowfall and the surrounding areas offer some of the nation’s best snowmobiling, skiing, and snowboarding. Idaho has more groomed trails than any other western state. Only 35 miles outside of Boise is Celebration Park, a historical site near the Snake River where more than 2,000 Native American petroglyphs wait to be explored.
Bruneau Dunes State Park is only an hour away from Boise. Hagerman Fossil Beds is an hour and a half away. Less than an hour away also, we enjoyed exploring the historic mining town of Idaho City. The scenery and terrain between Boise and Idaho City were gorgeous and similar to the Grand Canyon.
Dining in Boise offers something for every taste. The Basque food is a noted specialty, and fine Mexican, Italian, Asian, and continental cuisines are all easy to find downtown, along with numerous microbreweries.
Shoppers will find great bargains and selection in Boise and nearby towns such as Nampa, Caldwell, and Mountain Home.
For family lodging, Boise offers all types of motel and hotel accommodations including RV parks and campgrounds. A special treat in lodging is found at the famous Anniversary Inn. This unique and luxurious hotel offers themed rooms that make guests feel as though they are living a life of a president in the Presidential Suite, Tarzan and Jane in a Jungle, Sleeping Beauty in her Castle, or the Swiss Family Robinson in their very own treehouse.
More than a dozen unique and lavishly themed rooms allow guests to enjoy the finest accommodations such as marble tubs, in-room Jacuzzis, large screen TVs, gourmet cheesecake, fresh-baked in-room breakfasts, and spiral staircases leading to lush beds and gazebos. Small children are not welcome but older children and adults are. The Anniversary Inn is truly an unforgettable experience.
There’s so much to see and do in the greater Boise area that I recommend at least a week. We were there for nearly two weeks and still couldn’t see and do it all. Surprisingly, Boise is only one full day’s drive from Northern California. Flights are quite reasonable on Southwest Airlines which flies into the Boise airport, only 3.5 miles from downtown.
It’s no wonder Idaho is nicknamed the “Gem State.” Way to go, Idaho!
Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist, author, and radio talk show host.