Every year we try to visit my husband’s only son and his family in Boise, Idaho. Marathon road trips like this from where we live in Mesa, Arizona, always give us opportunities to stumble upon interesting spots to explore. These are the six I remember best from our travels to Idaho because each one gave me a one-of-a-kind experience. The last two are from our most recent trip last July when we felt the freedom to travel again after getting fully vaccinated.
1. Lava Hot Springs
Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, is only 2 hours from Salt Lake City on I-15, so it was on the way from my husband’s daughter’s home in Denver, Colorado. A small town with a population of less than 500, it is blessed with several hot springs that have the reputation for a good bathing experience. And, it also lies in the mountainous valley of the mildly turbulent Portneuf River that is also great for tubing. There is also an Olympic size pool. These have made Lava Hot Springs a popular weekend resort location for people in Idaho and Utah.
We have been to three other hot springs in the U.S. but this town gave me a whole new meaning to bright summer days. When we were there, a great number of large yellow tubes were all over town. They were so radiant that they created such a welcome sight for this lover of the color yellow. They were floating on the river carrying happy kids, stacked at rental outlets waiting for temporary owners, and even “walking around town” with human legs hanging below them. I say “kudos” to those townsfolk who smartly chose the color yellow for those tubes. Lava Hot Springs became such a bright recreational stop for me.
2. Shoshone Falls
The year 2020 was a year we could not visit our children. We had to stay within our COVID bubbles; mine included just my husband. So after a picnic with our Denver family at the Rocky Mountain National Park, our Boise family recommended that we meet at beautiful Shoshone Falls Park in Twin Falls, Idaho. And that was such a perfect tip because, at that state park, I found a tall and wide waterfall resplendent with a rainbow across it. On second look, it was actually a double rainbow. The sight was awesome!
Even without a rainbow, you will be amazed at this waterfall dubbed “The Niagara of the West.” Standing 212 feet tall and 900 feet wide, it is one of the largest natural waterfalls in the U.S., higher than, but not as wide as Niagara. I really don’t know why its application for national park designation was rejected. I felt it should at least be a national monument and not just a state park.
Located on the Snake River, it carves its way through a deep basalt canyon to meet the Columbia River below. Its flow is dependent on many variables. The best time to see it is in spring when the snow begins to melt on the mountains. In the summer months, a part of the river is diverted for use in irrigating 500,000 acres of farmland so the flow is somewhat reduced. But I thought it was still pretty spectacular, even in July. The worst time to visit is fall when the water is used to recharge the reservoir system upstream.
3. The Basque Block
The city of Boise has a lot to offer, too. It is the state’s largest city with a population of over 200,000. My husband’s son is married to a member of the Basque community there. Numbering about 16,000, it is the second-largest such community in the U.S. — after Bakersfield, California. It is also the fifth-largest in the world after Bakersfield, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and the Basque Country itself. The Basques live in both Spain and France in areas bordering the Bay of Biscay and encompassing the western foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. There are about a million Basques in Europe and an additional 200,000 live outside Europe.
Thus, there is a vibrant section known as The Basque Block in the Old Boise Historic District. It is home to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center that highlights Basque communities in the American West through exhibits, artifacts, and photographs. The center stages traditional dance (Oinkari Basque Dancers) and musical performances. All around are many restaurants and bars that serve varieties of pintxos (Basque tapas), traditional paella, and Spanish wines. And my husband had the singular opportunity to “cook” a huge pot of paella for us!
I love this part of Boise, especially since my countrymen, Filipinos, also have as much kinship to Spain as Basques do.
4. Boise Depot And Platt Gardens
Another city landmark is the Boise Depot. A lovely historic Spanish-style structure that once was home to the Union Pacific Railroad, it now functions as a public space for business meetings, weddings, and other community events. Designed by New York architects, the depot opened in 1925 and was immediately heralded as “the most beautiful structure of its kind in the west.” A major renovation effort in 1993 restored the building to its original state of “beige interior walls and trim painted in red, blue, and yellow” with decorative rail cars in the lobby, Spanish trusses, and two sets of glass-paned wooden doors on the north and on the south. The well-lighted 96-foot bell tower can be seen throughout the city at night.
The Union Pacific also built the famous Platt Gardens on the hillslopes. The gardens have a winding walkway, benches, a koi pond, and a monument of volcanic rock, and planter beds with seasonal flowers. Designed by Spanish landscape architect Ricardo Espino, a panoramic view of the city skyline and the foothills is available from its vantage points. As a favorite spot for wedding or class photos, the garden is where our Idaho family goes to snap a photo whenever we visit. The collection of garden shots has recorded the growth of the grandkids through the years.
5. Freak Alley Gallery
Last July, we were having lunch at Eureka in downtown Boise when Bill’s granddaughter pointed to a large mural visible from our table. We decided to take a look after lunch. Little did I know that it leads to the alley where the Northwest’s largest open-air, multi-artist mural gallery is located between 8th and 9th streets. The family was surprised to realize that we had not been to the Boise landmark after so many years of visiting them.
Started in 2002 with a first drawing on the back alley doorway of Moon’s Café, the Freak Alley Gallery blossomed over the years into a large space filled with murals and graffiti art. The artworks are occasionally painted over and replaced by new ones (or incorporated into them). This constant update of the works of art creates an ever-growing and changing experience for all. Each summer a large painting event is held allowing community members to take part.
With fundraising and donations, Freak Alley Gallery is becoming something so much bigger than the alley itself. In fact, it has become the largest outdoor gallery in the Northwest as it has extended beyond that single alley doorway to the gravel parking lot. Because of the gallery, Boise has ranked second in a survey of 10 mid-sized American cities with thriving artistic communities.
6. Craters Of The Moon National Monument And Preserve
We were so pleasantly surprised while we were on U.S. 20 on the way out of Idaho going into Montana on our northward trek to Calgary where my daughter lives. We stumbled upon an unusual kind of landscape. It turned out to be a national monument consisting of 600 square miles of lava flows and scattered islands of cinder cones, plus large tracts of sagebrush grasslands — all at an average elevation of 5,900 feet. Established in 1924, the national monument was greatly expanded in 2000 and renamed Craters of the Moon National Preserve in 2002. Most of its trails, caves, and scenic overlooks are accessible along the park’s 7-mile loop road.
It felt very other-worldly, the largest mostly Holocene-aged basaltic group of lava fields in the contiguous U.S. There are 25 volcanic cones and many outstanding examples of spatter cones. The 60 distinct solidified lava flows that comprise its three lava fields range in age from 15,000 to just 2,000 years, all from eruptions over the 53-mile southeast to northwest-trending Great Rift volcanic zone, a line of weakness in the earth’s crust. Some of the best examples of open rift cracks in the world can be found here, including the deepest at 800 feet. There is every variety of basaltic lava, as well as tree molds (cavities left by lava-incinerated trees), lava tubes (a type of cave), and other volcanic features. We unexpectedly came across “the moon” last month and things like this will keep us traveling!
Pro Tip: Just after this national monument, you will find a hill dotted with white-painted numbers. The town of Arco, Idaho, instilled among its townsfolk (those who made it) a tradition of painting the year of his/her graduation on the hillside.
Idaho offers vacationers a variety of experiences: