When I became the Playing Outdoors writer in February, I figured I was like many Treasure Valley residents. I could find my way to the top of Table Rock — but I had little experience with the rest of the Ridge to Rivers system.
So I set out to change that for me and, hopefully, for others. While touring the trail system over the past two months with local experts and learning some of the stories behind it, I’ve produced a “Discover the Boise Foothills” series for the Playing Outdoors blog. We figured this was a good time for a recap as we prepare for another wave of posts.
You can read the full posts at IdahoStatesman.com/hiking. Upcoming posts include the history of Castle Rock and Table Rock (later this week), the intersection of Ridge to Rivers and the Boise River Wildlife Management Area (late next week) and Polecat Gulch and the trail ranger program (late June). The series will continue throughout the summer with hikes planned in the Bogus Basin area.
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Ridge to Rivers has grown to 190 miles of trails and an estimated 1 million-plus annual user visits. An estimated 30 percent of Boise’s residents are trail users. The system had 90 miles of trails in 2000.
“From where I sit, it’s very intimidating,” Ridge to Rivers program manager David Gordon said.
Gordon manages a trail system that stretches from the western edge of Boise almost to Lucky Peak Lake and all the way up to Bogus Basin. The trails never have been more popular, and the city is about to receive $10 million from a voter-supported tax levy to protect Foothills land for the second time this century (the new levy also includes the Boise River corridor).
If you want to see a fired-up botanist, hike through the Hillside to Hollow Reserve with Ann DeBolt to check out one of the rare sand-verbena plants. It’s growing right on the edge of a steep, sandy path that isn’t an official trail but clearly gets much use from people and dogs. You can tell from the footprints just inches from the plant.
The sand-verbena “was widespread in the sandy soil of the Boise Foothills” according to records, DeBolt said. Now she’s growing it at the Idaho Botanical Garden to try to replace some of what impacts from people, fire and non-native plants have wiped out.
The plant also can be found at Camel’s Back, Stack Rock and along Bogus Basin Road. The species in the Boise Foothills recently was identified as a new variety found only in sand hills and lake bed sediments on the north side of the western Snake River Plains in Southwest Idaho, according to a scientific paper written by Barbara Ertter of Boise and Sonia Nosratinia.
The Foothills are a haven for dogs. Of the 190 miles in the Ridge to Rivers system, 166 are designated for off-leash use. And despite dog owners being a minority of users (28 percent) surveyed during the master-planning process, there was overwhelming support for off-leash policies (80 percent wanted the status quo or more off-leash trails).
Dogs are required to stay within 30 feet of their owners in the Foothills and within voice control even when off-leash (they must be on-leash in parking lots). Owners also are expected to pick up their dog’s waste. Violations could result in $25 fines, which cost almost $85 after court costs are added. But the city only has two animal control officers to enforce those rules, and they prioritize education over enforcement.
“We do hear from both sides. There’s not a lot of in-between that we hear about,” said Jerry Pugh, the community programs coordinator for Boise Parks and Rec. “That’s why we’re trying to strike that balance — make sure that we offer up a good range of opportunities to go run their dogs and run them legally while respecting the folks that don’t want to see them out there, that are afraid of dogs.”
The biggest issue, by far, is dog waste — a hot-button topic that Foothills manager Sara Arkle is determined to solve. She wants businesses and community groups to sponsor poop pickup days.
“If you’re angry, there is every opportunity to organize a dog-poop pickup,” she said. “Consider it a community effort. We do have a problem with dog excrement in the Foothills. It is a community problem and there is a community solution.”
It’s too late now, but make sure to visit Watchman next May for the incredible display of arrowleaf balsamroot blooms.
Even without the flowers, it’s a cool trail that provides a different feel than many other Foothills trails. Watchman was carved along the edge of hillsides, allowing hikers and mountain bikers to follow the natural contours of the Foothills with relatively little elevation change. You’ll need to hike 1.4 miles and climb 500 feet from Rocky Canyon Road on Five Mile Gulch trail to reach Watchman, though.
“If you’re a beginner up in the Foothills, it will kind of test your uphill, slow grind. But then you’re rewarded with all these gorgeous views all the way down into the Owyhees,” said Larry Ridenhour, a recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management’s Boise District.
Ridge to Rivers is a collaboration between the city of Boise, BLM, Ada County, U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game. BLM, which owns the land where Watchman sits, provides the second-most money. Boise pays the most and is the lead agency.
A pair of great horned owls nest in the red cliffs along 8th Street near the Foothills Learning Center each spring. The owlets are a popular sight. Jessie Sherburne, who has a master’s degree in raptor biology, took me to see the owlets in mid-May. We spotted two of them hanging out in a tree and at least one still in the nest.
Much of the Ridge to Rivers System originally was established by trespassers. And many of the people who owned that land have worked with the city of Boise to legitimize those trails.
Such was the case with the 2014 agreements between the city and Grossman Company Properties, which allowed Ridge to Rivers to add 26 miles of scenic and strategically important trails to the system. The key additions: Peggy’s Trail, Sweet Connie, Dry Creek and Shingle Creek.
The cost for the trail easements? Nothing.
“From a safety perspective and a conservation perspective, it made sense at this time to take steps working through the city to ensure the use is being managed responsibly,” said Tom Bobo, the Eagle-based development manager for Grossman Company Properties. “By improving the trails and defining where those trails are, you avoid some of the erosion issues and impacts on the land and also create a safer environment. It was either that, or try to shut down the access, which no one wanted to do.”
Explore Boise’s reserves
The Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center and Idaho Conservation League are offering a year-long series called Tour of the Reserves. The monthly events will include short hikes, walking presentations, historical stories or acoustic concerts. The series begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Polecat Reserve. The event is free but pre-registration is required through Lana Weber at the ICL (345-6933, extension 16). The city has 11 reserves that include about 40 miles of trails.