Idaho tourism is a roughly $2 billion industry. It employs thousands of people. And many of them, especially outside of Boise, make their living on adrenaline.
The Gem State boasts a smorgasbord of outdoor activities for thrill-seekers.
Whitewater kayaking in Riggins.
Paragliding from King Mountain and flying over the high-desert terrain of Eastern Idaho.
Heli-skiing in Sun Valley.
Zip-lining through pine treetops in Wallace or between hilltops near Horseshoe Bend.
Mountain biking down the Boise Foothills.
Leaping from a bridge into an Idaho canyon with nothing but a helmet and backpack for protection.
“We have such a variety of recreation,” says Debbie Dane, executive director of Southern Idaho Tourism in the Magic Valley. “We always say, ‘From the mild to the wild.’ From walking along the canyon to fishing, to BASE jumping. ... Tourism is a primary driver of our economy.”
MAKING THE JUMP
“I know BASE jumping as a whole brings in a whole lot of people” to southern Idaho, says Sean Chuma, owner of Tandem BASE in Twin Falls.
People who live in Twin Falls are used to seeing BASE jumpers gripping the rails of the Perrine Bridge that spans the Snake River Canyon. The activity — akin to sky diving from a structure instead of a plane — got its name from the bridges, antennae, spans and earthen platforms from which participants jump. It can be dangerous; two people have died so far this year after BASE jumping by themselves in Twin Falls.
The bridge is one of few places in the world where it’s legal to BASE jump without any special permits.
“I’ve done it all over the world and off of nine different objects,” Chuma says.
But as far as he knows, TandemBASE is the only business of its kind.
Chuma started the company in 2009 with two partners. He’s now the sole owner, with two employees for events.
Chuma’s full-time job is BASE jumping. He teaches four-day BASE-jumping classes to experienced sky divers. The rest of the time, he accompanies customers on tandem jumps. He averages about five jumps per week during the season, which just began. Tandem BASE charges $400 per jump at Perrine Bridge.
Experienced BASE jumpers flock to the area to jump solo. But Chuma says the tandem jump, which partners a first-timer with an experienced jumper, is beginning to attract novices who want a taste of an extreme sport.
Probably 40 percent of people who do tandem jumps are locals, he estimates. One of those locals was Dorothy Custer, who was 102 years old when she did her tandem jump off the Perrine Bridge.
The rest are from places like Boston and Germany.
“If someone wants to do it, this is where they come to,” he says.
Idaho boasts several zip-line companies, giving tourists ridse through the air in every part of the state.
Eric Faull opened Zip Idaho in Horseshoe Bend northwest of Boise in 2008. The company and its 15 employees lead 50 to 55 people a day on zip tours through the mountains and forests.
Fifteen to 20 of those customers are tourists. Most of them are visiting Idaho from other Western states. But the “Where are you from?” maps in Zip Idaho’s office are covered with pins — India, Thailand, China, Africa, all over Europe and Australia.
The first-time tourists often tell him, “We never had any idea that Idaho was such a cool place,” he says.
“We’ve had people come here because — random — it sounded like a good place to go, with pretty good access, and it’s relatively inexpensive,” he says.
The price for a zip-line tour from Faull’s business is $90 per person, with group discounts. He recently added a new package — heli-zipping, where customers can ride a helicopter to their zip-line destination — for $250 per person.
Northern Idaho tourists flock to Silver Streak Zipline Tours, a Wallace company that Bonnie DeRoos and her husband started in 2012.
Almost all of the 300 customers who ride Silver Streak tours each month are tourists, DeRoos says.
They usually come from the nearby Coeur d’Alene Resort.
Somalia is the farthest any customer has traveled to see Idaho, and sample its wilderness by hanging from a cable in the air, DeRoos says.
Two college students from Somalia were on vacation in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene and “just wandered down here,” she says. “They had the best time. They were the cutest kids.”
RIDING THE RAPIDS
Idaho has a few big things going for it, says Debbi Long, marketing director and co-owner of Cascade Raft and Kayak since 1991.
The state is close to Yellowstone National Park. It’s cheap. And for tourists looking to experience the outdoors, Idaho offers something better than Jackson Hole, she says.
“Idaho is known as a place where you get to know the scene, and the experience is far more personal,” she says. “We aren’t on the direct beaten path, but we’re just off the beaten path.”
Her company takes groups on whitewater trips along the Payette River. It takes almost 60 people to run the outfit, and the “management team” is made up of Long, her husband and their three sons and daughters-in-law.
Cascade, in Horseshoe Bend, serves about 12,000 customers per year in the summer season, Long says. That’s a huge increase since 1991, when the company had 1,000 customers a year.
At least 40 percent of rafters in recent years are from out of state, she says.
“Ours is a pretty cost-effective, fun thing to do,” she says. “It’s a whole lot cheaper to fly to Idaho and go whitewater rafting and zip-lining, and maybe take a train, than it is to go to Disneyland, I can tell you that.”
She recalls a recent group from Arizona, some big Japanese groups, tourists from across the European continent and “a nice little chunk from Minnesota, the Great Lakes kind of area.”
Outfitters like Cascade bring in a large share of tourism dollars, according to the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.
The association says the outfitting industry contributes about $100 million to Idaho’s economy each year. The rivers — be it whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing or boating — make up half of that.
The state’s Department of Commerce has produced videos to promote Idaho online, highlighting the adrenaline-pumping activities on rivers and mountains.
Long says Idaho is attracting more tourists than when she first started the company, but she’d like Idahoans to do more to get the word out about the state.
Tourists “come in and dump money and leave. ... I mean that with a smile on my face, not in a negative sense,” Long says. “The imprint they leave is very, very minuscule. Our trails are not overused, our highways are not overused, we don’t have trash everywhere. ... We protect it very, very carefully, but, wow, we can take advantage of what we have to share.”