Outdoors Blog

Discover the Boise Foothills: 1 million visits and counting

The Ridge to Rivers system includes 190 miles of trails. Cyclists accounted for more than a quarter-million visits to the system last year.
The Ridge to Rivers system includes 190 miles of trails. Cyclists accounted for more than a quarter-million visits to the system last year. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

My first impression of Boise was as a teenager, before I’d ever seen the city.

I was watching the NCAA Tournament on TV. Among the beauty shots shown between the game action and commercial breaks was of a trail in the Boise Foothills.

Pretty cool, I thought.

Then I moved here — and largely ignored that trail system for 19 years.

In the past eight months, with a move closer to the Foothills and a job change that makes the area a large part of my work, I’ve become acquainted with the Ridge to Rivers trail system.

Pretty incredible, I think, every time I visit a new trail.

But I’ve got a lot of ground to cover — 190 miles — to completely familiarize myself with the system. To that end, I asked Sara Arkle of the Parks and Recreation department to help me build a schedule of weekly hikes to gain some experience on the trails and some content for the Playing Outdoors blog.

Arkle one-upped my idea. She’s identifying local experts for me to hike the trails with to provide a little perspective on the Foothills — whether it’s history, wildlife, scenery, plants, volunteerism or how the trails are managed.

The result will be a series of blog posts that begins with this introduction. “Discover the Boise Foothills” will appear roughly once a week — I’ll take some breaks for vacations — well into the summer.

Next week, I’ll write about my hike with botanist Ann DeBolt in Hillside to Hollow, where three rare plants native to the Foothills can be found. The week after, I’ll explore some of the issues surrounding the off-leash dog program in the Foothills while describing the Corrals trail, which is popular with dog owners.

But first, I visited with David Gordon, the program manager for Ridge to Rivers — a trail system built on cooperation between the city of Boise, Ada County, the U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Fish & Game and the Bureau of Land Management.

Gordon took me on a mountain-bike ride along the 6.1-mile Polecat Gulch loop, introducing me to the joys and challenges of single-track bike riding. His job is to manage a trail network 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).

Ridge to Rivers estimates the trail system received more than 1 million user visits in 2015. That number is expected to keep increasing. An estimated 30 percent of Boise’s residents are trail users.

“From where I sit, it’s very intimidating,” Gordon said during a break in our ride, at a high point with views of Bogus Basin.

The user number was one of the few unexpected moments during the Ridge to Rivers master-planning process that began in September 2015. The previous estimate for trail visits was a little more than 400,000.

“That might have been the biggest surprise,” Gordon said.

The other significant surprise was the strong support for maintaining a system of shared-use trails. Gordon had heard requests for at least some trails with defined uses to separate mountain bikers and hikers, for example.

“The feedback we’ve gotten is, ‘We like the shared-use system,’ ” Gordon said. “That’s a cool thing about the community. With the shared-use trail system comes the need for each user group to get along. It only works when people respect each other. It doesn’t work when there’s animosity.”

One potential change coming out of the master plan is in how Ridge to Rivers handles the pervasive problem of people using muddy trails, which damages them. He plans to start a pilot program next winter that will involve open/closed signs at trailheads. Volunteers would be responsible for flipping the signs.

The pilot program will target “the worst areas,” he said. Seasonal closures were supported by 85 percent of survey respondents during the master-planning process.

“It won’t be real large,” Gordon said. “The only way for us to do it successfully will be with a lot of volunteer help.”

The draft management plan, which covers the next 10 years, will be released Monday on ridgetorivers.org. An open house will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 21) at the Foothills Learning Center in Hulls Gulch. Users will be able to provide input online, too.

The idea, Gordon said, is to plan to keep these trails usable for 50 years.

“We have incredibly erosive soils in the Foothills,” he said. “If you look at a soil survey map of the Foothills, by definition these soils, they recommend not putting trails on them in the vast majority of the Foothills — yet here we have 190 miles of trail and over a million visitor days. It’s a challenge to maintain them for the long term when you’re dealing with those types of soils and that type of use. It’s a battle that you can’t win, and no matter what you do over the years, things tend to degrade because you’re not going out hardening these things. You’re trying to maintain a native surface.”

A few other notes:

— Of the 190 miles of trails, 150 miles is non-motorized and 161.8 miles is dog off-leash.

— Boise spends $397,000 per year on the Ridge to Rivers system. BLM spends the second-most at $45,000.

— 89 percent of trail users live in Ada County.

— 54 percent of trail uses are for hiking or walking, 27 percent for bicycling, 17 percent for running, 1.8 percent for motorized vehicles and 0.2 percent for horseback riding. Equestrians have said they don’t feel safe in the system — an issue Gordon plans to address through trailhead signage, website information and educational messages to user groups. “They’re a very small user group, but they would like to be larger,” Gordon said. “They don’t quite feel safe right now. ... A lot of people aren’t sure what to do when they encounter a horse. A horse, especially when it sees a mountain bike and they’re not used to it, they don’t know what they’re seeing. It’s a fight or flight animal and they generally will flee. When you see a horse, speak up, say hello, step off the side of the trail and find out when it’s safe to pass.”

— More than 90 percent of survey respondents are satisfied with the Ridge to Rivers system.

— There was “strong support” for increased enforcement of dog-related regulations.

— 80 percent of survey respondents want more trailhead amenities, like bathrooms, water and parking.