Outdoors Blog

Hit Watchman trail in the Foothills before yellow blooms fade

The Watchman trail knifes through a field of arrowleaf balsamroot.
The Watchman trail knifes through a field of arrowleaf balsamroot. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

This is the latest in our “Discover the Boise Foothills” series of blog posts exploring different trails. On many of those trips, we’ll be joined by an expert who can provide some perspective on the land that has become one of Boise’s most popular and valuable assets.

This week: Watchman (and the multi-agency partnership that runs the trail system)

Previously: Introduction, Hillside to Hollow (and rare plants), Corrals (and dog issues)

While reporting the trail-running story that led the Playing Outdoors section on April 13, Jenny Stinson told me to make sure I tried the Watchman trail this spring.

“It’s like you’re in ‘The Sound of Music,’ ” she said.

So I took her advice last week — and anyone who enjoys hiking and wild flowers should, too. The abundant yellow flowers produced each spring by the arrowleaf balsamroot blanket hillsides along Watchman and at one point create a wall of yellow on either side of the path.

But the blooms don’t last long. Some already had faded last week.

“If you do it in the springtime, as we’re doing, you get gorgeous looks at all the wildflowers,” said Larry Ridenhour, a recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management’s Boise District and my hiking partner for the day.

The Watchman trail was built from scratch — not, as many Foothills trails, by unofficial use over the years — and 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.

The ups and downs come on your way to and from the trail.

We began on the Five Mile Gulch trail from Rocky Canyon Road. It’s a 1.4-mile, 500-foot hike to the junction with Watchman. Watchman is a 3.5-mile trail with a net elevation change of 66 feet. But going our way, the final 0.8 miles of Watchman was significantly downhill (313 feet). That would be uphill if you reverse the loop. Watchman ends at a junction with the Three Bears trail. Veer left, following the sign to Rocky Canyon Road. Turn left at the road for a short walk back to your car.

Our totals for the hike: 5.92 miles and 870 feet of vertical climbing.

“If you start on Five Mile, it’s a long, slow uphill, but once you get to Watchman it’s a fairly level hike at a little bit of elevation,” Ridenhour said. “... 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.”

Watchman is an example of the multi-agency cooperation that has made the Ridge to Rivers trail system such a success. Most of Watchman sits on BLM-owned land. The city, which is the lead agency in Ridge to Rivers and the day-to-day manager of the system, built the trail and maintains it. But none of that would have happened without the consent of BLM, which had to run through a series of approvals — covering archeology, botany, wildlife and other possible issues — before green-lighting the project.

BLM owns about 12,000-13,000 of the 85,000 acres of Foothills land from Idaho 21 to Idaho 55 to the top of the ridge, Ridenhour said. That’s roughly 15 percent. In terms of trail miles, BLM owns more than 40 miles of the 190 in the system — or more than 20 percent.

“For BLM, in our land-use plan, the Boise Foothills are designated as a special recreation management area,” Ridenhour said. “Our management is focused toward recreation and providing for recreational opportunities. It is also managed to protect the scenic value of the Foothills, so at least on BLM land we try not to put in any kind of project that is going to have a really detrimental impact on the view of the Foothills from the Valley.”

The Ridge to Rivers partnership was formed in the early 1990s. The system has grown from 90 miles of trails in 2000 to 190 in 2016.

The management partners are the city of Boise, Ada County, BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game.

“At that time (in the early 1990s), if you had looked at ownership in the Foothills, you would have seen that it was a real hodgepodge of private land, BLM, Forest Service, city, county, state,” Ridenhour said. “About the only spot where you had a big spot of contiguous ownership was either the Forest Service, which was primarily at the top of the ridge, or a lot of the private land.”

The city contributes $375,574 to the annual Ridge to Rivers budget — or 82 percent. BLM makes the second-largest contribution at $42,000 (9 percent).

The discussions at the quarterly meetings are “very easy,” Ridenhour said, despite each agency’s different mission.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people and I think the cooperative management of the Foothills is fairly unique,” Ridenhour said. “There are cities in different areas that do sort of jointly manage (areas) but I think the Ridge to Rivers system has been held out as a pretty successful partnership that is looked at as sort of a standard to try to attain.”

Getting there: Go east on Reserve Street near Fort Boise Park, turn right on Shaw Mountain Road, stay left at the fork and remain on the road for about 2.5 miles after it becomes a dirt surface. That portion of the road is also known as Rocky Canyon Road. Park at the Five Mile Creek Trailhead on the left.

Up next: Daniels Creek (Peggy’s Trail) — and the private-property agreements that have made the Foothills trail system possible.

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