TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Boise Foothills trails–best in the West?

Sept. 10, 2010

The trail tilts abruptly to a much steeper angle ahead of me. This is the uphill stretch that always whips the snot out of me. For several minutes that pass like epochs, I take a painful waltz with my anaerobic threshold, willing myself to keep running—even slowly—when my body just wants to stop, walk, and breathe without the sensation of flames in my lungs.

Okay, sometimes I give in and walk for a minute. Today, though, I push on to the top of the hill, where my heart and respiratory rates return to comfortable cadences. From here, it’s mostly a downhill cruise—past the clusters of giant, brilliantly yellow flowers of blooming arrowleaf balsamroot, past the views of the city skyline looking Lilliputian almost 2,000 feet below me, past a little waterfall, and down through several switchbacks to the bottom of this gulch, where I’ll follow the creek most of the way back to my car. Some days I see five or six people on this trail; today, no one.

I’m on one of my favorite trail runs, the Upper Hulls Gulch Trail in the Boise Foothills. Minutes from Downtown Boise—and from neighborhoods, including mine—the trail system (if you’ll indulge my shameless hometown plug) is one of the most extensive and gorgeous that you’ll find at the edge of any city in the country. About 130 miles of running, mountain biking, and hiking trails wind through the hills, at all difficulty levels, most of it single-track. Elevations range from 2,700 feet in town to about 7,500 feet. The lower Foothills comprise an upland desert environment of sage, grass, and bountiful wildflowers, and above roughly 5,000 to 5,500 feet you get into cool conifer forest.

I’ve lived in Boise for 12 years, and the Foothills are one of the main reasons I haven’t felt inclined to live elsewhere. In the lower Foothills, for about eight months of the year, I’m out here two or three times a week. I’ve seen mule deer, elk, coyote, great horned owls, and several rattlesnakes—the last sometimes closer than I’d prefer. I’ve taken long, solitary runs and rides up and down hills, through draws filled with the loud cackling of creek waters and forest where the only sounds were birds and wind. I’ve run in a couple inches of fresh, wet snow, and when wildflowers were blooming so prolifically and colorfully—like this past, very wet spring and summer—that I rushed home for my camera and headed straight back out again. I regularly ride with friends, hike with my kids, and run into neighbors.

I was running the Upper Hulls Gulch Trail on a spring weekday several years ago, seeing no one—until I ran into a work crew installing the five multi-ton steel bridges now in place over the creek. Their supervisor stopped me to ask what I was doing out there—which I thought was obvious, but I told him I was just running. He nodded. “Well, be careful,” he said. “The helicopter pilots who are flying in these bridges are under orders to cut them loose if they have any problems at all with wind.”

It was the only time in 12 years of regular trail use here that I had to watch out for bridges falling from the sky.

The diversity of experiences possible continues to amaze me. Most often, I’m hitting the trails for a quick workout, back home sometimes inside an hour. But I’ve gone out for hours, for runs and hikes up to 25 miles and much longer rides. At times, I’ve felt like I was in the midst of a big Western wilderness, rather than a short distance from an urban area of nearly a half-million people.

I recently made this video for Ridge to Rivers, the city department charged with conserving and maintaining the trail system. And here’s a photo gallery of the Foothills. The Ridge to Rivers website is a great resource for learning more about the trails and local flora and fauna. There are numerous trailheads in Boise’s North End, East End, and other neighborhoods, and along Bogus Basin Road, 8th Street, and Rocky Canyon Road. Grab a Ridge to Rivers Trail System map ($7) at numerous retailers in Boise, including Idaho Mountain Touring, World Cycle, and REI.

I have some favorite routes, with a bias toward those that happen to be close to my house (several blocks from Camel’s Back Park). Besides the 6.3-mile Upper Hulls Gulch Trail—which climbs 900 feet and is open only to foot traffic—my list includes:

  • A slightly longer variation of the above route that involves no backtracking, a 7.4-mile loop from the main Hulls Gulch parking lot on 8th Street (three miles above where the road turns to gravel), ascending the Upper Hulls Gulch Trail, then descending 8th Street (about a quarter-mile), and Scott’s and Corrals trails.
  • The 9.5-mile loop from Rocky Canyon Road up 5-mile Gulch to Watchman Trail, Trail 6, Three Bears, and Shane’s. It’s mostly open high desert terrain with great views of the hills and the city far below. Park at the bottom of Shane’s and start by running or riding up the gravel road to 5-mile.
  • Dry Creek Trail, maybe the prettiest drainage in the Foothills for its rock formations, flowers, and the conifer forest that begins about three miles up. From the turnout on Bogus Basin Road (about a mile past the big parking lot at Stewart Gulch), go out-and-back on the Dry Creek Trail. It’s two miles to a fork; stay left for Dry Creek, or right for Shingle Creek, which enters the forest a little sooner.
  • A 17-mile lollipop circuit that entails a stout climb of more than 2,500 feet and varies from creek valleys to ridgeline trails to forest. From the Lower Hulls Gulch parking lot on 8th Street (a quarter-mile past where the road turns to gravel), follow Lower Hulls Gulch, Trail 4, Trail 6, back onto Trail 4 again, Trail 4B (left at a fork), 8th Street (gravel), Scott’s and Corrals trails, and Lower Hulls.

I’m leaving out a lot of great trails (Crestline, Sidewinder, Fat Tire Traverse, much of the Military Reserve), but those are good places to start.

I have a good friend who’s a nationally known authority on making communities friendlier to pedestrians and bikers. Years of advising city planners and others have convinced him that having ready access to local outdoor recreation is the single biggest factor determining how often we get out and do our favorite activities—with all that implies for individual and community health and America’s obesity epidemic. Since moving to Boise and having kids, I’ve come to believe he’s absolutely right.

I moved here from rural New England, where I considered the hiking and other outdoor recreation pretty darn good—but where I also, like people in many parts of the country, had to get into my car to reach a trail. Now I can’t imagine living in a place where I didn’t have miles and miles of trails within minutes on foot or bike from my door.

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