Boise River Greenbelt: Jewel of the Valley

In 2021, the Boise River Greenbelt turns 52. The legacy Boise’s past leaders left us in the form of the riverside paths reminds me of this ancient Greek proverb:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.”

In 2011, I left Twin Falls—my hometown— and moved to Boise to finish an undergrad degree at Boise State. Right away, I fell in love with the Greenbelt. My first summer in the city, I rode up and down the riverside paths, feeling the cool air blowing off the water, watching the wildlife, and keeping an eye out for potential fishing holes. 

In modern times the Greenbelt and Boise River are considered staples of life in Boise, but there was a time when locals viewed the river as a nuisance and pumped raw sewage and industrial waste into its waters.

A solo Mallard cruises along through the Boise River near Warm Springs in southeast Boise.

An Unwanted River

In the years before the construction of Lucky Peak Dam in 1955, the Boise River often flooded during spring and was unpredictable, regularly damaging crops and property. In those pre-dam years, the Boise River was inundated with trash, Boise’s sewage waste, and the blood and guts from slaughterhouses located along its banks. 

By the late 1940s, the city had installed a waste treatment plant and newly created laws forbade dumping trash into the Boise River. Within a year, trout and other wildlife returned to the river in abundance.

Over the next 20 years, Boiseans began to see the river as an asset, however, its banks were still filled with piles of trash, old cars, and plenty of poison oak. In 1970, a 12-year-old boy drowned after his raft was snagged by a metal pipe on an irrigation diversion structure.

In a massive undertaking during the fall, winter, and spring of 1970-71, several volunteers and organizations including the National Guard helped remove concrete slabs, piping, and various debris from the river to prevent another drowning death. 

Caption: By 1969, Boiseans had adopted the Boise River Greenbelt plan to preserve our city’s natural beauty for future generations. 

The Greenbelt is Born 

The Greenbelt got its start in the early 1960s after a hired consultant recommended the growing city work to grant public access along the Boise River. Consultant Harold E. Atkinson told the mayor and city council that Boise’s population—then at about 58,000—was projected to triple in size by 1985 and that recreational public space should be part of the city’s long-term growth plan.

Atkinson said the city should connect the public parks system and grant unlimited access to the rivers banks via a trail system. Boise officially adopted a Boise River Greenbelt plan in 1969, appointing committee members to oversee its function and growth. 

Through small land exchanges and sales, right-of-ways along the river were secured by the city in preparation for extensions of the trail system. The system grew from downtown Boise to Eagle in the northwest to Lucky Peak in the southeast as adjacent municipalities and counties joined in on the effort. 

Miles of Activity

As a poor college student and slightly less poor adult, the Greenbelt has given me hours of free entertainment outdoors. When the heat from the summer months is unbearable, I wade into the river and fish. I like to load up my bike saddlebags with fishing equipment so I can ride stretches of the greenbelt for exercise and stop at isolated spots so I can fish alone. 

In total, the Greenbelt offers 46.1 miles to explore, from Lucky Peak to Eagle, and a bicycle is the best way to do it. 

There’s the Boise Whitewater Park where you can lunch on the rocks and watch kayakers practice. There are the stretches in Ann Morrison, Esther Simplot, and Julia Davis parks where you can lay out a blanket and nap on the expanses of grass. There are the isolated areas on either end of the Greenbelt where you can enjoy the sounds of the splashing river in solitude.

Check out this detailed, helpful map to plan your Greenbelt adventure. 

Kayakers practice their moves at the Boise Whitewater Park a short distance from downtown Boise. 

Over the years, the City of Boise and its neighbors developed upgrades to the paths. In 2014, the City of Boise started adding bike repair stations where cyclists have access to basic tools and an air pump in the case of a slight breakdown or ruptured innertube. 

As a rule of thumb, always bring an extra tube and basic tools in a backpack or saddlebags in the case of a flat. This map can help you plan

Wildlife Along the Path 

Our national bird, the Bald Eagle uses the Boise River as a winter migration route. If you’re really lucky, you might see a Peregrine falcon hunting while traversing the Greenbelt. Geese, ducks, and the majestic Great Blue Heron also frequent the river. 

In the stretch of the river along the Greenbelt, plenty of Mountain Whitefish, Rainbow Trout, Wild Trout, and fingerling Brown Trout can be caught. Special rules apply to certain sections of the stream, so check out the Idaho Fishing Planner before you head out and try your luck. 

The Morrison Knudson Nature Center, located just off the Greenbelt at Kristin Armstrong Park in Boise, hosts wild habitat for deer, fox, and mink and a variety of wildfowl. View windows on the Nature Center’s Streamwalk Loop allow an underwater view of rainbow trout and the Sturgeon Pond shows the majestic, ancient fish moving slowly through the water. 

Through viewing windows, visitors to the MK Nature Preserve can observe underwater wildlife like this trout. 

Greenbelt Safety

In my experience, the Greenbelt is safe if you stick to daytime hours. I’ve often ridden at night alone and haven’t had any bad experiences. Police do patrol the paths and sometimes they get a bit of civilian help. 

Years ago, in 2013 I worked as an intern with Boise Weekly and wrote a story about a little old lady named Ruth Neal, who volunteered for the Greenbelt Patrol for years by walking a stretch near downtown Boise, reporting lawbreakers and suspicious activity to the police. 

The Boise Greenbelt patrol was started in 1988 and the city still accepts applications each year from Oct.1 through November 30 to help patrol and report. 

To apply as a volunteer, you must be at least 21, not have any criminal convictions (no felonies allowed), and undergo a 30-minute interview. If approved, you start volunteering the following spring when traffic on the Greenbelt begins to pick up.