Having doubled my state count during January’s transcontinental journey, I began to consider the possibility of visiting them all. The week between climbing events in Salt Lake City presented an opportunity to claim another – but where? I think it is fair to say that not all states are equally appealing – and if I grab all the exciting ones first, I’m unlikely to be motivated to take a transatlantic flight for the rest. Nor are they equally accessible – in particular, there’s a handful of states without Amtrak service that should be top of my list. Finally, I didn’t want too long or expensive a journey from Utah.
Considering all these, Idaho was a promising early candidate. The Empire Builder does cut across the northern pan-handle, but reaches the only stop in the state, Sandpoint, at midnight headed west or an even less appealing 2am eastbound. So a flight would be preferable, and I noticed that Boise had multi-frequency direct service from Salt Lake City. Some limited research taught me how to pronounce its name, and revealed an intriguing Basque heritage, so without much further ado I lined up some tickets.
Even though Boise is Idaho’s capital and most populous city, it’s home to less than a quarter million people: the state as a whole has fewer residents than, say, Chicago, and is most famous for… potatoes. So I wasn’t expecting too much, but perhaps I should have – Boise routinely places well in lists of the best places to live in the entire United States. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found – a city punching above its weight culturally that I wish I’d had a bit longer to explore!
With few opportunities to redeem on Virgin Atlantic, I’ve amassed quite a balance in their Flying Club programme. Delta is a partner, and a Salt Lake City – Boise return was attractively priced at 15K points and $12 of taxes vs £197, so I happily cashed some out. Although if I’d been better organised I could probably have built a cheaper multicity itinerary alongside my transatlantic flights.
This regional service turned out to be operated by Skywest (as Delta Connection), who I last sampled (as American Eagle) between LAX and SAN nearly a decade ago. The aircraft type was more familiar – Embraer E175s, which I’ve flown on plenty of times (mostly with KLM Cityhopper).
At 300 miles, SLC-BOI is a similar distance to my regular BRS-AMS hops, and service was comparable – reasonable legroom for well under an hour of flying, and the barest minimum by way of catering. By way of entertainment, I was treated to great views of the Salt Lake in and out of SLC, as well as Idaho’s rather greener scenery at the other end. I also experienced some sort of aviation miracle – disembarking at Boise was the most orderly I have ever seen. No one stood up and scrabbled for bags – instead, each row neatly filed out in order, no rush, no fuss. Sadly the return flight was the usual chaos…
Boise airport itself was also a treat in a charmingly regional way. I was greeted by a huge banner promoting beef. Not a particular restaurant or purveyor of beef, nor even a specific cut – just the general idea of eating beef, with the beyond-parody URL of www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/ offering recipe ideas. Multiple adverts for potatoes followed, whilst the slogan Pack clothes… not heat reminded me not to present firearms at the security checkpoint. Whilst nowhere as impressive as Salt Lake City, this was an efficient and easy to navigate airport – bonus marks for a fairly regular bus service to downtown for a mere $1.50 (or for an extra dollar, you could get the freedom of the city with a day pass).
My main motivation on one- or two-night stays is to pick as convenient a location as possible, so limited time isn’t wasted trekking to and from a more remote property. Downtown Boise seemed to have plenty of mid-range chains, and I settled on a Home2 Suites by Hilton – one of their sprawling brand portfolio I’d not yet tried as they can only be found in North America.
As with the flights, I kept my costs down by using points – although my Hilton Honors stash wasn’t sufficient for a pure redemption at 40K, so I settled on a points and cash mix of 30K and $49 instead of $197.
This choice offered other savings – breakfast is free for everyone, and a genuinely useful kitchen area in the room meant I was able to prep a couple of meals after picking up supplies from the Trader Joes across the street.
I was able to check in early and check out late, and everything was in good condition as the building only seems to be a couple of years old (and I doubt there was heavy use during COVID). My only complaint isn’t really within the hotel’s control – I was woken at the ungodly time of 5:47am by another guest loudly singing gospel music…
The tourist attractions
Having stashed most of my luggage back in Salt Lake City, I was travelling with only a small backpack and thus was able to kick off my sightseeing before checking in at Home2. Hopping off the airport bus, I took a wander along the Boise river and through Julia Davis Park – the city’s oldest and home (amongst other attractions) to Zoo Boise. This was quite small – arguably too small, as some of the enclosures seemed a bit restrictive to me – but I enjoyed a couple of hours checking out all they had to offer. The highlight, of course, was their snow leopard, but the servals and penguins were strong runners-up.
After settling in at the hotel and fixing some lunch, I backtracked to the park to visit the Idaho State Museum. This provided a fascinating crash course on the area, from the origin stories of its five Native American tribes to its difficult journey from territory to state. A permanent exhibit on the Big Burn of 1910 set the stage for a temporary display of wildfire photography by Kari Greer, from the National Interagency Fire Center – which turns out to be headquartered right here in Boise. These striking images ranged between war photography and fine art; I’m glad I got to see them presented at a suitable scale!
I had located a few architectural highlights on an evening stroll, and the next morning returned to the State Capitol to see if I could look around inside. I didn’t expect I would spend over an hour and a half doing so… Inspired by this, I made sure to visit the Utah State Capitol once back in Salt Lake City – I’ve written about both here.
Next on my list was Freak Alley Gallery – a city block’s worth of street art that again exceeded expectations (this trip clashed with 2022’s Upfest back home in Bristol, which sets a high bar). Although there were plenty of impressive murals, this intricately decorated back alley felt closer to the scene’s graffiti origins than many similar projects that emphasise big wall pieces.
I also explored the “Basque block”, including the museum and cultural center. This small site nonetheless did a good job exploring how the Basque community settled in the USA in general and California, Nevada and Idaho in particular. Amusingly, as I’ve never been to any of the relevant areas of Spain and France, this was my first introduction to Basque culture, thousands of miles from its European roots!
On my way to the airport, I ticked off one more Boise novelty – the Idaho Anne Frank memorial, the only such in America and also one of the few places in the world where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is on display in its entirety.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, I found far more than I expected to in Boise – whilst not an obvious holiday destination, it’s definitely worth a detour if you’re already visiting elsewhere in the mountain west.
Chips practically being a food group of their own in my childhood diet, I obviously couldn’t leave without sampling some of Idaho’s finest. I picked Boise Fry Co. for the simple reason that it was near the State Capitol, which I emerged from around lunchtime, but they were a good choice. So seriously do they take their spuds that they consider their burgers the side dish! In defiance of the airport beef propaganda, I paired my fries with a bison burger; that was sourced from Oregon rather than Idaho, although the ranch in Nyssa is only just across the border, which I hadn’t realised is less than an hour’s drive away. Anyway, both are recommended, preferably enjoyed back in the park by the Capitol.
I took almost as many photos in a day and a half in Boise as I did in nearly a fortnight in Salt Lake City… so I have put together a gallery here.