Boise Places Worth Seeing

Bonneville Point - See What Captain Benji Saw

For anyone traveling west through Idaho on I-84, the city of Boise is a veritable oasis in the vast American desert. Today this oasis simply means the opportunity to eat at a TGI Friday's and sleep at a Comfort Inn. One hundred and seventy years ago, however, it meant a lot more, like not dying a horrible death from heat stroke and/or dehydration.

Captain Bonneville

In May of 1833, a dapper French-born US Army captain on leave traipsed around Southern Idaho with a bunch of fellow French-speaking frontiersmen in search of beaver pelts, Indian information, and really good truffles. The Frenchie in question was Benjamin Bonneville, whose Western travels would make him the namesake of Utah's Lake Bonneville and Bonneville Salt Flats, Idaho's Bonneville County, the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam, and Detroit's Pontiac Bonneville. I'm sure if he were alive today he'd be most proud of that last one.

As Bonneville and his merry men approached Boise from east along the route that would later become the Oregon Trail, they crested the top of a hill that gave them their first view of trees in quite some time. As the story goes, Bonneville's men were so happy to see the wooded valley that they shouted "Les bois! Les bois! Voyez les bois!" which means "Let's make wine! Let's make wine!" or "The trees! The trees!" depending on who your French translator is. This unexpected outburst of enthusiasm became the namesake for the Boise River and the forthcoming village of Boise, although it's a bit of a mystery as to when the extra 'e' got added on the end. I blame the government; they're always adding extra taxes and letters to things. Thousands of travelers who later crossed the area on the Oregon Trail would share in the Bonneville party's tree-related elation, some of whom wrote in their journals that the trees below them were the first they had seen in more than a month.

This high area about ten miles east of Boise eventually came to be known as Bonneville Point. Today the area around it remains relatively unchanged, if you ignore the high-voltage power lines to the south, the ugly 4-wheel drive tracks in places, and the gray QWEST phone box just down the hill. The Kiwanis Club of Boise originally erected a stone monument on the site in 1927, and it remains today.

The original stone monument is now overshadowed by a relatively-new shelter that covers interpretive signs about the native Indians, the Wilson Price Hunt Expedition (who in November 1811 became the first whitey to see the area), and the Bonneville Expedition. The entire hilltop is surrounded by a metal fence, and within the fenced area the sagebrush and wildflowers grow unimpeded along with a few thorny locust trees, offering a little touch of irony.

It's possible to hike, bike, gallop, or even drive a portion of the old Oregon Trail, which goes all the way to the Boise River and Idaho 21 near the Warm Springs intersection. You'll have to use your imagination, though, because the trail today is a veritable dirt highway that has seen more than its fair share of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Although it's possible to see old wagon ruts on other stretches of the trail in Idaho, all you'll see on this stretch are big tire ruts and even bigger mud holes. You'll get a much better view of the old trail if you walk the gravel road east from Bonneville Point. There's a concrete trail marker about a hundred yards down the road, and the area in front of it looks a little more genuine.

If the old Oregon Trail computer game was your first exposure to America's great westward expansion, don't expect to see any grave markers noting where Timmy died of cholera in 1845. However, you can find a white wooden cross propped up by some rocks as you walk down the hill, and a little farther down the trail is a modern memorial to someone you don't know who passed away in 2006. You can join in the speculation as to why it's there on public land.

Although the view of Downtown Boise from the Depot area might be the modern way to welcome newcomers to Boise, I contend that any proper tour of Boise should start at Bonneville Point. You have to get a sense of the vast isolation of the western desert before you can truly appreciate the oasis-type beauty of Boise. Standing atop the lonely hill at Bonneville Point, you just might find yourself marveling at the sight of the distant trees too.

Place worth seeing: Bonneville Point
Where: 10 miles east of the Boise city limits. Take the Blacks Creek exit off of Interstate 84 and then follow the signs.

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Hours: Dawn to dusk, 365 days a year
Cost: Free
Website: BLM
Food for thought: Walk a few steps on the trail and then imagine doing that all day for five or so months, all while drinking dirty water and sleeping on the ground.