Boise Daytrips

Celebration Park - Two Dollars Well Spent

In all honesty, I avoid traveling to Canyon County. It's one of the many rules I live by. If you're curious, a couple of the other rules are never buy a car from a man wearing a cowboy hat, and never play poker against a man who has a geographical reference in his name. But I've been known to cut Nampa and the rest of Canyon County a break at times, because they do have a brewery there, and you've also got to go through it to get to the wondrous playland that is the Owyhees.

This prejudice is a big part of the reason why I'd never gotten up the gumption to venture to Celebration Park, which is at the far southern edge of Canyon County down on the Snake River. After all, in addition to being on the wrong side of the tracks, that particular recreational destination is, of all things, a county park. I don't know about you, but when I hear the term 'county park', I instantly think 1) It's not good enough to be a state park, and 2) Idaho counties are poorer than the state government, which means that it's probably a visually unkempt roadside stopover with a creaky well spigot and a pit toilet begging to be condemned.

On a lovely spring day recently, I bravely set aside these assumptions, girded my loins, and headed in the southwesterly direction of Celebration Park, hoping that it would prove me wrong. Gladly it did. In fact, the fam-damily and I had such a jolly time that I'd recommend it to anyone, and that's a first for Canyon County.

Considering that all of Idaho's state parks charge a $5 day-use fee, the $2 day-use fee to enjoy Celebration Park is a bargain. To be frank, the park might seem small at first, but I found it to have plenty of stuff to keep a humble family of four interested, and we spent just as much time there as we would in a state park. Maybe more. I'm aware that my overwhelmingly positive impression of the place might be heavily influenced by my low expectations, but I found it to be well staffed, well maintained, and well worth the drive. It is also extremely interesting if you appreciate Idaho history.

Most folks who travel to Celebration Park are coming to see the area's petroglyphs. That's what piqued my interest enough to finally make the drive. If you're not exactly sure what a petroglyph is, allow me a one-sentence explanation. For the uninitiated, a petroglyph is a really old etching on the surface of a rock. This is not to be confused with a pictograph, which is painted on rock, and a hieroglyph, which can be read like a story. Nope, petroglyphs are just plain ol' human, animal, or other symbols chipped, abraded, or otherwise worn into the basalt boulders that litter the flats of the river canyon. In the case of Celebration Park, most of the petroglyphs on the site were made between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, although they suspect a few are as young as 400 years old. Basically the area served as a good wintering ground for the indigenous peoples, and over the course of millennia these people left a sizeable collection of etchings on the rocks, because, well, Dancing with the Stars didn't exist yet, and there was really nothing else to do when you weren't chasing mastodons and avoiding enemy spear tips.

Rather than set out randomly into the nearby boulder field to try to find the local rock art, I decided it would probably be best to check the visitor center for a little inside information. This proved to be a good decision. The bearded dude manning the visitor center, who looked like one of the main characters from the TV show Duck Dynasty, proved to be a veritable fountain of information. He offered me a free map of the petroglyph trail, which I gladly took, but he then offered to take us out and show us around. I accepted his offer, and at that point I was beginning to see that my two-dollar entry fee was going to be well spent.

After our newfound guide closed the visitor center door (guess the next folks were SOL), he took us to the beginning of the trail and showed us the first five petroglyph rocks that are marked on the trail map. He offered a lot of the prevailing wisdom on the meaning of the art (they're maps, astrological symbols, sacred religious figures, etc.), but he ended by saying that no one knows for sure what they mean, even latter day Native Americans who've looked at them. That leads me to believe that they're just historic graffiti, because kids have always been kids, and you know what kids are wont to do with too much free time and some local chicks to impress.

After parting ways with our helpful guide, we were free to wander among the boulders, affectionately known as 'Bonneville Flood melon gravel'. If you stick to the trail as we did, you'll have no problem seeing etchings that represent people, lizards, stars, and lots of other things. The map has numbered spots that denote where the major petroglyphs are, so you can't miss them if you're paying attention. Most of the time they are obvious, especially the younger ones that are lighter in color. In a few cases, however, you might have to be looking from a suitable angle because the sunlight makes the darker petroglyphs a bit hard to see from certain perspectives.

Personally, I was very disappointed in the human-figure etchings. A few years back when I was wandering the Montana backcountry with a herpetologist friend of mine, he showed me some ancient human-figure petroglyphs in a Montana river canyon, and a lot of them were adorned with very large and impressive male appendages. Celebration Park features nothing of the sort, which makes me think that the ancient people in our area were not very proud of their genoscars. Well, either that or the Montana petroglyphs had been doctored in modern times. You be the judge.

After you've had your fill of the rock art, you'll need to hike downstream a bit to see the park's other main attraction, Guffey Bridge. Built in 1897, this former railroad bridge was used to get people and goods out to the Owyhees and back until about 1947. Its original purpose was to haul ore from the Silver City mining district, but whether it actually did that is up for debate. The Idaho Historical Society's Reference Series article indicates that "Lode mining continued in Dewey's Black Jack and an interconnected Florida Mountain Trade Dollar property for more than a decade after 1898." However, a commemorative plaque that's attached to a rock near the visitor center claims that the mines closed before the railroad was completed. Sometimes you just don't know who to trust.

According to people who care about bridges, the bridge is a "Parker Through Truss" design, and it's the only one of its type in Idaho. What I find more interesting is the claim that it's Idaho's largest historic artifact at seventy feet tall and more than 500 feet across the river. The plaque near the visitor center even claims that the bridge was the tallest in the US for many years. That sounds a bit like an Idaho tall tale to me, but since I'm not going to do the research to disprove it, I guess I'll have to just accept it.

After the trains stopped rolling, the lonely bridge managed to survive three decades without being torn down in the name of progress. I guess being placed on the Nation Register of Historic Places in 1978 didn't hurt its cause. The bridge was finally acquired by Canyon County in 1989, after which they refurbished it and created the rather dapper footbridge it is today. Now it's a convenient and scenic way for sightseers, hikers, and horseback riders to get to the south side of the river for whatever Owyhee County exploits await them. One thing you can't do, however, is follow the old railroad bed very far. You'll quickly run into a wire fence that marks the boundary of the adjoining private property.

After you've had your fill of the bridge, you can partake in any of the usual activities available at a waterfront park. There are docks for fishing or tying up your dinghy, along with some well-placed picnic tables so you can watch the river go by as you eat your salami and cheese sandwich. You can also hike along the river or among the boulders until you never care to see sagebrush and melon gravel again.

However, before you get wrapped up in fishing or wander upstream, I wholeheartedly suggest you do your best to partake in an activity that is unique to Celebration Park: dart throwing at the atlatl range. The atlatl and dart is an ancient weapon that was used by primitive folks in between the time they invented the spear and the bow and arrow. The atlatl part of the combination is a slender wooden rod about a foot or two long that you hold in your hand, and then you put the dart (which looks like an oversized arrow) on top of it. You then use the atlatl to fling the dart toward a mastodon, sabretooth cat or other fearsome creature. Or in this case, a target hung on a bale of straw. It takes a few tries to get the hang of it, but the dude from Duck Dynasty or one of the other park workers will be manning the atlatl range to give you some instruction and improve your technique. Soon you'll begin to see how a bunch of hungry dudes with atlatls could bring down an animal bigger than an elephant.

The park is open year round, but you'll probably want to avoid it during high summer. There's hardly any good shade to be found, and the parking lot and all those black boulders don't exactly help with the heat index. Other than that concern, you can't go wrong.

Destination: Celebration Park
Where: A little less than 40 miles southwest of Boise. There are a variety of roads you can take to get there, so consult the Googles for the best route from your particular neck of the woods.

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Park hours: The visitor center is open 10am-2pm daily. The park itself never really closes, but you'll probably draw some unwanted attention to yourself if you're making a ruckus at midnight and you're not camping.
Cost: $2 day-use fee
$5 camping fee
Website: Canyon County Parks
Fun fact: Atlatl hunting was suggested as a way to control the goose population in Boise, but Mayor Bieter said that the only thing scarier than a redneck goose hunter with a gun in Ann Morrison Park is a redneck goose hunter with an atlatl in Ann Morrison Park.