Boise Daytrips

Swan Falls Park and Recreation Area - A Dam Fun Time

There are lots of interesting day trips in the Boise area that take all day to get to, enjoy, and then get home. This is great if you really want to get away from things, but where can you go if you've only got a half day to get out and do something memorable? My vote is for the Swan Falls Dam area, which has a little bit of everything but is only a 45-minute drive from the Boise-Meridian area.

To get to Swan Falls, gird your loins and steer the car toward the thriving metropolis of Kuna, and then take Swan Falls Road south. After driving for about 20 miles, you'll get to the top of the Snake River Canyon and then the road will turn to the right and begin to descend toward the river. The first thing you'll notice at this point is the amazing view, the centerpiece of which is the Swan Falls Dam.

Originally built in 1901 by private money to provide hydroelectric power to the mines around Silver City, the dam has gone through several expansions and upgrades to get to what you see today. The oldest part of the dam is the taller easternmost half. Although it still contains all the old generators and other equipment needed to make power in the early and mid twentieth century, it no longer produces any power and instead serves as a museum. If you're extremely lucky or happen to go in early to mid May when Idaho Power has open houses on two consecutive weekends, the doors will be open, allowing you to take a tour around the inside of the place.

But the doors aren't open very often, which means that if you really, really want to see the inside of the old powerhouse, you'll want to schedule a tour a week in advance with the folks from Idaho Power by calling 208-736-3458. That might seem inconvenient, but it really is worth it. You'll get to see lots of large metal machines and contraptions that were built to last by American companies back when things like that mattered. You'll also get to read your fill about the dam's construction and operation, thanks to a generous amount of informational signs and displays.

In the likely event that the old powerhouse is closed, don't fret; there's still plenty to do. You can get an excellent view of the modern hydroelectric dam by walking across the metal grated walkway that skirts the old powerhouse and extends to the opposite bank. This new part of the dam was constructed in 1994, after which the old powerhouse was decommissioned. When you see how simple and efficient the modern structure is, it'll make you appreciate all the hard work man and beast had to put in to build the original dam, which is primitive by today's standards. According to Idaho Power, the original dam during its heyday had ten generators that could only generate up to 10,400 kilowatts of power, whereas the modern dam has just two generators but generates up to 25,000 kilowatts. Let's give it up for modern technology.

After you've had all the dam fun you can stand, you'll probably know the lay of the land well enough to do a little recreating. You can hike up and down the river using primitive trails on both sides, and mountain bikers also ride the trails. The dam and its environs are also within the Snake River Birds of Prey Area, so if bird watching is your thing and you can tell a Swainson's hawk from a red-tailed hawk, this is probably as close to non-sexual climax as you're going to get.

Due to the reservoir created by the dam and the river downstream of it, it should come as no surprise that a lot of people come to this area for the fishing. The area behind the dam has numerous clear spots for bank fishing, which is great if you've got a kid or two with you. If they get bored, they can always run around on the nice green lawn in the picnic area, or they can plop a folding chair under one of the large poplar trees and play their hand-held video games while you try to catch one of those elusive Snake River sturgeons.

If you're looking for a little more adventure in your fishing excursion, try below the dam in the Snake River proper. There's a dirt road that you can drive downstream as far as you want until you find a suitable angling spot, and it'll give you a chance to fish some real river structure instead of the featureless reservoir.

Even if you're not out fishing, it's worth it to drive downstream a bit for a natural feature that hardly gets mentioned. Some people call it The Boulders, and that's pretty much what it is: a large field of boulders made of huge chunks of basalt that have fallen off the canyon walls for the last, oh, fifteen thousand years. It's fun for kids and adults alike to climb the boulders, and you can make a game out of it by trying to get from point A to point B without touching grass or soil. It's a unique area, the view of the canyon walls is spectacular, and they even have an annual disc golf tournament there every April named, appropriately, The Boulders.

If you've still got time after your picnicking and sightseeing at Swan Falls, you can stop by Dedication Point on your way back. It has a couple informational kiosks and a trail to the canyon rim, and you might be lucky enough to actually see some raptors. You can also make a quick stop at Initial Point, which is just a mile or two off Swan Falls Road. Either place is worth a stop if you've got the time.

Destination: Swan Falls Park and Recreation Area
Where: 35 miles southwest of Boise. Find your way to Kuna, take Swan Falls Road south, and follow the signs.

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Park hours: The area itself is open every day, year round. The old hydroelectric powerhouse is open on special occasions and by special arrangement.
Cost: Free
Website: Idaho Power's Swan Falls page
Fun fact: There's a nice variety of things to do, it's close to Boise, and best of all, it's free (at least for now).