Whether you’re planning a “staycation” this summer, or just looking for some fun day trip ideas to stave off summer boredom, Southwest Idaho’s Treasure Valley has some fantastic, family-friendly attractions like Roaring Springs Water Park and Wahooz. But for those of us who don’t have wads of cash lying around, there are plenty of less expensive destinations for family fun. Last summer, I made a point of visiting several of these hidden gems and discovered that there’s really no place like home! Here are some of our favorite summer activities that are either free or cost a fraction of what you’d pay at the usual summer hangouts.
Instead of an Expensive Water Park, Try…
Eagle Island State Park – Located on a curve of the Boise River in Eagle, this “island” has a playground and long length of beach that’s perfect for building sand castles and cooling off in the water. The swimming area has boundary ropes to keep kids from going too deep, and there are several shady trees where parents can watch kids play, since there are no lifeguards on duty. (However, I’d suggest bringing a beach umbrella or free-standing shade if you can, since the park can get busy on the weekends.) If you want your kids to enjoy the thrill of a water slide without gouging your wallet, the park has an old school water slide on the weekends that costs $1/slide, $8/10 slides, or $12/day. When we go, I spend $8 on the 10-slide band which comes with tear-off tickets my kids can share, since after 5 slides they’re usually ready to go back to the beach. We bring our own float tubes, which you can air up at the park for $.50. I found 38-in. tubes with handles for $6 at Target, and these last for years. If you spent $10 on the State Parks Passport when you registered your vehicle (since this pass is tied to vehicle registration), you can get into the park for free. If not, it’s only $5/vehicle.
Sandy Point Beach at Lucky Peak Reservoir – Another beach lies just outside of Boise, and is also free with the State Parks Passport (or $5/vehicle). The swimming area is much larger, but remains shallow all the way out to the water fountain in the middle. There are lots of great shade trees that are closer to the beach, so this is a good park for families with toddlers who need to stay a little closer to parents. The downside of this beach is that there can be a lot of geese in the area, but it didn’t bother us when we visited. They’ve recently installed a Frisbee golf course, which we look forward to checking out.
Floating the Boise River – For some kid-friendly thrills, try taking older kids floating down the Boise River (and by “older,” I mean kids you will enjoy being stuck with in the middle of a river for 1 1/2 – 2 hrs.). It’s best to do this mid-summer when the river has warmed up and the water level is a little lower and slower. (A 90 degree day is perfect for rafting, although you may prefer a warmer temperature if you’re tubing.) If you’re like me and have inherited a raft from parents who are willing to drop you off at Barber Park (where you can air up your raft for free), then wait for you at the exit point in Ann Morrison Park, then this activity is free. If not, you can take 2 vehicles and drop one off in Ann Morrison before continuing on to Barber Park or take advantage of the $3/person shuttle available at Barber Park. They also have raft and tube rentals there. We enjoy a raft and tube combo by tying one of our tubes to the raft so kids can take turns floating in the tube, but then hop back in the raft when we get to the “rapids” (which are just a few very mild waterfalls, but add to the excitement for kids). A word to the wise, though: Stay away from the edges, and when you get to a fork in the river, take the path everyone else is taking, unless you want to get out and carry your raft back to the river. And don’t forget the sunscreen!
Parks with Splash Pads – If your kids are too young to float the river, Kleiner Memorial Park (near The Village) and Settlers Park in Meridian are two fabulous parks for little ones with splash pads for water play when kids get too hot on the jungle gym. They also both have concession stands. Kleiner, with its unique playground equipment, is a nice size for toddlers because it’s smaller and easier for parents to keep an eye on kids. Settlers Park has a huge playground and splash pad that can keep my kids entertained for hours. There’s not a whole lot of shade, though, so you may need to bring your own if you have a large group. Settlers also has a music play area, climbing area, tennis courts and more, so bring flip flops or water shoes that will allow your kids to go back and forth between activities and water play.
Instead of Expensive Fun Parks for Mini-Golf, Arcade Games, and Bowling, Try…
9-hole Golf at Ridgecrest - Ridgecrest Golf Course in Nampa has a great deal for families on their Wee 9 course every Saturday and Sunday after 4 p.m. As long as you have at least one child golfing with you, the cost is only $5/person for 9 holes – cheaper than mini-golfing at Wahooz! (They have some clubs available to use, if you don’t have children’s clubs.) This is an annual activity for us because it’s a nice course with a beautiful view of the mountains, there are special kids tees (in yellow) so the kids can start closer to the hole, and it’s great exercise.
Frisbee Golf – No golf clubs? No problem! There are lots of Frisbee golf courses in the area, including a nice one in Boise’s Ann Morrison Park. Settlers Park and Eagle Island State Park have courses set up in the winter. Our favorite course is at West Park in Nampa, which ends at a playground. Any old Frisbee will do, but it is easier if you use the smaller discs (found in any sporting goods store) designed for Frisbee golf. You can find a decent putter for $10, and that’s all most of us need. To play, simply find the tee marked #1 and aim for the metal basket. When you reach the “hole,” you should be able to see the next tee. (You can often find course maps online, which takes away some of the guesswork.) We don’t keep score in our family, but we do have the kids practice proper etiquette by waiting for the person farthest from the hole to throw first before they throw their disc (which also prevents kids from getting whacked in the head by a Frisbee thrown behind them). This is also great exercise, and even little kids can have fun throwing a Frisbee as they walk along the course.
Celebration Park - Instead of playing the same old arcade games in a dark, noisy room, take a short drive to Idaho’s only archaeological park, situated on the scenic Snake River. You can throw an atlatl/prehistoric spear in the atlatl range and walk among petroglyphs that are 100 to 10,000 years old. The visitor’s center is open from 10 – 2 p.m., and there’s a $2 entrance fee. (This is a county park, not a state park, so the state passport doesn’t apply here.) Bring a picnic to enjoy down by the river, and be sure to take the kids across the historic Guffey Railroad Bridge.
Dollar Days Bowling – When you’re tired of getting baked in the sun, bowling can be an inexpensive way to beat the heat. Through the Kids Bowl Free program, kids can bowl 2 free games every day all summer long (although you still pay for shoe rental). This is a national program and all you have to do is register online. If you go to Nampa Bowl on Dollar Days (Tuesdays, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. or Fridays, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.), shoe rental and games – as well as hot dogs, fries, and drinks – are only $1 for all ages. So a family of 4 can bowl for the price of 1 person at one of the arcadepalooza bowling alleys. It is a smoke-free facility, and they have bumpers to make bowling more enjoyable for kids (and…um…moms).
Looking For Free Educational Activities to Stop The Summer Brain Drain? Try…
MK Nature Center & Municipal Park – Tucked away in a corner of downtown Boise is a lovely stream-walk nature path where kids can view and learn about native fish, as well as enjoy some beautiful scenery. The visitor’s center has some hands-on learning activities for kids, and it’s all free! Bring a picnic and enjoy the afternoon at nearby Municipal Park which is on the Greenbelt path that winds along the banks of the Boise River, and part of the Idaho Birding Trail for bird viewing. Don’t forget your binoculars and bird identification book!
Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology & Quarry View Park – Not far away from Municipal Park is Quarry View park, to the left of the entrance to the Old Penitentiary. While the playground will mostly appeal to younger kids, there’s a large block of sandstone nearby with plaques that outline the area’s fascinating geological history. (I’m not a geology nut, but I found it to be very interesting, and my kids enjoyed climbing on the rock.) We stumbled upon this park on a visit to the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, which sits next to the Old Penitentiary. While the Old Penitentiary and nearby Idaho Botanical Garden cost money, this museum is free and quite interesting. (It does not have air-conditioning, however, so go in the morning!) The Botanical Garden is definitely worth a visit, and has a lovely picnic area. But if you want to picnic for free, check out Quarry View Park after you visit the museum.
The “Haunted Wastewater Tour” was…um…haunting.
Boise WaterShed Environmental Education Center – From 10 a.m. to noon each Wednesday during the summer, all ages can participate in interactive exhibits, do arts and crafts, and enjoy scientific demonstrations as well as hands-on presentations relating to environmental issues and conservation. At 11 a.m., you can go on a tour of the wastewater treatment plant – a perfect educational activity for the tween boys in your life. (Closed-toe shoes are required because ew.) We went on the “Haunted Wastewater Tour” that’s offered in October. It was literally the crappiest family outing ever, but lots of fun. Please enjoy the above picture of my husband and son during this tour, as there will be no pictures of me in a hard hat on this blog. Ever.
Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park & Observatory – Who needs snow when you can sled down the largest single-structure sand dune in North America! About an hour east of Boise is Bruneau Dunes State Park, where you can climb the sand dunes and sled down, then cool off in the lake – although it’s not the greatest swimming spot, in my opinion. (Be sure to bring bug spray and sun screen, and don’t forget your sled!) The sand gets hot in the summer, so I’d recommend visiting in the morning if you’re planning on climbing the dunes. However, if you prefer the evening, there is an observatory where you can gaze at the night sky on Friday and Saturday nights. (Please visit the website for times and check the weather report before you go, to make sure your view won’t be obstructed by clouds.) Although the observatory tour and orientation program are free, it costs $3/person to look through the telescopes (5 and under are free). Entrance to the park is free with your State Parks Passport or $5/vehicle.
Instead of Blowing Your Budget on Babysitters and Summer Blockbusters at the Megaplex, Try…
Drive-In Movie – If you’ve never gone to a drive-in movie, you’re missing out! It’s so much fun to hang out under the stars with other families and their pajama-clad kiddos. This is an annual activity for our family, usually in May or September when the showtimes are earlier and the weather is cool. The Terrace Drive-In is on the edge of Nampa in Caldwell, and you can’t beat the price for a double feature: $8/adult, kids under 12 are free. You can bring your own food there, so I usually pop some popcorn at home and bring cookies and water bottles. If it’s going to be cold, I’ll put hot chocolate in a thermos. We throw tons of pillows and a couple sleeping bags in the back of the van with the back seats folded down so we can open the hatch and let the kids get cozy for the movie(s). Typically, the first movie is a family-friendly feature. Then little ones can crash while Mom and Dad (and older kids) watch their flick. (My youngest usually poops out before the second movie, so we give her earplugs and let her go to sleep up front with the sound in the rear speakers for us.) My husband and I bring camping chairs and sit outside under the stars – a great date when you can’t find (or afford) a babysitter!
$.50 Kids Movie Matinees - Another cheap summer treat is the “Family Days in the Summer” program at the Reel Theater. Every Monday and Wednesday, the 10 a.m. showing of the kids movies that are rated G or PG costs only $.50/person or $2.50 for 3D movies (including adults). With so many fun movies coming out this summer, if you have the patience to wait for a month or so, you’ll save a bundle on movie tickets. (If you haven’t been there in a while, they have new leather reclining seats and all digital screens – not bad for $.50!)
Free Movies in the Park – Several communities show free family movies on an inflatable screen at dusk (around 9 p.m.), like Settlers Park in Meridian. This year, Nampa is joining in the fun and showing family movies (like Frozen and The Lego Movie) on select dates at Nampa’s Optimist park. Bring your blankets and lawn chairs for some free fun with your community.
So what are you waiting for!
You can write some of these activities on your calendar before the summer fills up, or jot down items from the list to place in a “Summer Fun Bucket” that you draw from when the kids start saying, “I’m booooooored.” If you want to be able to spontaneously hop in the car and just go, I recommend keeping a backpack stocked and ready to grab on your way out the door. Here’s what I keep in mine:
- Camera (because my phone only makes phone calls)
- Hats and sunglasses
- Waterproof Sunscreen – I like the spray on kind for quick application
- Bug spray
- Antibacterial wipes – for cleaning dirty hands or other messes
- Paper towels to eat off of and for clean-up – roll up several of the half-size towels, secure with a rubber band and store it in a ziplock bag (since sometimes you need an emergency ziplock bag to contain a mess, make an ice pack, etc.)
- Magnifying glass, binoculars and bird identification book
- Local parks/trails maps
- Granola bars, fruit leather, etc.
- Plastic grocery store sack for storing “treasures” the kids find (which you can throw away when you get home)
We always fill up water bottles on our way out the door, and usually fill our small cooler with easy picnic items like turkey breast cubes, cheese sticks, crackers or multigrain chips, carrots, and grapes or dried fruit. I also like to keep the following items in our trunk:
- Picnic blanket
- Camping chairs (usually just 2 for my husband and me to sit on while the kids explore)
- Magazine (for the aforementioned sitting)
- Frisbees, playground ball and bases (for kickball)
Have a fabulous, inexpensive, fun-filled summer! (Just don’t forget to “schedule” some lazy days, too.)
What are your favorite summer family activities?