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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
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.

Lucky Peak

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…

Ridgecrest Wee 9

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 Atlatl Range

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.

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?

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We love to travel, but with gas prices climbing it’s not always affordable to get away for spring break.  Luckily, there are tons of fun, inexpensive things to do in the Nampa/Boise area.  (If you don’t live around here, there are ideas at the bottom that anyone can do.)  A few years ago we decided to do a spring break staycation, and visit local attractions similar to the places we normally seek out when we’re on vacation.  We not only saved money on gas and avoided the headache of packing and unpacking, we had a lot of fun doing things that don’t normally fit into our regular routine.  So here is a list of some of our favorite family fun places listed by discount days, along with a few new places we haven’t yet tried but hope to soon.  All these activities take place indoors, which means you don’t have to worry about weather spoiling your plans.  A family of four (2 adults and 2 kids age 6 and up) could do 6 days of activities on this list for less than $65! So no matter what your vacation budget – I’m adding a few free activity suggestions at the bottom, too – a staycation can be both fun and affordable.

Monday – Jumpin’ Jungle in Nampa ($8 for 2 kids)

  • Monday is family night from 4-8 p.m.  Kids can jump for $4/person (parents can come and watch for free).  I haven’t personally been here, but my daughter went for a party and had a lot of fun jumping on the inflatables.  There are separate obstacle courses for ages 5 and under and for bigger kids.

Tuesday – Family Movie Day ($4/family of 4)

  • All movies at the Nampa Reel Theater are $1 all day.  There is a $2 surcharge for 3D movies (which beats the pants off of paying $13 for a 3D movie at Edwards).
  • Overland Park Cinemas in Boise also has $1 movies on Tuesday, but they don’t offer as many matinees.  Their 3D surcharge is only $1.  The Overland Park Cinema is also close to the McDonald’s on Overland, where you can get half-price Happy Meals for dinner after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.  (You can do this in Nampa, too.)

Wednesday – Choose your activity (no discount days, $13.20 – $28)

  • Jabbers Indoor Playplace in Nampa (by the new Edwards 12 Theater).  I haven’t been there, but I’ve taken my children to similar places in other states and really enjoyed it.  They have a construction zone, roadway, giant playhouse, farmer’s market, 13′ climbing structure, and a comfy parent lounge with cafe.  We used to visit Planet Kid in Boise for their climbing structures, and have also tried Monkey Bizness in Boise, but these places are often packed during spring break (especially Planet Kid which provides day camps) and are purely physical.  I like having a variety of activities, besides just climbing, so that when my kids get pooped there are other things for them to do.  (I hate paying $7 and having my kids wanting to go after an hour or so because they’re tired.)  Jabbers costs $6.60 for ages 4 and up, and $5.66 for age 3 and under (no cost for parents). They also have a Wednesday special of $15/family, which is handy for larger families (for more info. go to jabbersplaydate.com).  They are open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Mon. through Sat.
  • Just Kid’n Around in Meridian (corner of Eagle and Overland).  This place just opened and sounds similar to Jabbers.  In addition to a comfy lounge area for parents and cafe, it has a large play structure, creative play areas such as an art room, kitchen set-up, farmer’s market, dress up closet and more, plus popular games such as air hockey and Wii.  They are open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Mon. – Sat.  Prices are $6.75 for ages 3 and up, and $5.75 for ages 1-2 (parents and babies under 12 months are free). This link will take you to an online coupon for $1 off.
  • Discovery Center in Boise (near the Boise zoo).  We can spend hours here engaging in hands-on science fun.  They even have activities that appealed to my daughter when she was a preschooler, like the play grocery store (with shopping carts and cash register) and veterinary clinic (with real x-rays and stuffed animals).  It costs $6.50/adult and $4/child age 3-17 (2 and under are free). They are open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Tues. – Thurs. (closed Mon.), 9 – 7 p.m. on Fri., and 10 – 5 p.m. on Sat.
  • The Nampa Rec Center costs $6/child age 6-17, $8/adult, $2/child 5 and under. These are day pass prices, so you can really get your money’s worth here playing basketball, racquetball, swimming and rock-climbing.  The kids pools are open 5 a.m. – 9:45 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 8 a.m. – 6:45 on Sat.  The water slide is open 4 – 8 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 12 – 6 p.m. on Sat.  The Tarzan swinging rope and water tubes for floating are available 5 – 8 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 1 – 4 p.m. on Sat.  The rock wall is open 4 – 9 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Sat. (with a $3/person harness fee, although the boulders are free, which is where my kids like to climb).

Thursday – Nampa Bowl ($8-$12/family of 4)

  • On Thursdays, from 10 a.m. – midnight, each game, shoe rental, hot dog, fries, and soda cost just $1 each!  So one game for a family of four would cost only $8, or you could play 2 games for $12.  Plus, the Nampa Bowl is now a smoke-free establishment, making it even more family friendly.

Friday – Roller Drome in Nampa ($18/family of 4)

  • That’s right, it’s time to strap on those skates (or rollerblades, for an extra $1) and teach the kids how to “celebrate good times.”  Come on!  Every Friday, from 3-5:30, is cheap skate day, when skating is half-price ($14 for 4 people, plus $1/person skate rental).  But during spring break week, both Fridays have special skate hours and a “parents skate free” deal, which still makes the price $18/family of 4.  Spring break Friday skating sessions are 1-4 p.m., 4-7 p.m., and 7-9:30 p.m.

Saturday – PoJo’s Family Fun Center in Boise ($10-$20)

  • There are lots of options for fun in any price range here.  My kids love the bumper cars and carousel, so we like their $5/unlimited rides deal on Saturdays.  They also have great coupons, which you can view here, for deals on tokens, rides and food.  We went here recently to try out their gluten free pizza.  Since we got a rebate check in the mail and had a little money leftover in our entertainment budget, we combined several deals.  We used the “48 tokens plus 2 ride tickets for $10” online coupon, which gave us plenty of tokens for games (they have a variety of games for all ages).  We also got unlimited rides for the kids ($10), so my husband used the ride tickets to do the bumper cars with them, since the kids love nothing more than ramming Daddy.  We were able to also use the online coupon for a $5 medium gluten free pizza (or regular medium pizza) when you purchase a large pizza at regular price ($16.75).  You get an additional 12 tokens when you buy a large, so this ended up being a pretty good deal – and the pizza was good.  They also have a small, free climbing structure for kids 50″ and under.

If the weather cooperates and you have a sunny day, here are some free outdoor activity ideas, perfect for not-too-hot spring weather:

  • Settler’s Park in Meridian, on the corner of Meridian Rd. and Ustick.  They have the largest playground and most variety of any park in the area.  In addition to the mammoth climbing structure, there are musical chimes, boulders for climbing, a toddler jungle gym, and my kids’ favorite – the tire swing.  There are tennis courts nearby and a huge field.  In the summertime, they have water play areas and a snack shack, plus free family movies on an inflatable screen every Friday night.  Can you tell we love this park?!!
  • Frisbee Golf at West Park or Osborne Park in Nampa.  We end up with lots of frisbees from Smokey Mt. Pizza (frisbees come with the kids meals which are free on Sundays – plus they have gluten free options), so we have plenty for playing the course with the kids.  I’m not big on taking walks just for the sake of walking, so frisbee golf is a fun way to get some exercise as a family.  Plus, there’s a playground at both parks which can be a reward for finishing (or a place for little ones to play while older kids complete the course).

Other free ideas for indoor activities (that are especially fun when your kids invite friends for a sleepover) include:

  • Indoor camping – even more fun if you have a small tent you can set up.  My kids were thrilled last spring break when we set up a half-tent in the playroom and hauled every plant we could find (including evergreen garlands and trees from my Christmas decorations) into the room to make it look like a forest.  We also set out stuffed animals and pine cones, and draped a white blanket over the furniture to represent snow in the mountains.  Inside the tent we put 2 sleeping bags and flashlights.  We also put some glow-in-the-dark star stickers on the ceiling.  The kids couldn’t wait to have friends over to go “camping”.
  • Homemade carnival – check out my Valentines Day post on creating a fun carnival for kids.
  • Spa day – treat your little girl(s) to a makeover by mommy, complete with fancy hair-do, pedicure and manicure.  Even better, let her do the same for you!  (Be sure to take pictures.)

Of course, you don’t need to go somewhere or plan an activity for every day, since part of the fun of vacationing is just getting to relax.  We always try to include a “Jammies Day” in our vacation plans, and whip out some craft supplies or board games for when the kids are looking for something to do.  Dollar stores are a great place to pick up cheap craft supplies, and since vacations typically involve buying souvenirs, why not give the kids each $5 to pick out supplies for their spring break craft kit?  This is the time to pull out those craft ideas you’ve been tearing out of magazines and saving for a rainy day.

Pajama days are also a great time for movie-marathons (like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings for the boys, and Barbie Fairytopia movies for little girls).  Set out some easy snacks like beefstick, cubed ham, cheese slices, crackers, chips, nuts, fruit that won’t quickly brown (grapes, orange slices, strawberries), veggies with dip and, of course, popcorn.  Then curl up with the kiddos and enjoy those snuggles while you still can!

With all the money you save by doing a staycation, you can probably justify a little splurge like going out to eat at a favorite restaurant (since you’d probably be eating out on a trip anyway).  Moms deserve a vacation too, so give yourself permission to use paper plates and turn a blind eye to dirty areas of the house.  Whatever you do, I hope you have a fun time playing with the kids.  These are the years for making memories and celebrating the joy of being together as a family.  Happy spring!

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