A Vacation Destination…Next Door
Story and Photography by Pete Grady
Midday light ignites a bonfire of color as squealing children splash along the edge of the pond, shimmering in the glow of the warm Idaho sun. Inflatable toys—including a shark, crocodile, Shamu, or perhaps even a traditional raft—convey the young and old alike cooling atop the water. Parents of the youngest children stand along the sandy beach, keeping a watchful eye beneath their outstretched hands, shielding them from the sun. Further up the hill, older parents sit in the shade of a honey locust, drumstick or drink in hand, while others are laid out on the expanse of grass attempting to tan. Strolling, weaving through the diverse crowd, it’s a festival for the senses as a blend of cultures sends up the smells of hot dogs, sausages, burgers, tacos, and kabobs from the plethora of barbecues. A gentle breeze turns the smoke into a wispy veil that winds its way upward to the covered group areas at the top of the hill. This is Eagle Island State Park, a property jewel in the heart of the Treasure Valley, and one that, despite the ample crowds found on this particular Sunday afternoon, remains a secret to many.
Prior to its establishment as an honor farm for the Idaho Department of Corrections, the 545 acres that is now Eagle Island State Park was traditionally grazing and farmland, in an area prone to spring floods. During the 1930’s throughout the 1960’s, the Department of Corrections built barns, a slaughterhouse, milking operations, and bunkhouses for the inmates that lived and worked there. The boarded up buildings remain as a reminder of times past, idle and undergoing a process of slow decay. In 1977, Corrections discontinued its operations and turned the property over to the Idaho Department of Lands, where it was then voted to be repurposed as a State Park. Dedicated in 1983, the original improvements included the central 26 acres that still act as the core for most family activities.
In the summer, the big draw for many is the beautiful lake, with its beach and the water slide that starts at the top of a nearby hill. Here, thrill-seekers can ride the waves that careen through its turquoise half-pipe, for a nominal fee. If surfing the Web while the children play is more to your taste, Wi-Fi is available in the west day-use area. Want to explore the lake without diving in? Paddleboard rentals are now offered on-site, giving visitors another fun water option while also generating revenue for the park. The lake wraps around the backside of the hill, and tree-lined lawns stretch along its banks, offering up a quieter picnic experience and a place for the less boisterous to enjoy the water to themselves or to give their dogs a swim. There are showers and dressing rooms for swimmers, and an office and visitor center that is staffed every week Thursday through Sunday. Covered cabanas dot the landscape and offer a shaded area for visitors to relax, with tables and benches for everyone.
Sports aficionados can take advantage of a few other amenities built for them. A volleyball net looms above a sand-filled court in the shade of giant maple trees. Just bring your own ball and a team of opponents you’d like to beat for guaranteed fun on the beach. Disc golfers are treated to two 9-hole courses that combine for 18 challenging holes of tossing, and get good reviews from avid Frisbee-golfers. The courses are a little more rustic than the rest of the park, as they as they are groomed less frequently. Pack a free map, available online, into your bag in order to ensure you don’t get lost.
Of course it wouldn’t be an Idaho state park without trails. The vast majority of the park’s land is riparian in nature and is best appreciated on foot, bike, or horseback, along any of the more than 5 miles of easily traversed pathways. Explore a little of the history of the property by visiting the buildings located mainly in the park’s eastern side. Bring your binoculars for some of Southwest Idaho’s best bird watching. Saddle up your horses for a late afternoon canter along the Boise River through verdant pastures. The Boise River is surprisingly close by, forming the north and south boundaries of the park; after all, this is an island. Remember to bring your Idaho Fishing License and your favorite tackle to enjoy some of the best close-to-home fishing in the state.
With all these activities set within one picturesque location, on an island in the middle of the Boise River with spectacular views of the Boise Front, one would think that this park’s biggest problem would be over use. Unfortunately, that’s hardly the case.
“It’s a variety of factors that contribute to Eagle Island being more of a secret than the go-to recreation spot it should be,” says Jennifer Okerlund, Communications Manager for Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. “The entrance is accessed off Linder Road, and is a little obscure. We’d like to have better signage and are working with the Idaho Transportation Department to fix that. It would be great to have signs all the way from I-84, but of course that’s going to be expensive.” The
Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, JFAC, has approved funding of a long-awaited new entrance on Hwy 44 at Eagle’s west side. Already, a bridge over the river to the park’s current parking area and activity hub has been completed. What’s left is road grading, paving, utilities, and an entrance kiosk, all of which could be underway fairly soon after bid requests go out and contractors are selected.
“It will be a lot safer than what we have now, and we’re hopeful that the more prominent entrance will keep us in mind with area residents,” Okerlund continues.
Besides getting a new entrance, there are a number of other ambitious plans, for the both the near and long term future of the park. Even a quick glance at the park’s Master Plan, available for viewing online, is enough to stimulate a sense of longing and excitement. There are designs for an amphitheater, additional lakes fed by the river, more trails, fishing docks, an ice rink, a dog park, and much more. Of course, all of that will come while maintaining the natural riparian feel that the park has now. The realities of paying for these kinds of projects are, of course, in a state of flux and are subject to changes in economics, competing political agendas, and the passion and willingness of key entities and individuals. Funding for maintenance and operations for all state parks has, in recent years, shifted from taxes on the incomes of Idahoans and businesses to an array of “user fees”. This revenue generated is used solely for operating and maintaining what is there now.
“We’re open to working with companies, groups, and individuals who have ideas for income generating proposals that fit with state park plans” as a way to increase Eagle Island’s bank account, says Okerlund.
Once you’ve done it the first time, Eagle Island is a cinch to find. Travel out Hwy 44 until you get to the Linder Road intersection. Turn south and go about a half-mile to Hatchery Road. Make a left just past the sign pointing to Eagle Island State Park. Be careful to obey the 25 mph speed limit as you navigate through a pastoral residential area. It’s $5 to get in, but the better option is to pick up an Idaho State Park Passport for $10 at any DMV or online. These passports are good at all 27 state parks for a year and really, our state parks need the support, so please help ensure the continuing operation of these incredible Idaho resources and consider purchasing the passport.
Many Americans would have to drive a long way to find a setting like this that is filled with as many options for fun and relaxation. The next time you ask what to do this weekend, remember Eagle Island. There’s no better place to enjoy the summer.
Eagle Island State Park
4000 W. Hatchery Rd.
Eagle, ID 83616
Open sunrise to sunset, year round.
$5 per car or an Idaho State Parks Passport on your vehicle, available online or at any DMV.