River surfing is surging in popularity throughout the U.S., and Southwest Idaho is at its epicenter with two remarkable locations: Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade and Boise Whitewater Park near downtown Boise.
The standing waves river surfers ride are engineering marvels, using a mix of old-school technology such as underwater grading and rock placement, as well as large, hydraulically-controlled “wave shapers.” The result? Predictable, surfable waves in the river instead of the ocean.
Facing upstream, surfers appear to be stationary. But don’t be fooled — that surfer is experiencing extreme velocity. River surfing is risky. It should not be attempted without training. The best way to get a taste? Watch from viewing areas on shore.
Boise Whitewater Park
Boise’s waves are within walking or riding distance of downtown
Boise Whitewater Park features two surfable waves spread across a 1/2 mile of the Boise River. The two main waves are adjusted by wave shapers to alternately suit surfers or kayakers. Some days surfers encounter a steep pit, other days a serene face.
Spectators can watch from either side of the river. The Boise bank’s viewing area is along the Greenbelt, sandwiched between the river and Quinn’s Pond. On the Garden City bank, viewers gather on the Greenbelt just past the end of 34th street.
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For locals like Connor Flynn of Idaho River Sports, Boise Whitewater Park is a convenient way to mix their quest for an adrenaline rush with some quality time outdoors.
“It’s right downtown, in your own backyard. As long as you have a wetsuit, you can have your therapy out there on the water,” he says.
The waves are shaped for kayakers and surfers on alternating days
Walking down the Greenbelt on a summer day you’ll see river surfing experts playing in the big waves, kids practicing in the gentler waves downstream, and spectators lining the shores.
“There are times of year when the water of the river is cranked, so the waves become massive,” Connor says. The waves change daily. “It’s a cool feature that a lot of places don’t have.”
Kelly’s Whitewater Park
The shape and intensity of Kelly’s waves change based on seasonal water flows
About an hour and a half north of Boise you’ll find another river surfing hotspot — Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade. Nestled on the banks of the Payette River, the park is a draw for families and whitewater junkies alike.
Without waveshapers, the waves at Kelly’s change shape due to the seasonal flow of the river. The park has five waves. These are high-powered rapids where whitewater lovers flock to practice, and onlookers check out from shore.
“It’s all rock and cement to make the features,” explains Jake Lanners from Idaho River Sports. “The waves change throughout the season. They’re a little bit bigger than the waves in Boise.”
Summer visitors will see surfers, kayakers, and paddleboarders playing in the waves all hours of the day.
Watching surfers is just one way to enjoy rivers. If whitewater is in your veins, check out our rundown of the North Fork Championships, or get started on your next adventure with our Whitewater Guide.
Photos: Christian Nafzger