Ghosts and Ghost Towns in Idaho

Itinerary: 

  • Thursday: Fly to Boise
  • Friday: Food Tour of Boise; Ghost hunting at the Old Penitentiary
  • Saturday: Sawtooth Mountains and Ghost Towns

Dates: July 28-31, 2016

Our Odyssey: 
Idaho? More like, Ida-whoa!! Okay, I couldn’t resist that, because when Tim and I visited

my 42nd state, Idao proved to be better than just great potatoes.Tim and I try to have an “adventure weekend” once a month to some place we haven’t been together. Over a year ago we talked about planning a trip to Boise, Idaho sometime because Tim’s good friend from high school and college lives there, and he’d heard there was a great outdoors scene there. Finally, about a month ago, we made the trip – though even from Atlanta, where you can get a direct flight halfway around the world, we had to connect in Salt Lake City on the way to Boise, getting us in around midnight that Thursday night.Friday we had a leisurely morning in our hotel, which was about a mile from the core of downtown Boise, before heading to a restaurant downtown to meet up for a food and culture tour we had booked through Indulge Boise. Now, I’ll preface this by saying that Tim and I aren’t really “foodies” – we much prefer learning about culture and history to food tours, and the one food tour we had done before (in Madrid during our RTW trip), was less than inspiring. And, given that it was a Spanish tapas food tour, that’s actually an impressive failure. So, food tours aren’t typically our thing – but when researching walking tour options in Boise, Indulge Boise came up highly recommended time and again in my internet searches. I figured – it’s a food and culture tour of Boise, so we’ll get a good tour of the downtown and history in addition to delicious noms.

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Downtown Boise – the capital building and the Egyptian Theater.

The meeting point was this café called The Dish Boise, where we joined our tour guide and about 10 other guests. Our guide was Angela, the owner/founder of Indulge Boise, and I was shocked to learn this has been the company’s first year – with all of the internet clout and reviews, my impression was that it was a long-standing tour. Clearly she’s doing something right.Over the course of the next three hours, we tried delicious donuts at Guru Donuts; olive oil and balsamic pairings at Olivin; a variety of bacon and Food & Wine Magazine Best in the US award winning bacon mac & cheese at a place called (what else) Bacon; phenomenal Basque sausage, croquettes and white wine sangria at the Basque Market; and dessert at The Chocolat Bar (voted one of the top 50 chocolate shops in the US). All this while walking through downtown Boise, seeing historic hotels, the capital building, the historic Egyptian theater and the iconic “Freak Alley” street art gallery.

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Bacon macaroni and cheese with a side of bacon strips at Bacon.

Freak Alley was particularly fascinating. This all started in 2002 when one artist tagged the door of a building back here, and instead of condemning it, the owner welcomed it. This artist, Colby Akers, now coordinates with 80+ artists to maintain this legal street art gallery in the heart of downtown. It’s the largest collection in the northwest of the United States. We had the pleasure of running into Colby while we were walking through.

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Talking to Colby in Freak Alley

After the tour we stopped in to 10 Barrel Brewing where Tim’s friend from high school and college, Chris, met up with us for a drink. Earlier on our tour, while at Bacon, we got coupons to come back and get $10 off our meal, so we figure, for dinner, we’d head back. While we wouldn’t normally consider eating two times in one day at the same restaurant, this spot is unique. It’s one of only a few “flip” restaurants in the world – meaning during the day it’s one place, and in the evening, another. So while they are owned by the same person, Bacon (the daytime spot) and Barryhill (the evening spot) are very different restaurants. We enjoyed both quite a lot!After dinner Tim and I headed back to our hotel for a break and to clean up a bit before heading out for an atypical evening activity. Just a few weeks prior, I had learned that a paranormal investigative team would be hosting an investigation at the Old Idaho Penitentiary that Friday night that we’d be in town. Tim and I got the last two tickets for the event! To give some background, I love ghost stories and ghost tours. I’m a fan of paranormal theories and, whether it’s real or not, it’s fun to think about spirits existing somewhere between our world and the one that (possibly) exists after we die. I’ve always wanted to go on a paranormal investigation-type experience, and so I was beyond thrilled at our good fortune that we not only happen to be in town the one night this was going on, but that we got the last tickets available.

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Idaho State Penitentiary

To add to the thrill, this site isn’t just some hokey haunted house type tourist trap – the Old Idaho Penitentiary opened in 1872 and housed some true wild west characters until it shut down in 1973. Today, you can tour the 30 historic buildings of the “Old Pen” during the day. At night, though, it is rumored to be quite haunted, so much so that it drew the attention of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” crew. They filmed an episode there in 2008. So, this place is the real deal.

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Old Pen at dusk.

For this event, were about 15 professional investigators and 100 guests, so they divided us up into groups that would rotate through the various buildings in half hour increments. Our group started with the shower room. Being night time, it was obviously dark in the building, but we could make out some machinery and stalls for showers in the back. At one point, Tim saw a flashing light in the corner of one of the stalls – we learned a few minutes later that many others have reported seeing a similar light in the showers and paranormal investigators believe it to be a spirit of a former inmate. Yikes!We also spent time in the solitary confinement building, also colloquially known as Siberia. When we walked in my phone had 50% battery life, but after just 10 minutes sitting in there (not using my phone), it drained down to 15%. Over the same period of time, I felt very cool air blowing over me (strange when your surrounded by walls on all sides). Paranormal researchers say that spirits will commonly drain the batteries of any electronics around, as this gives them energy needed to communicate with the living realm. Additionally, they say spirits can often manifest as cold air or wind. Could I have been sitting with a ghost? It’s possible.Around the same area, another guest in our group was using a thermal imaging device, and captured the image of a full body of a person (where there did not appear to be anyone standing). When she went to take a picture of it, her SD card dismounted. This was the only time the whole evening she reported having any trouble with her camera.The last building, one of the cell blocks, is where we encountered perhaps the most interesting phenomenon. Due to an electrical short in the wiring, all the lights in this building were on, making it the only lit building on the campus. The researchers speculated that perhaps this building saw so much activity that evening because the spirits were confused with the lights on. In any case, the building was split into two rows of cells in the center, so you could walk an entire loop around them if you wanted to. While everyone was on one side of the building, I went around to the other side, where I heard a strange moaning sound. A few moments later, I heard it again, and it was enough to spook me into returning to the group. When I saw Tim, I gestured for him to follow me, and when we got back over to that side, we heard another long drawn out moaning.

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A cell in the last building

We told the rest of the group and they came around to that part of the building. One of the researchers had an electromagnetic spectrometer with her, and while standing near the guards desk, it spiked to an 8+ reading – one of the highest she had ever seen. Paranormal enthusiasts say that this device can capture changes in electromagnetic energy, indicating a ghost is around. At the same time, Tim was using a similar (though much less accurate) app on his phone to pick up the same types of changes as well as any words spirits may be trying to communicate. This is called “EVP” and it generates white noise. When it picks up an interruption in the white noise, it can identify what words are being expressed. Tim got several interesting words during this span of time – all of which referenced items that were located on or around the guard’s desk. Spooky!Around 1:45am we all gathered back in the common room where everyone recapped their experiences before departing for the night. Other groups had interesting stories too but I think our group had the most compelling ones!The next morning we met back up with Chris at his home outside of downtown Boise and drove together out towards Stanley and the Sawtooth Mountains. This was a gorgeous drive into Idaho’s piece of the Rocky Mountains, with stunning views of the peaks. It was a little hazy due to natural wildfires not too far away but we were lucky to catch some clear moments!

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Near Stanley.

We stopped in Stanley, a charming small town, for lunch along the river, and then made our way to Bonanza and Custer, two abandoned gold mining towns I’d read about when doing some research for our trip. We came upon Bonanza first, which is mostly marked by the presence of two run-down buildings on the side of the highway.

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Welcome to Bonanza!

We turned off the highway down a narrow road where we stumbled upon the old town cemetery. There are wooden markers indicating where individuals are buried, and, though these were clearly not original, it was fascinating to walk through and read the names and dates engraved.

Me, Tim and Chris at the Bonanza cemetery.

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Grave markers in Bonanza.

Leaving Bonanza we continued about 20 minutes east to Custer. Custer, founded in the 1870s was a larger town in its heyday and has several examples of mining machinery on the grounds, a small “museum”, a school house, and a few homes that are open to exploration. Frolicking about this site was my favorite part of the day – I loved imagining what life would have been like and seeing so many furnishings and household items out as if their owners had just up and left on a lark. The collections have obviously been curated, but the effect is strong.

Me and Tim in one of the old homes at the Custer ghost town.

That evening the three of us grabbed a drink downtown before Tim and I headed to the Basque Festival. Held near the Basque Market, where we stopped on our food tour the day prior, the festival celebrates the strong Basque culture in Boise. The Basques are an ethnic group indigenous to the Basque region in Europe – primarily the western Pyrenees and north central Spain and south western France. Idaho is home to the highest concentration of Basque people in the United States, in part thanks to the draw of silver mining in the 1800s. Since it was fairly late, the festival was winding down, but we made it in time to enjoy one more white wine frozen sangria and some live music – a fantastic way to cap off our weekend in beautiful Boise!

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