Boise Foothills... Hiking, running, biking, and Richard the coffee mule

Jan 29, 2019
Gill Hill, on behalf of BVEP

If you ask people in Boise what they love about their city, the foothills are always in the mix somewhere. Travel less than a mile from the Capitol, in the heart of downtown, and you’ll find the closest trailhead at the Military Reserve. Traffic is always light in Boise. Even at rush hour, you can arrive there in about ten minutes.

Lots of cities have great recreational activities close to their city, but few can boast the accessibility that Boise can.

“Boise people enjoy intermingling in the outdoors,” Matt Bishop explained over coffee one day. He should know. He set up Café Mulé – although if you live in Boise, you’re probably more likely to know him as ‘Richard’s person’. That’s Richard the Mule, who packs a keg of nitro coffee into the foothills many weekends in spring and summer and has become somewhat of a Boise celebrity.

Bishop started Café Mulé in 2016. His goal was not just to serve coffee, but to engender a great outdoor activity.

“I envisioned a social aspect to it. I was looking to create an environment where people would share their beverage and intermingle.” While Bishop knew he’d need to make his business sustainable, his long-term goal was to sell coffee and encourage the social aspect he could already see happening when he went to the foothills. When red tape initially caused problems with him selling coffee on public land, he leaned forward and committed to providing the service for free until he could figure out how to make it work financially. The first five services he didn’t even accept tips or donations and fronted all the costs himself, keen to make sure he wasn’t falling foul of any regulations he didn’t yet know about.

“The really great thing that precipitated out of that was a community feeling and connection to the coffee service, even more so than I had thought – and in large part I think that was due to the non-commercialism of it,” Bishop said. The first year he served coffee 18 different days, often getting up at 3.30am and working 11-hour stints, all to serve coffee for just 2 ½ hours trailside. Now he accepts donations to help feed Richard his hay and tips, both in person on the trails and online through the website. Café Mulé also sells coffee in Boise stores. Bishop donates 25 cents to Ridge to Rivers from each bag of coffee sold. The Co-op, who have started selling his coffee, has partnered with him and donates 50 cents. In the first quarter of selling Café Mulé coffee at the Co-op, they raised just over $400 between them.

The foothills are the backbone of our Treasure Valley – with Boise city nestled up close, pushing against them. As a result, the citizens have always been vocal about protecting their foothills as they’ve watched the metro area thrive and expand. In the early ‘90s, grassroots action by local citizens led to a parcel of land being protected from development in Hulls Gulch. Over time the area being protected expanded. By 2001, the City was confident enough that the people of Boise wanted to protect their foothills long-term that they proposed and passed a ground-breaking levy of $10 million over 2 years from property taxes, to purchase and preserve open spaces. As a result of that levy, the City now owns over 10,750 acres of land leveraged to a value of over $37 million. The overarching success of that first levy resulted in another levy being proposed in 2015, which was passed even more enthusiastically than the first one. Boise sure loves its foothills.

There are over 190 miles of trails within the foothills, most of which can be accessed from points within walking distance of downtown. While all a Boisean wants to do is get into the hills, the land is owned by a complicated array of private individuals, organizations, and government bodies with more acronyms than you can fit on a trail sign. Ridge to Rivers was formed in the early ‘90s, a partnership of the land owners and managers, with a goal of sharing the limited resources available and caring for the foothills trails as one organic system, regardless of ownership of any specific part. As a result the trails feel cohesive, with consistent signage and one website with an interactive map of all the trails and daily reports on conditions. Many Boiseans don’t know exactly what Ridge to Rivers is, and that is to their benefit. The partnership works hard to deal with the red tape so that the users don’t notice.

In the ‘80s and earlier, use of the foothills was mostly on existing motorized trails on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, which were being eroded and not used or maintained properly. Ridge to Rivers worked hard to build multi-use and single use trails, and to ensure land could be restored and trails actively managed. In the next year or so, the first exclusive mountain bike trail is likely to be built. As Boise expands, people are having to learn how to share these spaces, and Ridge to Rivers enables that by having one ‘etiquette’ system in place, with common signs explaining trail etiquette posted in high-use areas. Over 4,000 volunteer hours a year are given to Ridge to Rivers, proving how committed Boiseans are to maintaining the foothills.

Luckily for Matt Bishop and Café Mulé, a couple of private landowners stepped forward and offered him the use of their land, allowing him to sidestep the complicated permitting arrangements of serving on public lands. While that restricts where Bishop can set up his coffee service, it still covers large portions of the foothills and allows him to vary his location from week to week.

“I wanted to incentivize people to have an outdoor activity. I wanted to rotate my serving locations. I post maps the week of each service so there’s a little bit of a surprise element.” This allows a nice balance of those who head out actively looking for Richard the Mule and their coffee fix on the trails, and those who come across him as a pleasant surprise. Bishop loves the mix of people he meets when he’s serving coffee, and the fact that locals won’t just talk to him, but also to each other.

“I feel like it’s a neutral space . . . where people blur the political spectrum and cultural assumptions we make based on those views.” For Bishop, serving coffee, and watching that blending across all types of users, is what it’s all about.