It’s snowing; big fluffy flakes swaggering out of the sky, like tiny ice parachutes, looking for a soft spot to land. As they softly touch down, each snowflake seems to add another measurable depth on the surface, just like the snowflakes before, stacking higher and higher. Mountains whose presence once were so looming, fade into a mat of white flakes, literally becoming invisible. Even the tall pine trees that grow so abundantly throughout the region have blended into the background.
This is the kind of winter storm you dream about—the kind that creates deep mountain powder, covering small trees, stumps, rocks, fences … and invites visitors from around North America to participate in the cherished winter activity of snowmobiling.
This is Island Park, ID … and it’s a perfect day for riding.
The beauty of Island Park is there is a variety of riding that can accommodate whatever weather conditions you encounter. There are the trees, the trails and the terrain. Although bright blue skies are preferred for all riding conditions, clear days are not mandatory for most. And when you pray for snow … most don’t get as presumptuous as to ask Mother Nature to deliver it only during the off-times. We take it when it comes, as often as it comes.
So today was a perfect day to ride either the trails or trees … and since we were looking to explore all the trails connected to Island Park, it was time to pull out the old trail map and log miles.
Island Park boasts 500 miles of groomed trails. Just to the northeast, West Yellowstone, MT, claims 400 miles. Combined (and the math does get a little fuzzy here) there is probably about 700 miles of groomed trails. Although we don’t know the total miles, we do know that it took us more than 1,000 miles to cover every single groomed trail there was to ride … and we went about it very methodically, keeping the number of overlapping miles to a minimum.
As the crow flies, there is probably about 15 miles separating the quiet mountain corridor known as Island Park with the snowmobiling mecca West Yellowstone; one humble range of mountains that make up the Continental Divide, separating the Gem State from the Big Sky State. Although these two areas are separated by counties, states, forests and even the direction the rivers flow, they are still close enough to share snow conditions, trails and accommodations.
West Yellowstone may be the Snowmobiling Capital of the World, but Island Park definitely represents the most popular suburb. And it would be incomplete to write about the one without mentioning the other.
Unlike your typical western town, Island Park is somewhat stretched out—35 miles long covering the stretch of U.S. 20 in some spots only 500 feet wide and claiming a population of about 215 residents (about half indigenous to the state, the other half transplanted from other states). West Yellowstone, on the other hand, is more of your typical western town with a population of about 1,200 (and easily that many motel rooms available) in an area less than a square mile. It’s a town with family names and family businesses, a community built on tourism and service, a gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
Together, these two towns combine for the best trail riding opportunities in the West. And then if you consider trails that lead to Ashton, St. Anthony, Kilgore and Flagg Ranch, you start to expand the opportunities for winter recreation.
Now when you say trail riding in the West, many think that combination has a negative connotation. After all, what self-respecting westerner admits to riding trails? However, trail riding is just another way to find enjoyment and diversity in snowmobiling. It is different from mountain climbing, just like boondocking is different from highmarking. There’s nothing wrong with trail riding—everybody does it during the course of a ride … even the “highmarkers.” You see a lot of country, you ride a lot of miles, you’re riding with a purpose, a plan. It’s probably less intimidating for less experienced riders than powder riding. It’s definitely more family-oriented. It’s for those who like to putt-putt around and it’s for the aggressive riders who enjoy pounding through the bumps.
If there has become a gap between trail riding and mountain riding, it is due to track length and depth on mountain sleds. Although their suspensions can absorb the bumps, they are a little harder to turn than the short track sleds and their tracks throw far more chunks of snow up in the air, creating ice missiles that can leave a pretty good welt if you are unfortunate enough to catch one on your nose.
For those fortunate to have access to short track sleds, trail riding is a true pleasure. You can glide into the corners with more control. You can follow at closer intervals (because the tracks are not launching ice chunks 20 feet in the air) and you can use your throttle to break your track free for power slides going in and out of turns.
Let It Snow
Today’s ride represented a good start to chronicling the trails. The fresh snow created a fresh, new look to the area, much like what the first settlers must have experienced back a century ago when they first decided to brave the long, cold winters in the high country.
The trails were in great shape, mainly because in the winter of 2005-06 there was enough snow coming on regular intervals to allow the groomers to keep the trails fresh and smooth. And although there is a 45 mph speed limit on all the groomed trails in the system (and you can be assured that at no time did any involved in this series of articles abuse such posted speed limits … honest … would you believe hardly? … how about only occasionally?), the trails are pretty much designed in a way that 45 mph is a very comfortable speed. Now there are some areas where the trails are pretty wide open … but usually you can jump out in a meadow, which isn’t bound by the same speed limits.
The bulk of the core trails in this system are located east and south of U.S. 20, the area surrounding Two Top Mountain from Targhee Pass to Moose Creek Plateau. Wherever you travel the trails within this area, you have outstanding intersection markers and are never more than 15 trail miles to the nearest food or gas.
We decided to start this great adventure by riding the lower elevation trails heading north out of Island Park, paralleling U.S. 20 past Valley View and into the Lionhead area. From just over the Montana side of Targhee Pass, we took the trail leading into West Yellowstone. From West, the trails will take you either north toward Big Sky or you can head south paralleling Yellowstone National Park to South Plateau or you can head back west and into Two Top via the Two Top Loop.
On snowy days, the lower elevation trails are probably a better bet than the higher elevation trails when it comes to visibility. If you’re up on the far end of the Two Top Loop, or out on South Plateau, the snow can stack up in bunches and visibility (particularly across the open, upper part of the Two Top Trail) can be somewhat intimidating. But Mosquito Cutoff, Rail Road or BPA Powerline Trails feature unique areas for playing where trees and terrain allow for better visibility. And between trail markers 18 and 19 there is a neat little play area and restroom facilities. If you continue south between Rail Road and the BPA Powerline trails, you’ll find the old railroad grade that features a natural luge for snowmobiles. Catching this on a snowy day with a soft blanket of powder lining this bowl-shaped trail can be one of the most enjoyable experiences on snow. You fly down the corridor, going from high on the left side to high on the right side in figure S turns for the several hundred yards—powder flying up in your face at each dip. This is great stuff.
As we pounded out the core trails, both on today’s ride as well as other subsequent rides, we were able to see how the area comes together—how each drainage leads up or down to another portion of trail. We could see how the South Plateau and Black Canyon Trails bob in and out to the border of Yellowstone National Park.
Trails take you up the ridgelines of the various mountains, offering spectacular vistas of the Island Park area. And trails take you down into the deepest ravines where snow collects in bunches. These same trails take you to historical landmarks and geographic sites—there’s Targhee Pass, Big Springs (bring some bread to feed the fish), Madison River, Red Rock Pass, Flagg Ranch, Mesa Falls, Warm River Springs, the old railroad tunnel, Bishop’s Mountain Lookout, Horse Butte Lookout, Henry’s Lake and Hebgen Lake.
You can ride out and back on some of the outlining trails or you can plan loops and connecting trails to create round-trip rides without having to backtrack.
You can ride to the various restaurants and lodges to enjoy meals. Or you can find stops along the way to relax, rest or take photos. For long distance rides, you can plan your route around available fuel stops. (On one ride we logged 239 miles over a nine-hour period, stopping for fuel three times, stopping for food twice and mainly just enjoying the variety of terrain we covered.)
Trails allow access to distance connecting destinations (that will be covered in Part 2) and great mountain riding (Part 3.) And while you’re seeing new sights, you’re also giving your body a fairly decent aerobic workout (the next morning you will feel muscles you didn’t know you had). And when the day is over, food tastes better, pillows feel softer and fires provide a relaxing warmth that seems to tell your body that today was good.
The Perfect Trail
Perhaps the key for a great trail riding experience depends a lot on the group of riders and the quality of trail grooming that has been done.
Although everyone likes smooth trails, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have fresh groomed trails to have great experiences … but sometimes it helps.
If we were describing what we consider a perfect trail, it would be one that has been recently groomed … and more recently covered with about a foot or more of fresh powder. There is nothing like flying down a trail with a layer of fluff to make you feel like you’re floating on air, yet still giving you twists and turns with a purpose. And during this past winter, we had several opportunities to find these very such trails.
But if you’re not fortunate to catch a trail with fresh powder, it’s nice to catch a trail that has recently been groomed and all those pesky corner chatter bumps removed. If your sled is properly set up and has a good set of carbides on the skis, you can carve through the corners like on a rail.
Most of the core trails that connect between Island Park and West Yellowstone are groomed nightly (the best grooming efforts happen after dark when there’s less traffic and the temperatures are cold enough to allow the trail to set up) so you seldom find the trails in too rough of shape. The trails that are groomed less often usually have less pressure and aren’t that bad for the most part (although the corners can get a little banged out). During the 13 days of riding, we never once found a section of groomed trails in a condition that detracted from our riding enjoyment.
If you’re riding with several hardcore former racer types, rough trails can actually add to the excitement of a nice aggressive ride. Modern sleds are designed to absorb the bumps, both big and small. But remember, you aren’t the only ones on the trails … and some corners are sharp and blind. Ride responsible and defensively; expect the occasional rental rider cutting the insides of the corners … and most of our riding days were during the height of the winter season.
If you can work it in your schedule, it’s always best to ride during the middle of the week. There’s less pressure, the trails seem to be in better shape and the businesses are a little more laid back without the hustle and bustle of the weekend crowd. But then again, if you like the night life (both Island Park and West Yellowstone have ample establishments where adult beverages are served) there’s always plenty of excitement happening on the weekends.
See the Light
Another lost art of snowmobiling is night riding. During the 13 days that we pounded out the trails, we also took the time to put some night miles on the trails. This is a great time to ride, considering that during the winter there are only about eight hours of daylight.
There are pros and cons for night riding.
The cons—you’re out on a cold winter night, usually several miles from the nearest road or shelter. If you experience any problems, they can escalate to life-threatening in a matter of minutes and the chances of help coming around the corner are slim. Also, sometimes the wildlife (moose) like to take advantage of the packed trails to move about … and for some silly reason, they don’t have those reflective stripes on the side of their butts.
The pros—you’re out on the trails when you don’t have many crazy snowmobilers flying around the blind corners at 45 mph (everyone always keep speed limits), traveling sideways and occupying the entire width of the trail. Those huge rental groups that can slow the pace on the trail down considerably are also finished for the day. Plus, when it’s dark, headlights tend to alert you to oncoming traffic a little quicker. If you’re riding when there’s a slight overcast or even during a nice snow fall, visibility really isn’t hindered and the temperatures are much milder. And finally, snowmobile headlights do a fantastic job in lighting up the bumps, allowing an even better view of trail hazards.
In the Island Park area, the Chick Creek and Fish Creek trails, those on the southeast section of the trail system, are extremely enjoyable for night riding. They are, however, the trails farthest from shelter and would make for a long walk out (so plan your rides with friends).
Out The Door
Finally, Island Park offers that unique opportunity allowing you to forget where you parked your car. You can spend your entire vacation on your sled. You ride right from your door to the restaurants, the trailheads, the play areas, to the stores, etc.
The vast trail system weaves in and out of the commercial areas, making convenient access to lodges, motels and restaurants. You would almost think that the trails run through the gas pumps. And at the end of the day you can ride up to your place of lodging and park your sled—no hassle of loading on a trailer.
In fact, the only concern you might have, as we watched the snowflakes continue to stack up at the end of the day, is whether you will be able to find your sled amidst the big fluffy drifts in the morning. Oh what a great problem to have.
SIDE NOTES: In case you are wondering what snowmobile I was riding … or who my riding companions were, here are the details: During the 13 days of riding spread out over about two months, I had 10 riding buddies (Dave Hunting, Kort Duce, Clint Wheeler, Sam Tower, Lane Lindstrom, Ryan Harris, April Fredrick, Lavon Horn, Kim Ryan and Jeff Hart) and I rode seven different snowmobiles (Yamaha Vector, Polaris RMK 900, Polaris Switchback, Polaris SuperSport, Arctic Cat F5, Ski-Doo Summit 600 and Ski-Doo Summit 800).
You can check to see what trails were recently groomed by logging on to: http://www.co.fremont.id.us/departments/parks_rec/groomed_snowmobile
_trails.htm or you can call