(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series on Island Park. Part 1 focused on the more popular trails in the area. Part 2 looked at the fringe areas that are often overlooked. Part 3 takes a look at all the off-trail opportunities around Island Park.)
Looking east across the large meadow just north of Island Park Village, a white blanket of snow sparkling with brilliant crystals reflects the sun’s rays. The recognizable features of Two Top emerge from the tree line and distinguish the mountain in the crisp blue background of the morning sky.
This is a day snowmobilers live for—fresh snow, blue skies and mild temperatures. The temptation to forsake the groomed trails and go powder riding is ever so great.
Many who come frequently to Island Park, ID, recognize that days like these are few in number and must be dealt with accordingly. If you have sunshine, if you have powder and if you have an ounce of intelligence you head for the backcountry.
Depending on who you talk to, there is somewhere close to 700 miles of groomed snowmobiles connected to the Island Park trail system. You’re looking at an area that is roughly 75 miles north to south and 75 miles east to west—well over 5,000 square miles of potential riding opportunities. Off-trail season in the Targhee National Forest runs from Thanksgiving to June 1. In the Gallatin National Forest, the season runs from Dec. 1 to May 31.
The core trail system is packaged in about 375 square miles of area (25 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west) located along the Idaho/Montana border adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. Even within this relatively small portion of the total riding area, there are still hundreds of hours of off-trail riding and exploring opportunities for the adventuresome.
Island Park’s extensive trail system provides quick, smooth access to sections of the Targhee and Gallatin national forests. This allows snowmobilers a convenient opportunity to explore some of the remote areas of the forest that often get overlooked. Naturally, there are those world-renowned attractions like Two Top, Lionhead and Mt. Jefferson that rates high on everyone’s list of “must see” destinations. But where the trails may get you close, it still requires a little off-trail exploring to reach the point where you can say, “I’ve been to Two Top.” And many of these areas can occupy a day or more to just explore, appreciate and basically mark up.
If you’re looking for the true “off-trail” experience of the Island Park area, here are some places you should try to visit.
Two Top—This is Island Park. Distinguished. Accessible. Deep snow.
This unique mountain with two points (the southern being the tallest at 8,710 feet elevation, the northern at 8,517 feet) is probably the easiest high point to visit. The Two Top Trail takes you to within a mile to the east of the ridge. The gentle slope from the trail allows virtually anyone on any sled to pick his way past the “snow ghosts” to an unofficial summit where the view of three states awaits visitors.
For those who are adventuresome, a thin ridge works its way about 400 yards to the north through wind drifts to the southern point. It’s narrow, it’s challenging and there is little room for error (you really don’t want to fall off either side of the ridge…you probably won’t like where you’ll end up). From the southern point, which has room for only three or four sleds, the going gets real challenging if you want to reach the northern point…and again, there is zero room for error. If you fall off this ridge you’ll really be in for an interesting adventure.
The Two Top area, however, is more that a vantage point to see Island Park. There are various drainages following this portion of the Continental Divide where you can get into some deep snow, steep climbs and advanced terrain riding. And all of this is within a mile or two of a groomed trail so it’s hard to get into too much mischief.
Lionhead—Perhaps the most popular mountain outside of West Yellowstone, this 10,180-foot mountain has a cool name and distinguished look that both attracts and intimidates winter visitors.
Lionhead is not as obvious or easy to find from the trail. About three miles north of Trail Marker 11 (between Markers 10 and 11) there is a switchback in a drainage on the uphill side of the trail. If you leave the trail and work your way up the drainage, you’ll get on a ridge. Following the ridge north up the hill you will keep climbing until you can see the hog’s back ridge up to the top. It looks intimidating, but it actually isn’t that tough…just a little steep for comfort.
The area to the west of the ridge offers some great sledding opportunities. The area to the east is steep, close to vertical. And there are some drainages that are not sled friendly (just ask the local Search and Rescue). The lesson here is to not drop down anything you are unfamiliar with. Lionhead is an area where you need to stay within the obvious play area until you have a good layout to how the area comes together.
Jefferson—When you talk about highmarking in big bowls, you’re talking Jefferson. This is an area where you have to take backcountry trails about 10 miles in to get to the good stuff. Reaching up to 10,203 elevation, it’s also the most notable landmark on the southwest half of Island Park.
The reason Jefferson is not as well known as Lionhead or Two Top is because it wasn’t until about 10 years ago the technology in snowmobiles made it possible to access this country throughout the season. It used to be an area where only spring riding conditions made it accessible. But now, snowmobilers are pounding away on the slopes as early as it’s legally possible (in the Targhee, that’s Thanksgiving Day).
There are three ways to enter the Jefferson area. The most popular is from the south up either Blue Creek or Willow Creek. Blue Creek takes you over Reas Peak (9,371 elevation). From this ridge you have to drop down into Hell Roaring Canyon and then work your way around the east side of Jefferson to access the big bowls. If you come up Willow Creek, you avoid the big ridge, but you have to sidehill through Hell Roaring to get to the east side of Jefferson.
A second access point is from the east and over White Elephant (this is a ridge that runs up into Mt. Sawtell). The farther north you go on the ridge, the more severe terrain you have to cross to get over to Jefferson. White Elephant is mainly accessed from the Stamp Meadow trail…but there is a “through-the-trees” approach that many locals use that comes directly from the east near Island Park Village. Although there are usually tracks to follow, some of those tracks you probably don’t want to follow. (We know, we likely made them and didn’t like where we ended up…and we’re pretty sure you won’t like it either.) We’ve pounded away from this direction for over two decades now…and there are still some canyons that we try to avoid. (And yes, we have left sleds in there overnight.)
The third way into Jefferson is from the north up the south fork of Duck Creek…or more affectionately called “the waterfall.” (Yes, during the summer it is a waterfall. And yes, water falls vertically.) When the snow is deep, the rocks are covered and part of the vertical gets sloped. If you have a good machine, you can make the climb. If you have good snow, then even a 600 sled can make the climb. If you have deep snow, you better have all the horsepower you can ride. If you have marginal snow, you better have a supply of front suspension parts. As you work your way up this tight canyon, you’ll eventually climb up to Lake Marie, a great spot for lunch.
Once you’re back in the bowl area, to the east is Rock Creek. You can play down this drainage for a ways…but there is a point where you can end up spending the night…or the winter. At the top of the Rock Creek drainage, where it crosses over to Hell Roaring, is usually the simplest place to cross the Jefferson ridgeline…that also serves as the Idaho/Montana border. The north-facing slope of Jefferson can be avalanche prone…but it also has the most level area for riding. Just be aware of the dangers.
Now there are several areas with Jefferson that make for some great boondocking rides. It’s usually easier to stay on top of the ridges and upper plateaus. However, if you drop down into canyons, be prepared for a little work. Most of the best snow is located between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. We tend to play a lot in the drainages to the southeast of Jefferson, around Arange Peak. But there is a lot of country to the west, heading toward Keg Springs and Taylor Mountain (elevation 9,855). Most of this country is riddled with north/south drainages that you have to negotiate…especially if you’re riding east/west.
Cabin Creek—This area is north of West Yellowstone and is very popular to those staying in West. It’s quite a ride over from Island Park…but then, isn’t that what makes it fun?
Cabin Creek lies between Kirkwood Ridge to the west and Skyline Ridge to the east. Skyline Ridge represents the border of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness (Monument Mountain Unit) which is off limits to snowmobilers. The groomed portion of the Cabin Creek Trail ends at a ridge just to the south of Cabin Creek. A marked trail slips down through a narrow drainage and then climbs up into a high mountain valley (elevation over 8,000 feet) that offers great snow and riding opportunities.
To the east of Cabin Creek is Tepee Basin, which represents the south border of the Wilderness area. This area is bookmarked with White Peak (10,353 feet) on the west and Tepee Peak (9,405 feet) on the east. There are plenty of highmark opportunities here.
Further north of Cabin Creek is Sunlight Basin. It sits in the shadows of Lookout Point (9,446 feet) on the west and Pika Point (9,521 feet) on the north. This is where the Taylor Creek groomed trail connects to the ungroomed portion of the Cabin Creek trail.
There are plenty of areas to explore and plenty of slopes to climb back in this area. But you are a ways away from fuel…so bring extra and a lunch.
Black Mountain—West of Targhee Pass, just off U.S. 20, is a ridge that climbs north from the east side of Henry’s Lake. This is Black Mountain (10,237 feet). It is just west of Targhee Creek, which comes down the west side of Lionhead.
This area is not very big, and there are plenty of trees to keep it from being easily accessible. But the snow stacks deep and the challenges are many. Once you work your way through the trees and up to the ridge, you have a great view of Henry’s Lake to the south and Targhee Peak (10,240 feet) and Lionhead to the northeast.
Not many venture into this area. Those who do, tend to stay close to Targhee Creek, which offers some not-so-smart climbing opportunities up avalanche chutes on a ridge that separates Targhee Creek from Black Mountain.
South Plateau—This area is more noted for the easy access from West Yellowstone and not for any mountain or high peak. But if you think that the lack of significant elevation means lack of snow, think again. This area collects far more than its share of the fluff (just look at Black Bear on the Snotel website).
This is a high mountain plateau that bounces between 7,600 and 8,100 feet elevation and is sprinkled with a variety of drainages, draws, meadows, thick trees and the burnt remains of where forest fires have opened up the landscape. There are no long steep slopes waiting to slide. In fact, you are lucky to find anything over 300 feet long, so this is a great place to hone your climbing skills without worrying about rolling a snowmobile off a mountain.
But perhaps the main attraction to South Plateau is the fantastic boondocking opportunities that await. But don’t wander too far to the east…this area borders Yellowstone National Park, which is closed to cross country snowmobiling. There are plenty of trails weaving in and out of the area to give you some relief if you get turned around. And there’s enough area here that you can ride all day in fresh snow if you are trying to avoid the tourists.
Black Canyon—What the South Plateau represents to West Yellowstone, Black Canyon represents to Island Park. In fact, these two areas connect near the state line. The difference is that South Plateau is more of a north/south trail while Black Canyon is more of an east/west trail and the areas are separated by the Continental Divide.
The mouth of Black Canyon is actually located about five miles north of Big Springs near Rheas Pass. The canyon runs east with the elevation starting around 6,500 feet and climbing up to about 8,000 feet as it works its way back to near the border of Yellowstone National Park. Along the way the trail junctions with the Two Top trail system and eventually ties into the southernmost point of the South Plateau trail.
Since the trail is in a canyon that is sheltered from the sun, yet tends to collect the swirling snow as storms pass over, you can always find light, deep powder for great mountain riding. This 30-mile loop encircles some outstanding boondocking opportunities. This is the area where the snow comes early and stays late in the season. The trail makes it easily accessible and a lot of the eastern Idaho snowmobile dealers take advantage of the early season to test and tune.
Deer Mountains—One of the better kept secrets of the Island Park area are the Deer Mountains. In fact, most who visit Island Park would be hard-pressed to find this area on the map…but that’s mainly because this is the area of the Island Park trail map that has the legend covering that portion of the Gallatin National Forest.
Deer Mountains represent the area to the northwest of Red Rock Pass between Saddle Mountain (8,384 feet) and Elk Mountain (8,120 feet), just north of Alaska Basin and south of Antelope Basin. It’s the pass-through rolling hills en route to Elk Lake. It’s open country for the most part—where you can basically go in every direction. You can find trees on the north facing slopes. You can find wide open sidehills on the south facing slopes. You can find creeks…and sometimes the creeks can find you.
You really can’t wander off and get lost in this area. You are contained by the Centennial Mountains to the south, the ridge overlooking a string of lakes to the west, U.S. 87 (road to Ennis) to the north and Henry’s Lake to the east.
Elk Lake Resort is close by and represents food, shelter and gas if needed. (Not to mention to the northwest of Elk Lake you get into the Gravelly Range which is in itself another outstanding snowmobiling area.) There are also accommodations at Henry’s Lake.
If there is a downside to this area, it’s the occasional lack of snow. It seems the Centennial Mountains are pretty stingy and steal most of the snow from storms trying to cross over into Montana. That leaves the initial access to this area pretty thin on marginal snow years. But the farther northwest you go, the better the snow becomes.
Bishop Mountain—On the southwestern section of Island Park, Bishop Mountain (7,810 feet) represents the anchor of the off-trail riding. Harriman State Park takes a big chunk of land out of the mix (reserved for cross country skiing), leaving only the area on the west side of the Green Canyon Trail open for sleds.
The North Antelope Road winds its way west to Antelope Flat and then turns back to the northeast and climbs up to the Bishop Mountain Lookout tower. The Antelope Flat area is a wide open meadow and very family friendly. To do any hillclimbing, you’re going to be riding through a lot of trees…and these are the lodgepole pines that are pretty tight.
The attraction to this area is that it’s close to the Upper Snake River Valley (read Ashton and St. Anthony) and usually doesn’t get a lot of pressure.
Snow Creek—For lack of a better name, the area southeast of Island Park out where the Fish Creek trail comes across offers some great cross country riding opportunities. Snow Creek Butte (7,595 feet) is perhaps the only real landmark in the area…and as you can tell by the elevation, it’s really not too distinguished. But for some reason this area always collects great snow and offers outstanding powder riding.
This entire area is riddled with open meadows and forest service access roads, making it a great area to explore. Since it’s sort of out of the way, you find it easy to ride all day and not see another set of tracks.
Squirrel Meadows—On the very most southeastern section of the Island Park trail system-actually, we’re talking due east of Ashton-is a little pocket of Targhee National Forest that is surround by farms on the west, and national parks/Wilderness on the north, east and south. This area has a groomed trail looping right through the middle of it to provide great access.
There’s no mountain climbing here (if you find mountains, you’re probably in a very expensive area to ride). This is a place for boondocking, powder riding and exploring. The snow is deep, the meadows are plentiful and the scenery is outstanding. The access area sits at about 6,000 feet elevation and climbs up to around 6,500 feet—so you don’t see any severe elevation changes wherever you go. There are plenty of lakes and mountain meadows with rivers and streams weaving throughout. You don’t need horsepower to get yourself around. But you do need to keep track of where you are.
Local Favorites—We have just covered 11 of the more notable areas for cross country and mountain riding. Each of these respective areas has other more specific and/or isolated areas within spitting distance. And for the locals, many of these more secluded spots are kept secret (we didn’t even reveal our most popular private riding area). So you can see the opportunities are endless.
The only way you can find these spots is to take the time and search them out. There is a lot of country here, so this isn’t going to happen during a two-week vacation time. That’s what makes Island Park so great. You can ride for years only to find a new area if you turn left instead of right during the course of a ride. And we love to explore. We’re always looking for new places where we can play in untracked powder. The true challenge isn’t finding these places…but remembering all the places we’ve found in the past.
In Part 1 of this three part series, we described three types of riding opportunities in Island Park—trees, trails and terrain. We mentioned that the trees and trails can be ridden when weather conditions are not as favorable and visibility is limited. But when you have a clear blue day with fresh powder, only a fool would pass on an opportunity to ride the steep and deep.