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Feasting On Snow

Snowmobilers won't go hungry here

Published online: Dec 12, 2007 Feature Steve Janes
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If you truly want to get the flavor of an area, ride with the locals. On every ridge top or meadow you stop you will be treated with a good old fashion cowboy story about a previous snowmobile ride, hunting trip or camping experience. And as you bust through the powder, climbing from one ridge to the next, you will gain an appreciate of the area that will add yet another dimension to your riding experience.

Nowhere is this more true than in Star Valley, WY.

This past winter we spent some time with the locals, including Darrin Brown at Robinson Motors (both the Polaris and GMC dealer). Brown gathered a small group of the locals-mainly a few select members of his snowmobile hillclimb team-to take us back into some of the choice riding areas. Along the way, Brown and his crew offered unique insights to the riding opportunities and the rich history of the area.

Star Valley

Snuggled between the Salt River mountain range of western Wyoming and the Webster mountain range of eastern Idaho, Star Valley represents a 46-mile corridor of Highway 89 running north and south that is pretty much isolated from the rest of the world.

It's an out-of-the-way string of communities that hug the western Wyoming border, yet in many ways have more of a connection with Idaho. Settled by Mormon pioneers, the area still maintains a rich history in conservative family values.

However, just recently, as the ever-popular Jackson Hole area spills over in development, people are starting to discover the quiet beauty of this valley and more developers are starting to zero in on opportunities for growth.

But with the name of "Star" Valley, one would think that the 10 small communities along this corridor (Afton with a population of about 2,000 is the largest . and the only one that can readily be found on a census report), must represent a spectacular celestial view at night. Even though the stars do appear brighter when there's no competition for light from residential growth, the name Star Valley is actually a derivative from the title "Starvation Valley" (or Starve Valley), due to the harsh winters the early settlers experienced when the land became covered in several feet of snow.

Although it is true today that the area receives an abundance of white fluff lasting usually from mid November through March in the valley and October through May in the mountains, those who frolic in winter activities are anything but starved for opportunities.

The south end of Star Valley begins where the two mountain ranges seem to pinch together near Salt Pass just before Highway 89 dumps into southeastern Idaho. Here Salt Creek begins to collect the water of all the various creeks flowing into the valley to create the Salt River. The Salt River flows north down the valley and continues to grow in volume until it reaches Palisades Reservoir near Alpine on the north end of the valley. (The Salt River does become a little shy, for most of the year, just south of Afton and disappears into the ground for a couple of miles before it resurfaces just north of the town through a series of springs.)

Located on this southern end of the valley is the Smith Fork snowmobile trailhead. Parking is located on Highway 89 and provides easy access to an extensive network of groomed trails that tie in Pinedale, Big Piney and Kemmerer. Along with the nearly 300 miles of groomed trails are hundreds of miles of forest service roads, plus some of the West's best boondocking and hillclimbing areas. The only drawback to this vast area of snowmobiling opportunities is the lack of trailside services.

To the east of Star Valley, where the small family farms and ranches butt up against the base of the mountains, lies the Bridger-Teton National Forest. On the west, where the valley snuggles next to the Idaho border, lies the Caribou National Forest.

Snowmobilers have the option of riding east into the rugged bowls and steep slopes or riding west through rolling hills laced with aspen trees and pines. Those who visit Star Valley usually opt for the east side, where the terrain begs for horsepower. However, many locals will opt for the west, up what is known as Big Ridge, where the riding might not be quite as challenging, but the opportunities to explore are plentiful without the severe presence of avalanche.

The northern region of the valley features an area well-known to SnoWest readers-Alpine, which has been recognized as one of the top 15 snowmobile destinations in the West.

Alpine is situated on the southeastern shore of Palisades Reservoir, where the Salt River, Snake River and Greys River emerge. Although listed on the 2000 census as less populated than Afton, this small community has been progressively growing during the past decade.

Alpine not only features a trail system that ties into the Smith Fork system to the south, but also one that heads west into the eastern Idaho trail system, connecting another couple of hundred miles of groomed trails and countless miles of open riding. It is this system that runs past Caribou Mountain, a famous gold rush area in the 1870s.

Snowmobilers can literally ride from town, with the trail system winding its way through Alpine to connect the east and west trails.

Easy Access

For the locals, you literally hop on your sled and ride from your home if you so desire, although some will trailer to the trailheads to save a little wear and tear on carbides and a few ounces of gas. But for those who come in from outside the valley, sometimes a little local knowledge of terrain and the layout of the land could be useful every now and them.

Here are some of the more popular points of access starting on the north end and working south.

Greys River-The parking area is about a mile off Highway 89 just south of crossing the bridge over the Snake River entering Alpine. This is a fairly large parking area that can accommodate a busy weekend of snowmobilers.

The trailhead is right at the parking lot on the Greys River Road. On the trail map, it shows trail A heading east out of Alpine and connecting with trails C, D and E. This trail was built as a very popular summer route so the trail is plenty wide and straight as it follows the Greys River. Keep a close lookout for moose . they sometimes don't realize there are other creatures using the trail.

About five miles down the trail you get to the Squaw Creek trail (C) which takes you up into some fun play areas before reconnecting to the Greys River trail. About eight miles from the trailhead you come to where the Little Greys River comes into the Greys. This is where trail D follows the Little Greys and loops back with itself.

Finally, continuing southeast from the trailhead 28 miles you come to the Box Y Guest Ranch, the only facility along the trail system for food and gas. Just before you get to the Box Y, trail E heads up Blind Bull Creek and accesses the Blind Bull area, which is a popular riding destination from the Pinedale side of the range.

The trailhead at Alpine sits at about 5,700 feet in elevation. Following the Greys River, the elevation only climbs to about 6,550 at the Box Y. But the ridges and mountain tops along the way reach over 10,000 feet and tend to attract a lot of snow.

McCoy Creek-About five miles south of Alpine is where the McCoy Creek trail that comes in from eastern Idaho crosses the Salt River and begins to parallel the road to Alpine. Here there is a small parking area where you can leave the plowed road and head up toward Caribou.

You will need an eastern Idaho trail map to see where all these trails go . and services on this system are also extremely limited so plan accordingly. Most of the riding in this area is found between 6,000 and 8,000 feet.

Freedom-About 13 miles south of Alpine you come to the small town of Freedom. Here the locals ride west accessing the back side of Caribou and other local favorite destinations. There are no groomed trails and no trail maps. But with local knowledge and lots of imagination, the riding can be fantastic.

Strawberry Reservior-Just past Thayne on Highway 89 you turn to the east to go to a small town called Bedford. As you work you way through the farms and ranches, you get to the mouth of a canyon at Strawberry Creek where there is a small substation power plant and an even smaller parking lot. This is the trailhead that takes you up Strawberry Creek and into some rugged terrain where hillclimbing and avalanches tend to go hand-in-hand.

As you follow forest service access roads, you can work you way over to Cabin Creek (elevation 10,236), where you can also drop down Meadow Creek and come out near the Box Y, about a 20-mile trek.

Willow Creek-About seven miles south of the Strawberry substation parking lot is the Willow Creek parking area at Tupperville. Again, this is a small parking area at the mouth of a canyon that provides a quick access up to some steep terrain. The trail up Willow Creek really gets hammered during the winter. But things open up after five or six miles and from there you can pretty much pick your own trails.

The locals pick their way across the top to tie into the trail system via Cabin Creek. But you better know where your going . there's a few places that can be a bugger getting out of.

Grover-Actually, this is another one of your small towns in the valley . but locals park on the side of the road and ride up Phillips Creek and over to Willow Creek on a forest service road that connects to Tupperville.

All along the road there are various canyons that have roads leading in . but they don't get you very far. However, it's a fun, friendly place to take the family without getting too far away from the valley.

This is also the site of the annual Afton Snowmobile Hillclimb that attracts top snowmobile racers from across the West.

Auburn-Another small town just off Highway 89, Auburn is another decent access place to the country to the west. Again, there are no groomed trails; just a series of forest service roads that lead up into a vast area of open riding opportunities.

Old Mill Cabins-Just south of Afton, about a mile off of Highway 89, are the Old Mill Cabins. These cabins can be rented and are located in a mouth of a canyon where the are some good riding areas close by, as well as access to the upper country just north of Red Top Mountain and over to Cottonwood Lake.

Cottonwood-Just south of Smoot is another small parking area at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon. The ungroomed trail heads up to Cottonwood Lake and then opens up to Commissary Ridge where it ties into the Smith Fork trail system.

Smith Fork-On the south end of the valley, about 50 miles from Alpine and 15 miles from Afton, a large parking area is located on Highway 89 just before you get to the top of Salt Pass. Here, the groomed trail identified on the map as the south end of A, follows the Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail to Smith Fork.

Trail B coming up from Kemmerer, will take you 50 miles south to another series of trails in this vast system. There is food and gas at the Pine Creek Ski Area out of Cokeville . and these folks welcome snowmobilers to their ski resort.

If you stay on trail A, it works its way past Buckskin Knoll to Commissary Ridge. From there, the trail comes to a T near Poison Meadow. If you turn north, you can continue the 50-mile route to the Box Y and then on to Alpine. If you turn south, you can continue on to LaBarge or Big Piney on trail H (there are several winter wildlife ranges here with some travel restrictions). If this represents just too many options, you can take your time at Poison Meadows warming hut and regroup.

Side Notes

Star Valley is a unique area rich in history and tradition. Although the people are friendly, not all have warmed up to the recent growth in development. A pointed statement on a bumper sticker tells the underlining sentiments of the locals: "Welcome to Wyoming . Now take a Wolf and go home!"

But that doesn't mean that the residents are not proud of their communities.

Afton boasts of several significant features. First, the world's largest elk horn arch, spanning 75 feet across all four lanes of Highway 89, that consists of more than 3,000 elk antlers and weighing in at about 15 tons.

Second, Afton has the world's largest (only two other known ones in the world) cold water geyser.  This "periodic spring" provides the town with its drinking water and cycles on and off at 12-18 minute intervals for most of the year. (During the spring runoff, the geyser flows continually due to increased water supply from melting snow pack.)

Finally, Star Valley is pretty proud of its native Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner, who is also an avid snowmobiler. Gardner defeated the unbeatable Aleksandr Karelin in the 2000 Olympic Games at Sydney, Australia in what has become known as the "miracle on the mat."

And if that's not enough to leave an impression of this area on you, then throw in the trivia that Butch Cassidy and his gang had a camp in Star Valley where they laid low after the 1896 bank robbery at Montpelier, ID.

 

Star Valley

Elevation 6,000-10,000 feet

Snowfall 125-150 inches

Miles of Groomed Trails 283 miles

Full-Service Town Afton (pop. 7,821), Alpine (789)

Nearest Airport Jackson Hole (46 miles)

Getting Started Star Valley (800) 426-8833 or www.starvalley.com

Getting There Star Valley is along the western edge of Wyoming and can be access from U.S. Highway 89 from the north and south. 

Getting Around Contact Star Valley (website above) for snowmobile rental locations in the valley.

Bedding Down and Eating Out With Alpine on the north end and Afton near the south end, you find most of your lodging and restaurants located in these two small towns.

Since there isn't what you would consider a huge draw on tourism, rooms can be somewhat limited so you do want to make reservations in advance.