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.
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
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
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
Snowmobilers can literally ride from town, with the trail
system winding its way through Alpine to connect the east and west trails.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.)
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,
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.
Miles of Groomed
Trails 283 miles
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