A Fairly Well-Kept Secret

Not big and flashy, but definitely fun

Published in the February 2013 Issue White Out & Wide Open—The Blog

When there is not one but two juggernaut snowmobile riding areas—Island Park, ID, and West Yellowstone, MT—in the neighborhood, it’s easy to miss a lesser known area just down the road, or lesser known trail, as the case may be.

The Big Hole Mountains are a geologic feature many sledders whiz by on U.S. Highway 20 (or Idaho Highway 33 through the Teton Valley) as they head north to the more famous Island Park and West Yellowstone riding areas.

Even we here at SnoWest Magazine might be a little guilty of that. Heck, the Big Hole Mountains are even in our backyard and one of the closest riding areas to our office. We have snowmobiled in the Big Holes numerous times, but we’ll admit we tend to choose riding in Island Park and West Yellowstone.

The mountains are a little taller in the Island Park/West Yellowstone area, the snow is a little deeper and there is more country to explore, but in all those categories, the differences between the upper reaches of southeast Idaho near Montana and Wyoming and the Big Holes are really fairly minimal.

To the passer-by (at least on the west side of the range), the Big Hole Mountains are a little deceiving. They don’t really look that impressive, that is, compared to other mountain ranges in eastern Idaho. They look a little more stout if you’re travelling on Highway 33 through the Teton Valley and looking west. But then again, take the same highway and look east and you’ve got the Tetons staring you in the face.

It’s not until you actually leave the highway and ride in the Big Holes that you appreciate them.

Rising Up From Farmland

The Big Hole Mountains are pretty much surrounded by farmland on the west and north sides and by the higher elevation Teton Valley on the east. The mountains gradually rise up from the farmland on the north and west sides, gaining elevation from the northwest to the southeast.

The mountains are bordered by several highways: U.S. Highway 26 (and the Snake River) on the south, U.S. Highway 20 on the west and Idaho Highway 33 on the east. Idaho Highway 31 snakes through on the mountains’ southeast flank, basically creating a dividing line of sorts between the Big Holes and the Snake River Range. All this combines to create a somewhat compact riding area.

Highway 31 climbs up and over Pine Creek Pass (elevation 6,779 feet), which has a small parking area where those looking for a non-groomed trail experience unload to ride. The only snotel site in the Big Holes (Pine Creek Pass, 6,720 feet) is just south of the highway pass.

All of the groomed trails—340 miles in all—are on the northwest side of the mountains and provide plenty of access to play areas, hillclimbing and boondocking. About three years ago the trail system was extended to the north out of the Teton Valley to connect with the Island Park trail system with its 500 miles of groomed trails. That trail basically heads east out of the Big Hole Mountains along Packsaddle Creek, drops down into rangeland as you head east toward Tetonia along Packsaddle Road in Teton County, crossing the Teton River along the way. The trail then turns north to Tetonia and picks up the old railroad bed, which as been turned into a trail open to snowmobiles in the winter. The trail passes just to the west of Tetonia on its way north, eventually crossing Bitch Creek on a new trestle that allows the Big Hole snowmobile trail system to connect with the Island Park trails. From the trestle, the trail follows the Conant-Fall River Road to the Jackass Loop Trail. It’s about six miles from the trestle to junction of the Conant-Fall River trail meets the Jackass Loop.

Not only does the Bitch Creek trestle provide access to Island Park’s trail system, but also West Yellowstone’s trails, which interconnect with Island Park trails in several locations. So if you’re looking for a monster trail ride, this is your ticket.

Hanging In The Big Holes

Or if you are content with hanging in the Big Holes, there’s plenty of terrain to tackle. You can access that terrain from a number of trailheads/parking areas scattered all over the flanks of the Big Holes, which cover parts of three eastern Idaho counties: Teton, Madison and Bonneville. On good snow years you can even ride from the towns of Rexburg or Driggs, which have groomed snowmobile trails to the mountains. Most riders, though, park closer to the mountains at one of the trailheads.

One of the most popular destinations in the Big Holes is Red Butte (elevation 8,108 feet) and Thousand Springs, popular because it’s a great hillclimbing area with plenty of off-trail riding and boondocking through the trees and drainages. Along the windswept ridge that leads to Red Butte you get some amazing 360-degree views of the Big Holes and beyond.

That includes the tallest peak in the Big Holes, 9,016-foot Garns Mountain to the east; Temple Peak (8,219 feet) to the southeast; Hell Hole Canyon to the south; and the Thousand Springs valley to the north and east. You can also see acres and acres of farmland in the distance when you look northwest and south. It is one of the best vantage points in the Big Holes. Some might argue that point if you were riding on the east side of the Big Holes with the Grand Tetons across the Teton Valley.

On a recent ride in the Big Holes--in mid December--we rode from the Clements parking area to Red Butte. It’s a 17-mile jaunt from that trailhead to Red Butte. We’ve made the ride on several occasions in all kinds of snow and trail conditions. The last few miles are on an ungroomed forest service road that can get pretty interesting at times (read: big moguls and an off-camber hillside in one part) but fun to ride. While it’s not an extremely technical ride, it’s not a sit-on-your-butt ride either. You gain about 900 feet from the bathrooms to the ridge leading to Red Butte. So from where we parked, at about 5900 feet, we gained about 2100 feet. That was the difference between a few inches in the parking area to several feet up near Red Butte.

A popular ride is to start on the west side of the Big Holes and ride over to Green Canyon Hot Springs and soak and swim at the hot springs. You can park your sleds at the resort.

One loop we’d like to try is a new groomed path that leaves and returns to the trail that connects with the Island Park trail system. About three miles south of the Bitch Creek trestle, the trail—labeled the Jackpine Loop—heads east toward the Idaho/Wyoming border, actually crosses into Wyoming into the mountains along the west edge of the state and then loops back to the main trail, coming in about a mile from where it leaves the main trail.

There are dozens of forest service roads--groomed and ungroomed--you can explore. We’ve overlooked Kelly Canyon Ski Resort and Heise Hot Springs, we’ve boondocked through thick stands of trees and down into and out of mild to seriously challenging drainages and climbed all sorts of hills. Rarely has it been what we would consider “crowded” with other sledders.

Some might argue the Big Hole Mountains don’t have the “sex appeal” of more famous riding areas. Perhaps, but the Big Holes definitely have an appeal all their own.

And they’re in our backyard.

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