March 24, 2018

Makin' The Loop

muley-in-velvetIn an effort to help you find some of the places of beauty here in Island Park, we continue our Makin’ The Loop series. This week’s loop has spectacular views and somewhat less dirt road than last week’s installment.

For lack of a better name, I’m going to call this loop the Black Canyon Loop. Start at Macks Inn and travel east on the south Big Springs Loop road. Go about 3 miles east (past the old railroad bed about 1/2 a mile) to the sign that says Black Canyon. Take the Black Canyon road to the south and stay on it (don’t be confused by the fish creek loop which turns off to the right. Stay on Black Canyon.)

The Black Canyon road will climb more than a thousand feet above Island Park giving you spectacular views of the surrounding area. Eventually the road will turn to the south and follow the ridge southward. Within a few miles, pavement magically appears and you will be on a paved road all the way to Warm River (about 40 – 45 miles.)

Cross Warm River and turn northward up past Bear Gulch, Mesa Falls, Etc. That’s old highway 191 and will eventually connect to highway 20 which will lead you northward back to Macks Inn. The whole trip is about 100 – 120 miles and probably 80 of those miles are paved.

Very few people travel the Black Canyon portion of the loop, and it’s a shame. Because some of the best views of Island Park are to be found on this loop. Go in the evening and you will be rewarded by the best sunset views anywhere in Island Park. The Black Canyon portion is remote, so have a good spare tire, water, food and plenty of gas. Also, you’re going to want your camera.

See you out there makin’ the loop!

Makin' The Loop

hell-roaring-creekSomewhere inside me is a frustrated explorer. I have an insatiable need to know what’s around the next bend in the river. It’s not enough to know where it comes out. I want to see it for myself. It’s been that way since moving to Island Park a few years ago. I have been on a quest. I want to drive every road, explore every trail, fish every hole, stand on every mountain top. And not only that, I want to do it both winter and summer.

If you feel that, you’ll appreciate the coming stories about things to see and do while you’re here — things that most people will never see and do. These will be day trips. Places to go that yield unparalleled beauty. Places you can go without re-tracing your steps.

Today I’d like to take you on a journey through the Centennial Mountains. The loop starts in Island Park, on the Henry’s Lake flats. You take the Redrock road (just south of the Henry’s Lake outlet. Just keep heading West on that road. About 50 – 60 miles later, you’ll run into I-15. Turn South to Spencer and then East to Kilgore and Island Park. You’ll re-enter Island Park through Shotgun.

Yes, this is a dirt road. Yes, it’s rutted and wash-boardy. Yes it’s remote. But this is the most spectacular view of Sawtelle, Jefferson, and the rest of the Centennials you will ever have. You will see them from all four sides and you will be amazed at just how spectacular they are. Take a picnic and stop at Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge and see the waterfowl. Or stop in Spencer for some opal hunting. Or maybe you prefer a stop in Kilgore for a big Idaho-sized burger and fries.

If you don’t stop, the trip will take a couple or three hours. That includes slowing down and not beating yourself and your car on the dirt roads. There are no services between Island Park and Lima, Montana (on I-15) and depending on the time of day or the time of year, there may not be services anywhere on the route, so plan accordingly. This is a summer-only trip, as the roads are not plowed. If you go in the fall, be darn sure the weather will be good all day. You don’t want to be one of those stranded people you read about on the internet.

Take this drive and let me know what you think. It’s one of my favorites. See you on the road!

Hiking Season In Full Swing

hikerAs the mosquito season draws to a close, and the snow has largely gone from the highlands, the hiking season is fully upon us. There are beautiful vistas to be seen, wildlife to enjoy, geological formations to marvel at and plenty of clean air to breathe.

Last year near the top of two top, I encountered a heavily-armed (with two big cans of bear spray) hiker from Oregon. He had started up at the Canadian border and was making his way South, walking every inch of the divide. He had some great stories to tell and his camera was filled with those once-in-a-lifetime photos. I immediately thought of what he would have missed had he spent the summer on the golf course, or in front of the TV.

While a GPS is handy to have when hiking around Island Park, I wouldn’t bother with maps unless you’re way into it. On most trails you can see where you’re going, and finding your way back is usually no problem (unless you start bushwhacking through the forest which is highly not recommended.) If you stay on the trails, the likelihood is low that you’ll get lost. The people that have problems are the ones taking short cuts.

All you need to hike in Island Park are sturdy shoes and clothes, a small rucksack for some food and water, a small first aid / survival kit, a GPS (optional,) bear bells (small bells you hang on your pack to allow bears enough notice you’re coming to get out of your way,) and some bear spray (in case they ignore the bells.) Finally, of course, it would be silly to hike without your camera.

If You are one of those people who is absolutely not going out without a map, topo maps are available at the ranger station in Ashton and the one in Island Park. I admit to having a full set of Island Park topos, but I will say I got them after I had hiked the area, so I could see where I was. That’s usually the way I do things.

Flower, Weed, Or Herb?

mulleinThis is the flower season here in Island Park. We lost many of the Sego Lillies in the rains of June, but many of the wildflowers are literally carpeting the ground. An ever-changing landscape of blue, purple, yellow, white, and red flowers, all combine to bring beauty and variety to landscape here.

But even more than beauty, did you know that many of our local plants are well-known for their medicinal properties? Mullein, with its beautiful stalk of yellow flowers, is widely considered to be among the best remedies there is for earache. Especially when you combine it with calendula (also known as around here as coneflower.) The mullein soothes the ear while the calendula kills the infection. There’s plenty of red clover growing in Island Park. Did you know a tea of the flowers is very helpful with “female” problems (especially those related to menopause?)

Or there’s the little yellow arnica flowers you see everywhere. The flowers are especially helpful in healing wounds and bruises. Or we see a lot of yarrow. Yarrow grows everywhere up here and has been used by settlers for years to stop bleeding (even profuse bleeding.) Then there’s chamomile. A tea of chamomile leaves and flowers will settle an upset stomach faster than anything else you can do. And we can’t forget willow. The bark of all those willows you see growing along the creeks and lowlands are chock full of salicyns (the precursor to salicylic acid that is the active ingredient in aspirin.) Willow bark makes a great pain reliever.

So when you drive around in Island Park, captivated by the beauty of what you see, remember, our flora is more than just another pretty face. There is healing in these mountains. Physical healing as well as the spiritual healing that most people come for. I hope, as you look at the local flowers, you’ll pause and say, “I wonder what that one’s good for?” Doing so will bring your appreciation for all of these creations to a whole new level.

Gem State Indeed

geodeThere’s a reason Idaho is called the “Gem State.” A large portion of the semi-precious gemstones (meaning colored stones, not diamonds, which are precious stones) come from the this area of the rocky mountains. Idaho has long been known for its jasper, agate, quartz and of course the garnets, which are the best in the world. But did you know that it’s also known for its opals, which are also world renowned?

Over in Spencer (just a few minutes from Island Park if you continue west on the “shotgun” road) is one of the biggest and most productive opal mines in the world. For a great mining experience, the folks in Spencer will give you a pick, a bucket and send you out in search of beautiful opals. This is a fun, inexpensive way to spend an afternoon, and I haven’t talked to anyone who didn’t find opals on their visit to the Spencer Opal Mine. (For the less intrepid among us, you can just buy cut and polished opals at the mine if you don’t want to get your hands dirty.)

My wife prefers hunting opals, but I like garnets. As you may or may not know, garnets come in a geode. A geode is basically a rock that’s like a hollow egg. When you break open the geode, the entire interior surface is lined with beautiful red garnets. All you have to do to enjoy gemstones is have them cut and polished.

If, like me, you prefer to not to go over to Spencer but would like to stay right here in Island Park, there is some great garnet hunting to be had. The hills around Henry’s Lake contain thousands of garnet-filled geodes. They’re easy to spot, once you get the hang of it, and they are a joy to discover. If you want to do some rock hunting here in Island Park, you’ll want to get a pocket field guide so you know what you’re looking for. You’ll also want to wear sturdy shoes and clothing as the hillsides are very brushy. You’ll need a rock hammer, a rucksack, and food and water.

You needn’t travel far from the road to be successful in your hunt, so don’t make yourself crazy. You’ve been driving past thousands of garnet-bearing geodes every time you come to Island Park. You just need to get out of your car and get looking. Happy hunting!

John Sack's Cabin Now Open

john-sack-cabinIf you’ve been to Big Springs to feed the fish, you have seen the cute little cabin that sits on the east side of the spring. It was built by John Sack around the turn of the last century and is almost one of the icons of Island Park.

Sack was a cabinet and furniture maker who was one of the early settlers of Island Park. His cabin has been preserved just as it was in the good old days and is now a museum of sorts for that time period. Sack, being a vertically challenged individual (4′ 11″,) built everything to fit himself, so the cabin is almost like a doll house (with a manly feel, of course.) The house looks like Sack just walked out this morning, leaving it exactly as it was.

If you would like to step back 100 years in time, turn east at Macks Inn on the Big Springs Road and come between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. any day. There is no charge to tour the cabin but be aware that it is donations from visitors that keeps the project going, so please be generous. In case you’re wondering (like I always am) photography IS allowed, so please bring your camera, but remember to be courteous to other visitors when it comes to using your flash (if you can take your photos without a flash, that’s even better.)

See you there!

Scenic Float Trips

river-floatOne of the most enjoyable ways to see Island Park is via a scenic float trip on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. Macks Inn offers turn-key trips, where they will take you up by Big Springs and drop you off in one of their many flat-bottomed john boats, canoes or even rubber rafts. The trip includes everything you might need from paddles and oars to life jackets. All you to need to provide is your fishing rod and camera.

This is not a white-water trip, by any means. It is a slow, meandering trip through some of the most beautiful country in Island Park. Many people make multiple stops along the way to fish, take pictures and just generally breathe the good mountain air.

On a recent trip down the river we saw elk, moose, deer, a bald eagle and innumerable other small animals and birds. There’s something wild and majestic about floating along in the peace and solitude of the river and passing a moose feeding right there next to you. That’s one of those things you never forget.

To contact Macks Inn and reserve a boat (yes, you’re going to need a reservation) you can call them at 208-558-7272. They’ll get you fixed up with everything you need at one low price. If you’re coming to Island Park, don’t miss the opportunity to float the mighty Snake River. It will be one of the highlights of your vacation. No doubt about it.

Confessions Of A 'Shroom Hunter

morelFor the last 40 plus years I have been a dedicated mushroom hunter. I suppose there may be better places to look for mushrooms than Island Park, but I don’t know of them. This is where I’ve lived and this is where I go hunting.

Mushrooms need the right circumstances to grow: shade, decaying logs, plenty of rain and mild temperatures. We’ve had all of those lately. For the last 16 days in a row it has been cloudy, rainy and generally perfect conditions for mushrooms.

The snootier mushroom hunter looks for morel mushrooms. They’re rare, the taste is incomparable, they don’t grow just anywhere and they are the holy grail of mushrooms. To say I like them would be an understatement. I never pass them by, of course. But I don’t get tunnel vision and think they’re the only thing worth eating, either.

There are ten to fifteen different types of edible mushrooms in Island Park (probably more than that, but there are at least that many that I’m aware of.) All of them taste good and all of them have their own flavor profile. Some go better in spaghetti, some are good in salads and some are best just fried in a little (or a lot of) butter. But one thing is certain, no matter how you use them, they are all a delightful addition to your diet.

If you would like to go mushroom hunting in Island Park, be sure you go with someone who knows the local ‘shrooms. Some are heavenly and some (that look just like them) are poisonous. So you have to be careful. But if you can find a mentor, and you like mushrooms, within a few short minutes from any campground, you can be in fungus heaven. Bring your gear and we’ll see you in the woods.

Kite Boarding Takes Over Island Park

kiteWhile it’s true that all but the hardest core of the snowmobilers have started their annual migration away from Mecca, there is another group that is just getting going — the kite boarders.  I don’t know if you’ve seen these guys, but they are certifiably crazy.

Sure snowmobilers blast down the trails at 70 plus miles and hour.  Sure they take turns too fast and go where they ought not, from time to time.  But one thing separates them from the kite boarders: they have brakes.

Kite boarders have no such thing.  They also blast across (or sometimes above) the snow at speeds approaching mach 9 with no brakes (as near as I can tell,) no steering to speak of, and no apparent way to save their own lives.

For the uninitiated, kite boarders strap on a snow board, then attach themselves to a parachute.  Sailing upwind (across the wind, actually) they are able to reach speeds well in excess of the wind velocity.  What happens if they hit a bump?  They’re airborne  –  sometimes for hundreds of feet (I think that may be some of the “fun” of kite boarding.)

The thing I haven’t figured out is what you do when you want to stop.  I mean, there’s still a parachute out there dragging you across the snow.  Maybe it’s like riding a tiger.  You don’t ride ’til you get tired, you ride ’til the tiger gets tired.  I guess when the wind stops blowing, you can reel in the parachute and go home.  Let’s see.  In Island Park, that would be about July.

For A Little More Exercise. . .

nordic-skiingWe seem to always report on snowmobiling as if that were the only thing happening in Island Park in the winter.  And while it certainly is the main attraction, there is plenty more to do than just blast across the snow at mach 6 with your hair on fire.

For those who enjoy the tranquility of nature, Harriman State Park (the old Railroad Ranch) has more than 30 miles of groomed nordic ski trails.  With tracks set for both skate-skiing and diagonal striders, there’s something for everyone.  Trails include mostly flat terrain around the lake to more challenging trails.  Loops range from a few kilometers to tens of kilometers.

There are also x-c ski trails set along the river by Ponds Lodge.  While not as quiet and serene as Harriman, the scenery is equally spectacular.  I see families using the Ponds Lodge trails regularly, so even though I haven’t personally tried them out (I’m a snowmobiler) I know they must be family friendly (as are those in Harriman.)

So if you get a hankering deep down in your soul to do something a little more green this winter, strap on a pair of skinny skis and get out there and get a little more exercise.  It not only keeps you warm, it’s environmentally friendly, heart healthy, and it’s something everyone should try –  at least once!

What Is That Thing?

sawtelle4-3252If you’ve been to Island Park, you’ve noticed the “big ball” up on top of Sawtelle Peak.  If you’ve asked yourself (or others) exactly what it is, I’d say you’re about average.  The problem is, very few people know exactly what it is.  There are no indications on the door.  No signs telling you what it is — only onerous warnings to stay clear under penalty of the government.

I’ve heard people explaining to their friends that it’s part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line of defense radar.  I’ve heard it’s a listening post, where the government eavesdrops on cell phone conversations (interesting, since it predates cell phones by several decades.)   I’ve heard it’s a secret government laboratory where they do experiments many stories underground and use the radar dome to beam results to other secret locations in the world.  Finally, the funniest one.  I heard someone telling a flatlander that it was a site the government used to contact UFO’s.  She went on to say that UFO’s land on top of Sawtelle all the time.


So what is it really?  At the risk of a big disappointment to many, I’ll come clean.  It’s a remote FAA radar site used by Billings, Boise, and Salt Lake City to track aircraft movement across the northern tier of states (you didn’t think they could see planes in Montana from Salt Lake, did you?)  If you’ve ever flown over the area from St. George, Utah to the Canadian border and from Minot, North Dakota to Pendleton, Oregon your plane was tracked by our radar.

Sorry if I’ve let the wind out of your sails.  FAA radar isn’t nearly as impressive as aliens from outer space.  But hey, if you can keep a secret, a friend of a friend told me she was up there late one night when the sky lit up with UFO’s tracking inbound to the U.S. government contact portal on Sawtelle Peak.  Hey.  Seriously.  It could happen.

Yeah, right.

Don't Wait For Summer

winter-sunA lot of people think the best time to visit Island Park is in the summer.  While the summer is indeed beautiful (especially in the spring time with all the flowers,) the beauty of the winter is equally stunning.  You don’t have to be a snowmobiler or skier to have fun here in the winter.  You can bring sleds, or tubes, or garbage bags to fill with snow and slide on.  You can build snowmen.  You can make snow angels.  You can visit Yellowstone in a heated snow coach (not to be missed.)  You can just go on a photographic junket.  Or you can rent a snowmobile.  Or you can . . . well, you get the idea.  There is plenty to do here for everyone.  Rentals are available at Macks Inn, the pines, Island Park Village, and a host of private cabins.  As you can see from this photo, this is a great time to visit Island Park.  Dont’ wait for summer.

SHHHH!!! It's A Secret

kids-raceI got a call the other day from a friend I hadn’t talked to in awhile.  He indicated he was coming to Island Park to go snowmobiling with some friends from  –  well, let’s just say another state (known for producing the world’s best carrot snappers.)  There would be four of them on high-powered, back-country sleds.  They wanted to know the very best, top-secret spots to go riding.

Now, here’s the dilemma:  I like this guy (I don’t know his friends so I can’t vouch for them but I like him) and I’d like to help him out.  But what do you really do in a situation like this?   Do you roll over and give them the top-secret, most favored spots (you want them to think — when they’re done — that you know a good spot when you ride on it) or do you give them the good spots, but not the best spots?

This is an age-old question.  Fishermen have been dealing with it for years:

“Hey, Bob.  That’s a beauty.  Where’d you catch him?”

“Oh, on the Henry’s.”

“Really?  Where at?”

“Oh, you know.  Kind of down there by the big rock.”

Yeah right.  Even your best friends will never know where you caught that lunker.  And they won’t be bummed you didn’t dish with the info.  They know some things are sacred.  You might tell them enough to get them within a couple of miles.  The rest is up to them.

So there’s my answer.  As in fishing, little white lies (or minor mis-directs) are part and parcel of the culture.  Were I to give away the location of my favorite spot, I’d be breaching a cultural protocol that has existed for years.  Heck, I’d probably have my snowmobile permit revoked — or worse.

So I did it.  I got my friends within a few miles.  The rest was up to them.  Do I feel good about it?  Of course.  I’m an upholder of the traditions of my fathers and their fathers before them.  I can only hope my sons will honor those venerated traditions the same as I have.  So when somebody asks you for your favorite riding spots remember, “Shhh!  It’s a secret.”

Henry's Lake Airport

henrys-lakeOkay.  Airport might be too strong a word.  Airstrip is probably more like it.  But the fact is the grass strip at Henry’s Lake (on the North end of Island Park) is in good condition and a great starter-strip for those looking to make a foray in back-country flying in Idaho.

The runway runs East and West (note: the North / South runway is closed due to serious deterioration, so use the East / West runway) and has a much easier approach than many back-country strips.   Unlike many back-country strips that are only suitable for supercubs and 180 / 206 type aircraft, the Henry’s Lake strip is regularly used by a wide variety of aircraft, from 172 / 182 styles to warriors and bonanzas.

If you’ve been looking for a great place to launch a sightseeing trip to Yellowstone National Park, Henry’s Lake is the place you’ve been looking for.  The airstrip is situated about 10 nautical miles from the boundary to the park and Old Faithful and the rest of the attractions are less than 10 minutes away.  If you will need fuel, etc., West Yellowstone is just over the hill and gas is available May to October.  Like Henry’s Lake airport, West Yellowstone airport is closed in winter.

If you plan to fly in, come early in the day.  Density altitudes on a hot summer afternoon approach 11,000 feet.  Even in the morning density altitudes may be 7,500 feet, so if you haven’t flown much in the mountains pack light and don’t try to get out at gross until you see how your airplane functions at this type of altitude.

Flying into Island Park is a great way to enjoy the scenery from a vantage point most people will never know.  If you are an experienced pilot, give Henry’s Lake Strip a try.  You’ll be glad you did.  And I predict you’ll make return trips as often as possible.  See you there.