Weather is a factor that you have to take into consideration when you are full timing. The fact that you are mobile is both an advantage and a disadvantage. As we have made our way through the Mid-West and now into the western states, it has been unusually hot for this time of year. We extended our stay in Minnesota hoping that the temperatures would moderate but that was not to be. As a result, we decided to move more rapidly than we normally would through North Dakota and Montana stopping only to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park for a few days. When we left the park, we made one overnight stop in Billings, MT because the following day the temperature was going to be 107 degrees. The residents there were surprised that it was so hot in June. One advantage that we have is that we can be flexible when we travel and where we go. Given the temperatures, we chose to move to higher elevations where it was cooler.
Island Park, ID is about 20 miles south of West Yellowstone, MT and it is on the west side of the Teton Range. It is also 6,293 ft. above sea level and the weather is much cooler there. David and I had been to both Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park several times so we decided to explore this part of Idaho.
We found a great boondocking spot next to a stand of aspen trees and we had great views of the mountains. Another reason that we were excited to come here was because our friends, Dennis and Wendy, were camped nearby. We met them three years ago on our trek to Alaska and we have kept up with them ever since. We were thrilled to see them again and to share some more adventures together.
Our friends took us to some of their favorite places in the area. We packed a picnic lunch and headed to Mesa Falls Recreation Area which includes the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River watershed and the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. The Upper Mesa Falls and the Lower Mesa Falls are the highlights of this recreation area.
A violent volcanic super-eruption a million years ago fashioned this amazing landscape. Eruptions covered the region with layers of ash that were compressed forming a hard rock called Mesa Falls Rhyolite Tuff. Lava flows followed later and you can still see evidence of the lava along the basalt canyon walls today. Over time the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River has carved a path through the rock canyon. The waterfalls cascade over the tuff ledges into the canyons below. The Upper Falls drop 114 ft. into the canyon below. A mile from the Upper Mesa Falls are the Lower Mesa Falls that are 65 ft. tall. Access to the Upper Mesa Falls is very easy. There is a boardwalk and several observation decks with stunning views of the falls. We felt very lucky because a rainbow hovered above the falls. If you come in the morning, you are more likely to see one.
The Lower Mesa Falls can be viewed from a roadside overlook but you can’t get very close to it unless you hike to them. We hiked the two mile Mesa Falls Nature Trail which led us to a plateau at the top of the Lower Mesa Falls. From this vantage point, we could see the water rushing over the cliff and hear the roar of the mighty waterfall. If you are adventurous, you can hike down and scramble over some rocks to reach the base of the Lower Mesa Falls. We chose to keep to the developed trail. Be sure to bring some bug spray with you for the mosquitoes.
The Big Falls Inn serves as the Visitor Center and is located near the Upper Mesa Falls. The Mesa Power Company built this structure in 1914. It was slated to be the office building for the company. They had plans to construct an electricity producing power plant there but the license for this project never materialized. There are many theories as to why but no one really knows the reason.
Once Yellowstone National Park opened, the Inn became a tourist stop and a hotel for travelers until the 1930s. After that, different proprietors used the property as a restaurant, a dance hall, a meeting hall, and a scout camp. In 1986, the National Forest Service acquired the land and they, along with Harriman State Park, began restoring the Inn to its original condition. Today Big Falls Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At the north end of the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway is Harriman State Park. It sits in the basin of a large caldera caused by a super-eruption of a volcano. Most people are familiar with the one where Old Faithful is but that one is only one of the three large calderas in the greater Yellowstone region. Harriman State Park is in the Yellowstone II caldera and, since it is flat, it is a perfect place for raising cattle.
In the 1800s, a consortium of investors purchased 16,000 acres and set up a private retreat and a cattle ranch on the land. The Guggenheim family was one of the shareholders. In the early 1900s, they sold their shares to Eduard Harriman, the Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad. The number of railroad tycoons associated with the property earned it the name, “Railroad Ranch.” Mr. Harriman died before visiting the property but his widow, Mary, and his children spent summers there. They enjoyed hunting and fishing and Mary loved horseback riding. She spent hours exploring this vast land.
Over the years, the Harrimans bought all of the stocks from the shareholders and owned all of the property. They were friends with conservationist John Muir who was influential in their decision to donate 10,000 acres to the state of Idaho. Conditions of this gift required that the state maintain the property as a wildlife refuge. They also stipulated that it be managed by people who were professionals, i.e., not appointed by the State. This action resulted in the establishment of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1977, Railroad Ranch became Harriman State Park. The park service refurbished the ranch houses and they offer tours of these historic buildings during the summer months. Our docent showed us around Mary Harriman’s cabin, the dining cottage, the Honeymoon Hotel, and other buildings. All were furnished with items that the Harriman family had left behind so you feel like you are taking a trip back in time when you visit them.
This park is very popular with anglers who enjoy fly-fishing in the waters of Henry’s Fork. There are also 22 miles of trails that you can hike, bike, or explore on horseback in the summer. In winter, people come to cross-country ski through this astounding landscape.
We hiked the Meadows Loop trail where we saw horses grazing and lots of wildflowers in bloom. On the ponds, we spotted Trumpeter Swans and pelicans. Near one of the yurts that you can rent, a yellow-bellied marmot came out to find out what we were doing in his “neck of the woods.” We hiked back along the shoreline of Silver Lake and we saw a female moose. She was standing on the far side of the lake eating. We were thrilled to see her and we spent some time watching her.
We had a wonderful time checking out the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. Thankfully the weather was very pleasant. We are grateful to our friends, Dennis and Wendy, for both pointing us to a great boondocking spot and for introducing us to these two beautiful places in Idaho.