Island Park, ID is at 6293 feet above sea level and is the highest town in Idaho. As we noted in a previous post, it was the perfect place to go during the usually hot western U. S. heat wave. Island Park has become a staging area for Yellowstone National Park since is only about a 20 minute-drive to the park entrance. Also making this area popular is the fact that all of the accommodations in the town of West Yellowstone are fully booked. We avoided the extremely crowded Yellowstone and visited some local sites.
Sawtell Peak loomed high above our boondocking site in Island Park, ID. Some neighborly campers encouraged us to drive up there because the views are amazing. David and I set out one afternoon and drove up the 13 mile gravel road to the top of the almost 10,000 ft. high mountain. It took us about 30 minutes to reach the summit. Named for Gilman Sawtell, the man who settled in Island Park in 1868, this peak is in the Centennial Mountain Range. From this vantage point we could see three states: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. We looked down on Henry’s Lake in the valley below and across to the Teton Range and the Pioneer Range. While we were walking around and taking photos, we met a young couple who live in the valley and they told us that it was an exceptionally great day to be there. Normally, they said, you would need a down jacket because temperatures would be about 45° and windy. That day it was a balmy 65°. They said that oftentimes clouds or fog concealed the Teton Range but today it was clear enough to see them. We had a nice conversation with them before making our way back to our camper.
Today there is a long-range radar station atop that serves as a repeater for the FAA and it tracks flights coming to and from Salt Lake City. It also is a part of the surveillance system for the West Coast. The road is only open to the public from June-October. In winter, snow can be up to 25 ft. deep and only authorized vehicles are allowed on the road.
Our neighbors were right about Sawtell Peak and we were glad that we went on the day that we did.
Henry’s Lake is in the Centennial Valley, south of West Yellowstone, MT. It is a small shallow lake that is very popular with fishermen and bird watchers. Like our friend Dennis, they love to catch the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. There are also many migratory birds that frequent the lake throughout the year. We saw trumpeter swans, pelicans, herons, and many other birds on our hike near the lake. Several of the swans were nesting in the restricted wildlife area. Moose are present in the area and our friends saw several near their campsite on the lake. While we did not see any moose there, we did see pronghorns in the flats nearby.
Big Springs and Johnny Sack Cabin
Henry’s Lake provides the headwaters for Henry’s Fork, a tributary for the Snake River. Big Springs, a natural spring located south of Island Park, is another source of water for Henry’s Fork. This spring produces about 120 million gallons of water daily. The gushing water stays at 52° year around so it does not freeze in winter. Rainbow trout are visible in the crystal-clear waters nearby. Big Springs was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1980.
On a hill above Big Springs is the Johnny Sack Cabin which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned by the National Forest Service. In 1929, Johnny Sack leased some land from the Forest Service and he built a six-room cabin and a water wheel on the property overlooking the springs. It took him three years to complete it. Born in Germany in 1884, he immigrated to the U. S. when he was six years old. He and his brother came to Island Park in 1909 in hopes of owning a cattle ranch. After many years of working on other people’s ranches, he began to make furniture and build cabins for others in the area. Mr. Sack was a meticulous craftsman and master woodworker. Over the years, visitors from all over the U. S. and the world have come to visit him while he resided in the cabin. Many were so impressed with his craftsmanship that they asked him to make furniture for their houses and cabins. As a consequence, he stayed very busy all the time. His unique skills with hand tools enabled him to make enough money to sustain himself until his death in 1957.
This picturesque cabin is open to the public from June to September. When you tour the cabin, you get to see the original furnishings including the hand-built furniture. The interior wall panels have pine bark inlay that is beautifully crafted. Even the exterior of the cabin has some pine back finishes.
After touring the Sack cabin, David and I hiked the Big Springs Trail along Henry’s Fork. Along this nature trail there are informational signs posted. After about one mile, the paved trail turns into a gravel trail and continues on to a popular boat launch downstream. As we rounded a bend, David suddenly stopped because he saw three moose standing in the river. There was a mother and two babies eating and interacting with one another. We watched them for a few minutes before they disappeared into the underbrush. It was such a treat to get to observe them in their natural habitat. We saw another moose as we drove back to our camper. Four moose in one day! Just amazing!
One of the final days in Island Park we went to West Yellowstone, MT for the afternoon. Our friends, Wendy and Dennis, went with us. When we were hiking to the Lower Mesa Falls, we ran into a group of women who told us that there was a great barbecue restaurant called Firehole BBQ Co. in town. They told us that the ribs and the brisket were excellent so we thought that we would check it out. They were not kidding. It was the best barbecue that we have had out west. Before the meal was over, we were all licking our fingers! Evidently, the meat is fresh, never frozen, and they smoke it for 16 hours. There is only one catch though, they only smoke a certain amount every day. Once they sell out, there is no more until the next day. We were advised to get there early before they run out and before the line out the door gets too long. It was definitely worth the drive into West Yellowstone to get some great food.
After our early dinner, we walked around town and topped off our visit with ice cream from the City Creamery. Their homemade ice cream was delicious.
We had a great time in the Island Park area. This is a place that we would like to explore some more. Thanks again to our friends, Wendy and Dennis, for making our stay there so memorable.