The same natural forces that made Yellowstone National Park so scenic also made Island Park beautiful. This area is actually the world's largest caldera, 23 miles in diameter, created from a volcano that collapsed in prehistoric times. Now covered in a dense forest of pine and wildflowers, it is a wonderful place for recreation and relaxation as you enjoy breathtaking beauty while hiking, biking, fishing or horseback riding in the summer and skiing or snowmobiling in the winter. It is located just over the Continental Divide from Montana, only 20 plus miles from Yellowstone National Park.
On Highway 20, just before the Montana border, you will see signs for Henry's Lake and Henry's Lake State Park. Located just 15 miles west of Yellowstone National Park, this high mountain lake (at 6,500 feet) is the kind of place fishermen dream about. It is open in the summer and fall for anglers to fish for cutthroat, brook and rainbow-cutthroat hybrid trout.
Mt. Jefferson, south of Henry's Lake, is at 10,203 feet and Targhee Peak, north of Henry's Lake is at 10,240 feet. The most famous of Island Park's peaks, however, is the 9,886 foot Sawtell Peak due to its beauty, and because of its strong resemblance to a Native American chief in full headdress. It is south of Henry's Lake near Mt. Jefferson and is a landmark, visible from nearly anywhere in Island Park.
The Island Park area is famous for its green forests, large springs, clear streams, waterfalls, lakes, ponds, marshes, wildlife, and fishing. The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, well-known for its fly-fishing, meanders through Island Park with its headwaters at Henry’s Lake and Big Springs. The Henry's Fork is curtailed by the Island Park Dam to form the 7,000-acre Island Park Reservoir, popular to anglers and fishermen. Swimming can also be enjoyed in the Reservoir. The Henry's Fork then winds through the meadows of Harriman State Park.
Harriman State Park is one of Idaho's premier state parks. The 11,217 acre park, formerly known as the Railroad Ranch, dates back to the 1890's when the property was purchased by three stockholders of the Railroad Co. In 1907 the Harriman family bought a section of it and deeded it to the people of Idaho in 1982. The existing Harriman's ranch house, barn and outbuildlings have been preserved.
The park is a protected area for ducks, geese, osprey, golden eagles, bald eagles, bears, elk, deer and moose. You can hike, fish, cycle or ride the park's trails on horseback or simply observe the wildlife that abounds in the park. Cross-country skiing can be enjoyed during the winter months.
The dam that created the Island Park Reservoir was built in 1938, and is worth a visit. You can drive on top of the dam for scenic views of the Centennial Mountains and Box Canyon. The reservoir is popular for fishing, boating, waterskiing, and swimming. Go south on Highway 20 and take a right before you get to the Pond's Lodge, where you'll see a sign for the Island Park Dam.
Another source for the Henry's Fork of the Snake River comes from Big Springs, where 120 million gallons of water bubble up into the river each day. The Big Spring Nature Trail, six miles north of the Island Park Ranger Station, is a half mile, handicap-accessible trail that provides great viewing of osprey, bald eagles, waterfowl and an occasional moose, deer or muskrat.
Johnny Sacks Cabin is just a few yards from Big Springs and is open to the public from June 22 through Labor day. Johnny Sacks immigrated to Idaho from Germany and built the cabin and all of its furniture in the 1930s. He was a master builder who developed a unique style of woodworking craftmanship, because he utilized logs that still had bark on them when he built his furniture. Most of his tools are still on location. The cabin is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Mesa Falls Scenic Byway (29 miles) runs east off of Highway 20 (south of Last Chance which is part of Island Park) all the way to Ashton, Idaho and winds through farmland, forest, and open meadows. The roadway was recently rebuilt and resurfaced.
Upper Mesa Falls cascades 114 feet over compressed volcanic ash that dates back 1.3 million years. More recent volcanic eruptions moved the river to its present location, where for the past half million years the river has carved the canyon.
One mile south of Upper Mesa Falls is the Grandview overlook, which provides a spectacular panoramic view of the Lower Mesa Falls. The Henry's Fork of the Snake River squeezes between basalt columns and plunges 65 feet creating Lower Mesa Falls. In winter, the area is only accessible by snowmobile or skis.
As you conclude your day of sightseeing, maybe returning from the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, you could stop in for dinner at the Angler's Lodge Riverfront Restaurant in Last Chance. It offers a great view of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, and their tasty entrees are clearly created by a chef with a knack for balancing flavors. Prices are reasonable.
The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone is a unique Wildlife Park and Educational facility. Located in West Yellowstone, one block from the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park, it shows wildlife as you've never seen it before, with an up close view of live grizzlly bears and a pack of gray wolves.
As the railroad marks West Yellowstone's historic beginnings, it is fitting that the Union Pacific Depot building is home to the Museum of the Yellowstone. The museum includes interactive exhibits and artifacts that explore the history of the area, from the time the Plains Indians and bison roamed the land, to the days of the 1988 fires.
There are guided walking tours of the historic West Yellowstone district. The museum is open mid-May to mid-October.
Located at the west entrance of the Yellowstone National Park, the Yellowstone IMAX Theatre is a "must see" where you will experience the beauty of the park not available from your car or on foot.
The IMAX Theatre offers an educational opportunity, where you'll learn about Yellowstone as it is today, and about its fascinating history and geological wonders.
Hebgen Lake, located only 10 miles northwest of West Yellowstone (off of Highways 87 and 287) offers the best dry fly lake fishing in Montana. Large rainbow trout and brown trout are found in good numbers in Hebgen Lake. The trout are good sized, with the average brown trout running between 16-18 inches and rainbow trout in the 14-16 inch range.
The Madison River is considered to be Montana's most outstanding river, because it has the best dry fly fishing while showing the most picturesque scenery.
Other good fishing locations for trout are Quake Lake, and Cliff and Wade Lakes (see Island Park Photo Gallery).
In 1959, the Hebgen Lake earthquake took place, with a 7.5 magnitude. When the quake triggered slide blocked the flow of the Madison River, it created gigantic waves that spilled over the Hebgen Dam, causing it to crack. When the slide eventually stopped, it essentially dammed the Madison River and created Quake Lake, a 19-foot deep, six mile long lake. As the lake flooded much of the former Madison River canyon, thousands of dead trees poke up through the lake, providing excellent habitat for large trout.
At the Earthquake Lake Visiter Center, open Memorial Day to mid-September, you will learn about the power of the quake of 1959. Spend some time finding out about this area's geology; experience the earthquake through the film "A force of nature," shown regularly.