Enjoy all the wonderful sights and learning opportunities traveling these routes will bring!
- Mesa Falls Scenic Byway
- Fort Henry Historic Byway
- Lost Gold Trails Loop
- Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Island Park to West Yellowstone
Driving Guide to Historic Sites: Island Park, Idaho
By Donald B. Lindsey, Ph.D.
Island Park and Its People
Island Park is a unique historical and geological area in north Fremont County, Idaho. The area covers a wide strip from what is locally known as the Ashton Hill to the Montana border, in a shallow high altitude basin formed by an ancient caldera.
Within the area is a city by the name of Island Park that was incorporated in 1947 because Idaho's liquor laws required a city for the purpose of regulation. The city lines were drawn around existing lodges along the old Highway 20. This gives the city a peculiar configuration, and the distinction of having "the longest Main Street in America."
"Main Street," or U.S. Highway 20 in Island Park, is 33 miles long from Last Chance to Valley View. Its width, however, is only an average of 500 feet from the center line of the old highway, where most businesses serving spirits exist, plus extensions to the west that reach Staley Springs and to the east that reach Big Springs.
Island Park was named for its many natural clearings, some bounded by water, that appear in this otherwise heavily timbered area. These openings in the forest were likened to islands where travelers could stop and "park" to rest or otherwise transact their business. The first humans to do this were members of various Native American tribes: the Blackfeet, the Bannock, the Crow, the Flatheads, and bands of the Shoshone Tribe, including the Sheepeater band.
Next came the first trappers and traders, followed by explorers, guides, and scouts beginning with the summer of 1810. The first of these was Major Andrew Henry, for whom Henry's Lake is named, and the North Fork of the Snake River that is often referred to as Henry's Fork of the Snake. The most famous of these early visitors include Jim Bridger, George Rea, Kit Carson, Richard "Beaver Dick" Leigh and Richard W "Dick" Rock (Rocky Mountain Dick). Of these, Dick Rock and George Rea settled in the area to ranch, hunt, and serve as guides.
Other settlers arrived during the late 1860s, homesteaded, and began to build ranches and engage in other business. Such enterprises included mining, cutting timber, road building, and fish harvesting. Still other businesses were geared to accommodating sportsmen and travelers headed for Yellowstone National Park. Island Park has thus served as an important gateway to Yellowstone since 1872, and significantly helped in opening the park's west entrance.
Today, Island Park still serves as a gateway to Yellowstone and many of its people work in the tourism industry. In its own right, Island Park is a prime recreation area for those who love to camp, hike, fish, hunt, float rivers, view wildlife, snowmobile, cross country ski or simply view majestic scenery. Island Park is also increasingly becoming a choice summer home area and a retirement area for those who don't mind more than a little snow.
Geologically, about 500,000 years ago much of what now forms the Island Park area was a large volcano that exploded with extraordinary force. Geologists tell us that fallout from that event has been found as far away as Kansas.
In the aftermath of that explosion, Island Park was left with a world class U-shaped volcanic caldera formation. A caldera is a volcanic crater that has a diameter several times that of the vent and is formed by the collapse of the central portion of the volcano. The Island Park caldera measures 18 miles in width and is 23 miles long. Since that ancient time the crater has largely been filled in by lava flows from the east in Yellowstone National Park. In addition, other elements of nature helped set the stage for the historical developments of Island Park by humans.
About The Driving Tour - It takes two days or more
Once you reach the first Island Park site noted in this guide, the remainder of the tour covers 122 miles. This includes some backtracking on side trips off U.S. Highway 20. Visiting all the places listed here at a leisurely pace will take the better part of two days. This time will be extended if you stop to hike, bicycle, picnic, fish, or explore any of the side trips mentioned.
A full third day could be added if you drive the 81-mile Fort Henry Historic Byway from Elk Creek Crossroads on U.S. Highway 20. A section of this byway is also a segment of the National Nez Perce Trail.
If your time or interest is limited, you may want to take in only three major sites. These would be visiting the Railroad Ranch at Harriman State Park; seeing the restored Big Falls Inn at the Mesa Falls area; and touring the Johnny Sack Cabin at Big Springs. This shortened tour can be easily accomplished in a day.
During the late fall and early spring months some of the historic sites in Island Park are not accessible by car or truck due to snowy or muddy road conditions. During the snow months, all sites off U.S. Highway 20 can be easily reached by snowmobile on groomed trails except for the trip to Bishop Mountain. That trail is not groomed. In these instances you are advised to check in person or call about road, trail and weather conditions at the U.S. Forest Service office near Pond's Lodge in Island Park before taking these tours. The number is 208-558-7301.
Be prepared for sudden thunderstorms accompanied by lightning, hail, and strong winds during the summer season. Falling trees under these conditions are not unusual. Also, be alert for deer, elk, or moose on or near the highways, especially during the early morning hours and evenings. Many a driver has bagged one of these large critters out of season via a road collision. Quite often such mishaps leave car owners hunting for a new vehicle.
Beginning the Tour
Driving north from Ashton, Idaho's Visitor's Center on U.S. Highway 20, you soon begin climbing what is locally known as the "Ashton Hill," and enter the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. After topping the hill, a total of 7.7 miles from Ashton, you reach a turnout marked by a road sign labeled "Caldera Lookout." It reveals some interesting information about the caldera's formation. The spot affords a close look of the caldera.
7.2 miles from this location is a second caldera lookout sign.. "Volcanic Calderas." This sign is located at the turnoff to reach a historical site on Bishop Mountain on North Antelope Flats Road. Bishop Mountain also forms a portion of the west rim of the volcano 12.6 miles from the highway. This is a reasonably well-maintained dirt road that can be traveled at moderate speeds. Motor homes, however, are not recommended for this side trip.
Atop Bishop Mountain is a 72-foot high fire lookout tower that is still used on occasion. The structure was built in 1936 by the U.S. Forest Service with the aid of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that was active during the depression years. A log cabin, garage, and a frame pit toilet sit nearby the tower. The tower is unique in that it was constructed of metal rather than logs. It is the only remaining fire tower of nine that once existed in the Targhee National Forest, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Climbing up into the tower is not permitted.
4 tenths of a mile north of the Bishop Mountain turnoff is another turnout for viewing Swan Lake. A small road sign telling something of this small shallow lake marks this spot. Throughout the warm months, this lake is typically home to nesting trumpeter swans that are easily seen and photographed. Historically, Swan Lake was part of an old ranch, but has since become Forest Service property.
1 mile north of Swan Lake is another turnout with a road sign that marks the boundaries of Harriman State Park, site of the historic Railroad Ranch. Once known as the Island Park Land and Cattle Company, American railroad magnate E H. Harriman purchased the ranch in 1908. A premature death kept him from ever visiting the property. Thus it was left to his son, Averill Harriman, of diplomatic fame and former governor of New York State, to become the first Harriman to visit the ranch the following year.
The property has an interesting history as a working ranch. In addition, it once served as a hunting and fishing retreat for wealthy easterners, mostly railroad executives. Currently on the grounds are two large buildings in the ranch complex that are available for large group rental (15-40 people). The cookhouse is available for meal preparation and dining. The Island Park Land and Cattle Company Home Ranch remains standing and well preserved. The ranch grounds are open to the public and interpretive tours of the grounds and buildings are scheduled in the summer and fall. Entrance to the ranch is just north of the turnout marked by the state park sign.
1.1 miles north of the entrance to Harriman State Park you reach the junction for the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway that runs eastward 14 miles to the Mesa Falls Recreation Area that is jointly managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR) and the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The area includes Upper Mesa Falls, Lower Mesa Falls, the Big Falls Inn Visitors Center, and walking paths. Admission is charged to the area. The fee includes admission to Harriman State Park. Idaho Parks and Recreation passes and Harriman State Park passes are accepted here.
The late Victorian style Big Falls Inn opened as an interpretive center in 2001. It was built in 1909, but fell into disuse and disrepair from the 1940s until the late 1990s, when the IDPR and the Forest Service partnered to restore it and make it the Big Falls Inn Visitor Center. Visit the Center to see exhibits on the geology of the falls and canyon, the history of the lodge, the river ecosystem, plants and animals of the area, the forest ecosystem, cultural history of the area from prehistoric times to present, and maps of other parks and points of interest in the area.
There are several hiking trails in the area. There is an improved hiking trail from Lower Mesa Falls to Bear Gulch. A moose trail follows the canyon upstream from the upper falls. The old road that runs behind the parking lot is 1 mile out to an overlook of the lower falls and access to fishing. The bicycle trail that is the old railroad bed begins at Warm River Campground and goes clear to Yellowstone. It is a combined ATV/bicycle trail from Bear Gulch north.
Warm River Springs is only 5 miles away from Upper Mesa Falls on the 154 Road via the 150 Road This branch of the Warm River boils up out of the ground by the old fish hatchery. The hatchery residence is now a Forest Service rental cabin. This is a great place to see moose.
Fishing access to Henry's Fork is provided by Forest Roads 313, 610, 760, 351, 151, and the newly rebuilt Wood Road Number 4. Sheep Falls is upstream from Mesa Falls and can be accessed by either 151 from the east side of the river or 162 from the west side of the river. The 314 road takes off from the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway at Osborne Springs and winds back to the river, as does the Hatchery Ford Road (351). Hatchery Ford is an unimproved dirt road, but it does access the bottom of the river canyon.
2.4 miles north of the Mesa Falls Byway turnoff places you in a business and residential area now called Last Chance. This area marks the southernmost boundary for the city of Island Park. Many years ago this area was called Ripleys where stagecoaches crossed the river. With the demise of the stagecoach and advent of the horseless carriage, this area got its new name because it was the last chance for travelers to buy gas before reaching Ashton. Fuel was served up at a small two-pump service station, and drivers had their choice of either ethyl or regular gasoline.
When was the last time you heard someone say, "fill'er up with ethyl?" The small log service station- more than 50 years old- remains standing on the west side of the highway and is still in use, but for other purposes.
4.9 miles north of this historical site you cross the Buffalo River and reach Pond's Lodge on the west side of the highway. Charles Pond rebuilt this historic log structure in 1936 after a fire destroyed the original facilities in 1935.
Surrounding the lodge are small rustic cabins that have long-accommodated tourists, sportsmen and lumbermen. Currently, this lodge features a restaurant, lounge, store, and a the Teton Room that is also used for myriad community activities. The lodge has on display a series of historic comedic calendar art scenes (circa the 1940s). The scenes depict the same befuddled fisherman who is always having trouble landing his catch.
Heading north from Pond's Lodge 7 tenths of a mile, you reach Phillips Loop, which is 1.4 miles long and takes you back to U.S. Highway 20. On this loop are two historic sites. One is Phillips Lodge built in 1938. At first, the business was named the Lodgepole Inn, and later the name was changed to Happy Joe's. Now Phillips Lodge is part of a luxury cabin resort called The Pines at Island Park. The owners have named the restaurant portion of the lodge the Lodgepole Grill.
Happy Joe's was a favorite watering hole and recreation spot for construction workers on the Island Park Dam. After Harry and Estelle Phillips purchased the lodge in 1940, it was given its present name. Like a number of old lodges in this area, it too burned to the ground, but this log structure was rebuilt in 1948-49.
Directly across the road from Phillips Lodge is the Elk Creek Ranch. This historic guest ranch was earlier known as the Uden Ranch. The property and its facilities have passed through several hands over the years. In the early days the ranch ran cattle and served as a stagecoach stop for tourists traveling to Yellowstone National Park. The ranch's rustic facilities overlook small, but pretty Elk Creek Lake that offers guests some good fishing.
Returning to U.S. Highway 20 by completing the north side of Phillips Loop, you are at Elk Creek Station and the Elk Creek Crossroads- the intersection of U.S. Highway 20 and the Kilgore-Yale Road (Fremont County A2).
Here you have two options. 1. You can drive to Eagle Ridge Ranch and after visiting the ranch, turn back to U.S. Highway 20 and proceed with the Island Park area tour. 2. You can drive the Fort Henry Historic Byway that was dedicated in 2002.
Option 1. Head west on Fremont County Road A2 for 6 miles to Eagle Ridge Ranch, the last 2 miles of which is a dirt road that is usually in good condition. At about the 4-mile mark, road A2 curves off to the right, but you should continue straight ahead onto the dirt road where you can see a sign for the ranch. Again continue straight ahead.
The 2,000-acre Eagle Ridge Ranch is both a guest ranch and a working cattle ranch and is open to the public. It was once part of the famous Trude Ranch that was host to such prominent figures as Presidents Hoover and Eisenhower. In addition, many movie stars have stayed there and Wallace Beery stayed often.
The Eagle Ridge Ranch lies on part of the Nez Perce Indian Trail used during their flight from Army troops who were trying to remove them to an unwanted reservation. Dispersed among the newer structures here are several historic buildings. These include a barn, some sleeping quarters and other small outbuildings. Backtrack to U.S. Highway 20 and skip reading about Option 2.
Option 2. Fort Henry Historic Byway. The "official" start of the 81-mile Fort Henry Historic Byway is at the Fort Henry Monument on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River south of Parker, Idaho. For the Island Park option, the byway "begins" at Elk Creek Crossroads when you drive onto the Kilgore-Yale Road (County Road A2). Follow this through the Shotgun area and into Clark County (approximately 10 miles), past the Camas Meadows to the to the Red Road. Take the Red Road south, past the St. Anthony Sand Dunes to the Fort Henry Monument. From here, you would head back to Island Park by traveling north on U.S. Highway 20 though Ashton. Or, backtrack to Elk Creek Crossroads. Another option is to take the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway from west of Ashton back to U.S. Highway 20 in Island Park. The byway is marked with colorful three-sided signs. Brochures on this and other Idaho scenic and historic byways are available at area visitor centers and retail stores.
The Kilgore-Yale Road and Red Rock Road segments of the Fort Henry Historic Byway are also a segment of the National Nez Perce Trail. This section commemorates the flight of the Nez Perce through Leadore, Idaho and Island Park, Idaho to West Yellowstone, Montana, in August 1877. Auto Tour brochures interpreting this section of the flight are available at area visitor centers and National Forest offices.
Back on U.S. Highway 20 at Elk Creek Crossroads from option 1 or if you backtracked from Option 2, head north 3.4 miles to the Mack's Inn area. This family resort area is laid out along the south bank of Henry's Fork of the Snake River on both sides of U.S. Highway 20. Development began shortly after 1916, when the road through the area was improved to allow relatively safe and comfortable automobile travel.
William H. "Doc" Mack began development of Mack's Inn after vacating another facility catering to hunters, tourists, and anglers. The centerpiece of his development was a large lodge built of logs that gave the area its name - Mack's Inn. Unfortunately, in 1988 this remarkable building also burned to the ground, the same year of the great Yellowstone fires. What remains are a number of the historic log cabins on the east side of the highway and a two story motel constructed of logs seen on the west side of the highway All of these are still in use.
Upon entering Mack's Inn from the south, one of the first road signs you'll see is one directing attention to Big Springs 4 miles east of the highway on Big Springs Road. This historic place has two notable features that are a must-see if you love wilderness beauty and an extraordinary historical structure.
First, however, 1 tenth of a mile after turning onto Big Springs Road is the Little Chapel In The Pines. Doc Mack built this historic log structure in the 1940s. He generously built the chapel when he learned that people wanted more than just a place to get away from it all. They also wanted to worship on Sundays. The chapel is a nonsectarian enterprise that is committed to providing interfaith services and weddings. It has served Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons over the years.
After leaving the Little Chapel in the Pines and continuing toward Big Springs, you see a sign about 1 mile before reaching Big Springs. The sign directs you to turn left toward a beautiful spot and another interesting historic structure. This spot is the entrance to America's first National Water Trail, designated in 1981. The water trail actually begins at Big Springs, but human intrusion is not allowed until one reaches this point. Here, people are allowed to put in float craft and paddle or drift to the end of the waterway at Mack's Inn.
At this site stands a historic railroad trestle that crosses over the river. It was constructed during the early 1900s when the railroad pushed through Island Park to Yellowstone. Except for the railroad bed, the trestle represents the last major remains of its existence. During winter, crossing this trestle on a snow machine presents an interesting challenge for those who do not approach it with considerable sobriety. The site is 3 tenths of a mile off the highway over a dirt road that is usually passable for most vehicles. There is also a sizeable parking lot and turnaround here.
Upon leaving this site turn left and continue the last mile to Big Springs. Once there you first see the large clear natural springs that serve as a main headwaters for the Henry's Fork (first named the North Fork) of the Snake River. The spring is notable for the vast quantity of water that flows from it and extra large trout that spawn in this area and are easily seen in the clear waters. It is also a family treat to feed these fish and watch them rise to take the food available near the bridge that crosses over the springs.
The second attraction is Johnny Sack's carefully handcrafted cabin and furnishings. Interestingly, Johnny was not a big man, and stood less than five feet tall, so he built the cabin and furnishings to fit his height. Alongside the cabin stands a unique, working water wheel. All are located on the east side of the springs. During the summer months the cabin is open to the public and is served by the Johnny Sack Cabin Preservation Association.
Returning the 4 miles to U.S. Highway 20 and heading north from Mack's Inn 1.7 miles, you reach North Big Springs Loop and come in sight of historic Island Park Lodge. It stands on the east side of the highway.
In 1947, business partners, a Mr. Blackington and Pete Piersanti constructed this resort. Piersanti managed the log structure until 1951. Originally, the partners started with a small restaurant and then added living quarters, a saloon and for better or worse, a gambling hall. However, 1951 saw the end of legalized gambling in Idaho. With that, Piersanti sold his share of Island Park Lodge to Blackington. Piersanti then moved to Nevada and helped develop the hotel and casino called Cactus Pete's in Jackpot, Nevada. Since then, the lodge has passed through several hands. Today it still features a restaurant and saloon much as in the old days. As for gambling, well, regulars have to scare up their own private bets on NFL games or the World Series.
6.3 miles north of Island Park Lodge is another turnout. Here a historical road sign stands celebrating the passage through Island Park of Jesuit Catholic Priest, Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet along with 1600 friendly and "peace loving" Flathead Indians. For two days they camped near the shores of Henry's Lake and Father DeSmet held Idaho's first Catholic mass. DeSmet recorded in his diaries that he climbed an estimated 5,000 feet up a nearby mountain as far as he could go and carved a Latin inscription on a rock, signed and dated it July 23, 1840 DeSmet. The inscription read: "Sanctus Ignatius Patronus Montium Die Julii 23, 1840." Despite searches the rock has yet to be discovered and perhaps never will, especially if the rock was limestone and would not weather the elements. However, the search has not been abandoned by all - stay tuned.
1.5 miles north of the DeSmet marker you reach U.S. Highway 20's junction with Highway 87 that leads west to Dillon, Montana. Turning left you pass by the north shore of Henry's Lake for 1.2 miles and arrive at Targhee Cemetery on the north side of the road overlooking Henry's Lake. The cemetery has served as the final resting place for many early settlers in the Island Park area. The cemetery is on the land known as the Diamond D Salisbury Ranch. The oldest grave marker carries a date of 1899.
Traveling 3.3 miles west from the cemetery you arrive at the entrance to the Wild Rose Ranch situated on the lake's north shore. Development on this property began about 1898 and has continued over the years. The ranch has long served as a fishing resort and lodge that has gained a national reputation for its hospitality and the excellent trout fishing Henry's Lake offers. Several well preserved historic buildings dating back to the turn of the century can be viewed close up on this property. Wild Rose also served as a stage stop before 1909 when stagecoach services gave way to railroad travel. Louis L'Amour wrote one of his famous Western adventure books in one of the cabins.
5 tenths of a mile west of the entrance to Wild Rose Ranch you arrive at a T intersection of Highway 87 and Staley Springs Road. At this intersection is a historical road marker calling attention to this area as the site of the Sawtell Ranch. Gilman Sawtell was Island Park's first white settler. Island Park's most prominent landmark, Mount Sawtelle, was named after him. Or is it just plain Sawtell with no "e" at the end of the name? There is some confusion about the spelling of his name as you look at various signs around the area. The cause lies in one of General Howard's written reports to Washington, D. C. describing the area and its people. He took some literary license and added a French flavor to Sawtell's name. Hence the confusion of signs.
From this intersection, 1.9 miles south on Staley Springs Road you reach Staley Springs Lodge. The springs located at this long time fishing resort help feed Henry's Lake. Staley Springs was once a part of Sawtell's ranch, but in 1896 Ed Staley bought the ranch and the springs area continues to bear his name. Before Staley bought this property, the springs area was known as Sawtell's Fish Farm. Since those days the property has passed through many hands. At this site are a number of historical log cabins that are still in use and a lodge that was rebuilt in the 1940s. The original lodge like others in Island Park burned down during the 1920s. Also here is a very important part of Island Park history- a memorial the people who have worked hard to preserve the lake's fishery over the years.
Upon backtracking to Highway 87's junction with Highway 20 and heading north again for 2 tenths of a mile, you come to another of Island Park's historic lodges, Sunset Lodge. Built in the 1940s, it remains much as it is now seen. At one time, operations were expanded to include a small sawmill that no longer exists. Over the years, this lodge has passed through many owners. After leaving Sunset Lodge still heading north, you leave Island Park.
In 4 miles on the right there is a pull off for those wishing to stop and picnic at Howard Springs, a Caribou-Targhee National Forest site named after General Howard, who pursued the Nez Perce Indians on their flight to avoid being placed on a reservation. The spring has delicious water and is used as a drinking water source by many area residents. There are picnic tables and handicapped accessible restrooms at this site.
From here, you only have to travel 8.3 miles further to reach West Yellowstone, Montana and the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It is our hope that Island Park has served as an interesting historic gateway to the incomparable historic Yellowstone.
Feldsien, Pat, "Island Park Almanac." The Island Park Bugle, Vol. 2 Number 9, 1990.
Green, Dean H., History of Island Park: A Pictorial and Written History from before 1890 to Idaho's Centennial Year. Island Park - Gateway Publishing Co. Ashton, ID, 1990.
Jacobs' Island Park Ranch, "Ranch History," 1997.
McBroom, Mary (ed.), "Henry's Lake at the Turn of the Century." Island Park Historical Society Special Report, May 7, 1992, Yellowstone Gateway Post.
Summer Guide 2002: Yellowstone's Caldera Country. May 2002, Island Park News.
Thompson, Ralph W (ed.), Snake River Echoes: A Quarterly of Idaho History, Vol. 10, Number 3, 1981.
Idaho State Historical Society. The Historical Society is a state-funded organization dedicated to the preservation and study of Idaho's history. Its facilities include the Historical Museum, Old Idaho Penitentiary, Assay Office, and Historical Library and Archives in Boise. The staff is available for consultation on any project involving Idaho's history, records, buildings, sites or artifacts. For more information, contact Idaho State Historical Society, 210 Main Street, Boise, Idaho 83702, 208-334-3861.
City of Island Park: Thanks are due the city for its management of the CLG Grant monies for the Island Park Historical Society responsible for this publication.
Property and business owners. Special thanks are extended to owners, property managers and employees who helped fill in some historical gaps needed for completing this booklet.
Other acknowledgments: Thanks are also due to Jane Daniels, Nancy Stratford, Doris Backstrom and Rosy Lindsey for their helpful comments, suggestions. Julie Osborne conducted reconnaissance level surveys from 1944 to 1997 recording sites in the Island Park area as part of an ongoing project by the Island Park Historic Preservation Commission.
Bishop Mountain Lookout and the Island Park Land and Cattle Company Home Ranch (Harriman State Park) are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Almost all other sites listed in this brochure are eligible for listing.
Historic Driving Guide to Island Park Island Park author Don Lindsey passed away November 20, 2003. He was a gifted writer, an archivist for the Island Park Historical Society, and beloved member of the community. The Island Park Historical Society and Island Park Media, Inc. are proud to reprint this popular guide, which is an important part of Don's legacy to the community. Donations in Don's memory may be made to the Island Park Library, P.O. Box 74, Mack's Inn, ID 83433.