Yellowstone. If you haven’t been there, it must be on your ultimate bucket list. If you have been, we’ll bet you already know what you missed last time, and filling in the gaps is no doubt in your plans. Where else can you find such abundant wildlife, spectacular colors and graphic displays of geothermal energy, all in one location? We’ve been back several times and still haven’t seen it all.
Unfortunately for RVers who want full hookups, there is a lack of these in Yellowstone National Park. Fishing Bridge RV Park is the only campground within the expanse of the park that offers water, electric and sewer hookups. It is popular and reservations are tough to get. And as those who have stayed there know, the campground was designed and built before the days of big rigs. We have rather vivid memories of navigating our 40-foot motorhome around those 90-degree turns and then trying to shoehorn it into our reserved space without taking out a line of pine trees or a group of trash cans.
Your alternatives are to dry camp at one of several campgrounds in the park without hookups or choose a campground outside the park. An immediate benefit to staying outside the park is learning that the stunning scenery and natural wonders don’t stop at the park’s boundaries. We discovered this not by design but through the happy circumstance of accepting a work camping assignment with The Nature Conservancy just west of the park in Idaho’s Island Park district. We were provided a lovely tree-lined site affording good privacy in a quiet park. Our only concern was occasional forays by black bears on the garbage cans. Our America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass – Senior Pass allowed us unlimited access in our dinghy to Yellowstone itself without charge. And, at the same time, we discovered the attractions of eastern Idaho.
Unlike the cheek-to-jowl camping at Fishing Bridge, RV parks along U.S. Highway 20 leading toward Yellowstone are spacious for the most part, and several offer spectacular settings. We chatted with Heather and Bill, who were on duty at the entrance station to Henrys Lake State Park, 15 minutes from the entrance to Yellowstone, and marveled at the half-full campground with its stunning views of Henrys Lake and the surrounding mountains. They marveled as well, knowing that their park, with water and electric hookups and a dump station on site, is actually closer to Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin than Fishing Bridge RV Park. Other private RV parks we saw were similarly attractive.
Geologists will tell you that the geothermal “hot spot” that creates the natural wonders of Yellowstone previously was under the land west of the park.
Like the park itself, this was once a massive volcano that at some point in the past blew itself into the stratosphere, leaving behind a huge caldera. The evidence is found in the roughly circular mountain ranges that enclose the highlands of Idaho’s Fremont County. Compared to Yellowstone, the volcanism that shaped this area occurred much earlier in geologic time, and there are no geyser basins or active reminders of the presence of that hot spot. Instead, this is a land of forests, vast meadows and stunning rivers.
Henrys Lake is a main water source of Henrys Fork of the Snake River, a prime location for anglers to try their luck on the famous Yellowstone cutthroat trout. If you won’t leave home without your fly rod, this is a place for you. The lake itself features cutthroat-rainbow hybrid trout as well, but a boat is almost a requirement for fishing there because of limited shoreline access.
We discovered that a second source of Henrys Fork was at a nearby place aptly named Big Springs. Here, more than 120 million gallons of water a day well up from the ground and flow out toward Snake River. It is one of the largest springs in the United States. The water is unbelievably clear, and from a bridge crossing the springs, you can look down at groups of humongous trout waiting patiently for you to feed them. Unfortunately, it is illegal to do so with a hook through the food, so you have to leave your fishing gear behind. For a quarter, you can buy a handful of fish food pellets, toss them in the water and watch the submarine-size trout leap high in the air to snap them up before the ubiquitous California gulls can grab them.
There was a time when Big Springs was the province of the wealthy, with cabins surrounding it and a nearby railroad station to ensure ease of access. Fortunately, the Forest Service eliminated the cabins, the railroad was abandoned and Big Springs, with one interesting exception, reverted to its pristine condition. A quiet Forest Service campground nearby and two parking lots allow the public in general to enjoy the beauty of this place. Paved paths provide easy access for visitors to walk around much of the perimeter of Big Springs and marvel at the volume of water gurgling to the surface.
The Forest Service permitted one cabin to remain, the former possession of a 4-foot-11-inch German immigrant named Johnny Sack. Originally, the Sack cabin was scheduled for demolition like the others, but because of the superb craftsmanship and woodworking skills of Sack, the cabin was opened to the public after Sack’s death in 1957. Sack had not only been responsible for constructing the cabin but the furnishings as well. The result is simply stunning wood craftsmanship. Needless to say, it is a popular destination.
Sack and his neighbors were not the only ones who found the land west of Yellowstone to be worthwhile in its own right. A few miles west of Henrys Lake and Big Springs is Harriman State Park. The Harriman name connotes little in this day and age. However, if you rode on a passenger train around the turn of the 20th century, the likelihood was that Edward H. Harriman had an ownership position in the railroad. He was largely responsible for the construction of the Union Pacific’s branch to West Yellowstone, which served the park itself. Due to the routing of this rail line through Island Park, Harriman was quite familiar with the attractions of the area.
Accordingly, Harriman – along with the Guggenheim family, who gained their wealth from copper – developed what was known as Harriman Railroad Ranch. It was a rustic settlement along a beautiful stretch of Snake River near two pristine lakes: Silver Lake and Gold Lake. For nearly three-quarters of a century, family members and prominent guests spent portions of the summer months in this idyllic setting. It was an operating cattle ranch in addition to a family retreat, allowing plutocrats from both the Harriman and Guggenheim families to play cowboy. In the mid-1970s, after years of negotiation, the state of Idaho was able to obtain Harriman Railroad Ranch and turn it into a state park.
Today, the public can fish Henrys Fork of Snake River or hike along paths around Silver and Gold lakes or on weekends explore the buildings that once housed some of the richest people in the nation. Surprisingly, we found that the buildings aren’t particularly luxurious. Perhaps the Harrimans and the Guggenheims had enough luxury in the rest of their lives.
At Harriman State Park, U.S. Highway 20, the principal route to Yellowstone from the west, takes its leave from Henrys Fork of the Snake River. For our first visits to Yellowstone, we were part of the thundering herd, pedal to the metal, roaring along the highway to get to the park without any concept of the beauty that surrounded us. As a result, it was only when we spent time in the Island Park area of Idaho that we discovered Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. It splits off from U.S. Highway 20 at state Route 47 and follows the river to the west, affording an opportunity to take in two stupendous waterfalls before rejoining the highway in Ashton, Idaho.
A side road from the byway leads to a delightful park with walkways leading down to the edge of the spillway of Upper Mesa Falls. It’s close enough that you get the full impact of water thundering over the lip and plunging down into the abyss, replete with miniature rainbows in the mist. A small museum and gift shop is part of the park with exhibits taken from the history of the area. But the falls themselves are obviously the star attraction. Lower Mesa Falls must be viewed from an overlook, far above the river. It loses some of the immediacy of the upper falls, but the view is still well worth the stop.
Wildlife is abundant in the land around Island Park. Hikers along paths near Big Springs encounter moose with some degree of regularity. Howling wolves serenaded fellow volunteers on more than one occasion at a Nature Conservancy cabin. One of our assignments was to staff the conservancy headquarters at Flat Ranch, giving us the opportunity to observe pronghorn antelope as well as young sandhill cranes. Since we are seldom without our binoculars, we can vouch that birding in the area may surpass Yellowstone itself.
From a practical standpoint, staying outside of Yellowstone had other benefits. Island Park itself is a community that stretches for miles along U.S. Highway 20 with a variety of commercial development, including opportunities to rent canoes, boats and the like to explore Henrys Fork. West Yellowstone features grocery stores, gas stations and a number of restaurants, giving you an easy way to resupply without being limited to the offerings inside Yellowstone. There are good arguments for considering Cody or Jackson, Wyo., or Gardiner, Mont., as a base as well, but we will leave those for another article.
* Henrys Lake State Park: Water and electric sites (dump station in the park); $18 to $25 plus vehicle entry fee of $5. Reservations accepted from the Thursday before Memorial Day through Sept. 5.
* Big Springs: Access from U.S. 20 at Mack’s Inn; turn east on South Big Springs Road and drive 4½ miles. The road is paved and parking at the springs can handle any size motorhome. The Forest Service campground has no hookups and a fee is charged. There is no charge to visit Johnny Sack Cabin, but donations are appreciated. It’s open from mid-June to mid-September.
* Harriman State Park: Entrance is $5 and is good for entrance to Mesa Falls and Henrys Lake State Park on the same day. A Forest Service campground (West End Campground) is nine miles west of the park entrance. Vehicle parking could be tight. We recommend not taking your motorhome. Very primitive camping.
* Mesa Falls: Upper Falls has RV parking with trails leading to the falls. Access is off the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. Entry fee: $5. Lower Falls can be viewed from a turnoff from the byway. No fee is charged.
* Camping options: There are numerous private RV parks and forest campgrounds along U.S. Highway 20 in the Island Park area and in Montana west of West Yellowstone. The town of West Yellowstone also has several RV parks.
For More Information:
Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation
Idaho RV Campgrounds Association
Yellowstone Teton Territory