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The mountain riding experience from a midwestern trail rider's perspective

Thinking about a trip out west? It shouldn't take any more convincing than seeing this photo to make you realize that Island Park, ID is an area that every snowmobiler should experience at least once.

Snowmobile Cloud Sky Snow Mountain

You've all seen the videos. You know the ones - sleds carving through untouched powder, blasting up the face of a steep slope, or boondocking through endless tree-lined mountain meadows. Is the riding out west really that good? I'm here to tell you it is. As a snowmobiler living in Minnesota, the last few winters have presented few options for good riding. How do you deal with it? The only way that makes sense - you head west!

I took my first sled trip out west in the late 80's, and what started out as an experiment has turned into an annual event that is now approaching 15 years. In February of this year, our group descended on the small Idaho village of Island Park. Located approximately 20 miles south of West Yellowstone, Montana, Island Park is the perfect destination for the mountain riding experience. Its location puts you right in the middle of endless off-trail riding opportunities that spread out in every direction.

Island Park offers a number of accommodation choices, from motel rooms to cabins to condo units. Although the area doesn't have the amenities of West Yellowstone, there are certainly a number of restaurant choices, gas stations, sled rentals, etc.

For those that prefer the amenities of a larger community, the city of West Yellowstone is a great option. It is definitely a cool town that revolves around snowmobiling in the winter. There's a wide choice of restaurants and nightspots, along with sled dealers, hardware stores, grocery stores, etc. Fortunately, West is a quick 20-minute drive from Island Park, so a trip into town for dinner after a long day of riding is an easy task. Don't forget the Wednesday night all-you-can-eat spaghetti feed at the Gusher restaurant - it's definitely a tradition for our group and really hits the spot after a tough day of riding.

There are extensive groomed trail systems throughout this area, and theoretically you could spend an entire vacation simply riding trails. For those that want that type of western experience, you certainly wouldn't be disappointed. As far as I'm concerned, the trails in this area represent the ultimate in scenery like nothing else found anywhere,

But let's face it - this report is about off-trail riding opportunities - and this area is full of them. From Island Park, you can access fantastic riding in just about every direction. Thanks to the fact that our group has been to the area a number of times, we have the good fortune of being able to target a different riding area every day for the duration of the week-long trip.

Sky Cloud Mountain Natural landscape Snow

Two Top Mountain is one of the most well known areas near Island Park, and offers unlimited off-trail riding opportunities.

One of the more popular destinations is the Two Top Mountain area. Located Just north of Island Park, Two Top offers both groomed trail and abundant off-trail riding. Over the years, our group has had an absolute blast getting into this area and simply boondocking. This is my favorite type of riding out west - where you continually work through the endless mountain terrain toward the next play area. To those who haven't been out west and are simply used to racking up endless trail miles, the sense of freedom and adventure that you experience with mountain riding is incredible.

The off-trail riding opportunities around Two Top make it tough to head back to the motel - even as the sun starts to set.

Cloud Sky Atmosphere Mountain Snow

West of Island Park is the Centennial Mountain range, and this is an expansive area that offers enough off-trail opportunity to challenge even seasoned riders. The hills and powder bowls seem endless, and for any flatlander, it's nothing short of true riding paradise. Many areas will put your skills to the test. Think you're an aggressive, expert trail rider? Give this area a try and you'll soon find there are skills required for this type of riding that no amount of trail experience will prepare you for. You'll find yourself in a position frequently where you'll have to "think on your feet". Pick the wrong line, and you could be facing the dreaded "dig out". Don't get me wrong, though - this type of riding is an absolute blast and will ultimately make you a better rider.

Snowmobile Snow Vehicle Motor vehicle Automotive tire

Looks like a good spot for a break!

Another thing that you will find out in a hurry is that sitting is for trails. Riding in mountainous terrain calls for a very active riding style. What do I mean by active? I mean you need to learn how to position your body to maintain the proper balance and leverage over the sled to get you through the powder. Lots of standing, riding on one knee, executing quick weight shifts, switching from one side of the sled to the other on a moments notice - these are all part of the requirements to really ride out west.

Sky Snow Slope Natural landscape Tree

Another play area somewhere in the Centennial Mountains . . . . . .

One of the real benefits of the Island Park location is the ability to access incredible riding with a minimum of groomed trail riding. Again, the trail riding is superb, but if you're really out west for the freedom and adventure that off-trail riding delivers (like me), minimizing groomed trail riding is a good thing. Our group is at the point where the groomed trail system is simply used as an access to the off-trail opportunities. Fortunately, the groomed trails around and especially south of Island Park are typically in great condition due to less traffic.

What do you do when you work your way to the top of a 9,600-foot mountain with your short-tracked sled? What else - you celebrate!

Sky Sports equipment Snow Slope Cloud

Just north of Island Park is the Lionshead Mountain area. This is a simple trail ride away from Island Park, and is definitely a must-see area that offers superb off-trail riding. Terrain varies between powder bowls and endless hills - from beginner level to expert.

If you go north from West Yellowstone, you can access the Cabin Creek and Tepee basin riding areas, which have been some of our favorite destinations over the years. You can follow the groomed trail system right from town in west to get to these areas. Simply follow the groomed trail until it ends - then the fun really starts! These two areas offer unlimited off-trail riding with a variety of powder bowls and hills to climb.

As for hardware for a trip like this, you can certainly take your short-tracked machine out west and have a great time. I've been out there many times and still run a 121" track sled. A longer track machine will obviously perform better, but it's not a requirement for fun. Each manufacturer has high-altitude components to make your sled work at elevation, and typically they can be easily installed. Depending on your sled, you may need to do clutching, jetting, gearing, or a combination of all three. Some type of altitude compensator (such as DPM) is a real benefit for riding out west, since altitudes and temperatures can vary widely through the course of a day.

One thing I definitely would encourage on a first trip is to hire a guide for at least a couple days. Our group has had the benefit of 15 years of learning the area, affording us the opportunity to ride these areas confidently. As with any type of riding, there are definite safety issues that must be addressed. Avalanche beacons, shovels, and probes are the minimum requirements for off-trail riding in this region. Always check with locals or hire a guide before venturing off-trail, and pay close attention to the latest avalanche warning information that is available. Check the forecast every day before venturing out for the day. As I've found out first hand, the weather can change in these areas very quickly - make sure you've got the gear to deal with these changes. Cell phones and GPS units are also highly recommended.

Areas like this give you the opportunity to experience the thrill of "thinking on your feet". You'll need to be stay one move ahead in your mind at all times or risk getting hung-up. It's a blast!

Sky Plant Natural landscape Snow Tree

I'm writing this brief trip report to hopefully give every "flatlander" a midwestern trail rider's perspective on the western riding experience. I encourage everyone to somehow find a way to make this trip a reality - at least once. Whether you rent or decide to take your own sled, this trip is well worth it. You can read the magazines and watch the videos, but until you actually experience riding in the mountains, you have no idea how much fun it really is.

Sky Ice racing Vehicle Snow Tree

Revvin' it up in the Centennial Mountains

Report submitted by REV RUNNER
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