South by Southwest

Exploring West Yellowstone & Island Park.

The sun’s blazing, sweat trickles through the eyebrows, and the sound of labored breathing overtakes all others. The air is thin, up here, nigh on 10,000 feet above sea level. The treeline recedes into the distance. One pedal at time is the mantra; it keeps the wheels turning and the dust flying. Just another summer day at the Lionhead—one of the best locales for high-elevation mountain biking in the state, if not the country, and it’s easily accessible from the towns of West Yellowstone and Island Park.

With “West” just a 90-minute drive from Bozeman, and Island Park a half-hour further, a little time on the road can go a long way when new thrills and challenges are on the mind. This summer, when you need a change of pace, a different outdoor backdrop, or some new faces, head south—either through Gallatin Canyon or the Madison Valley, to these little mountain hamlets. While West has a consolidated town center, Island Park is more linear, stretched out along Hwy. 20. There are a few commercial clusters—where the road crosses Buffalo Creek, and again where it kisses the Henry’s Fork—but for the most part, houses and businesses are tucked into the thick lodgepole forests. All in all, it gives the area more of a rural, wild feel than many other high-country escapes.

Once you’re in the area, opportunity abounds. The towns themselves are about 15 miles apart, but the stretch in between is full of possibilities. For trail junkies, Lionhead takes the cake, and is accessible just off the highway. But unless you’re an “advanced” rider, it’s best to consider easier options like Harriman or Hebgen state parks. The former is a good riding destination, while the latter has a variety of trails open to hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Either way, lace up the bike shoes and hit the trails. Or, for a more action-packed day, consider getting on the ropes at Zipline Adventure Park.

After you’ve gotten all hot ’n’ sweaty in the saddle, you’re gonna want some water to cool off in. Fortunately, here on the Montana-Idaho border, you won’t have to look far. In addition to a bathing suit (or heck, just swim naked), you’ll want to bring along a fly rod as well. For trout chasers, this area delivers. Island Park sits along the legendary Henry’s Fork of the Snake River—50 miles of premier fly-fishing water. Just remember that you’ll need an Idaho fishing license. On our side of Targhee Pass, surrounding West Yellowstone, are the headwater sections of our favorite local rivers—the Yellowstone, the Gallatin, and the Madison.

If flat-water fishing floats your boat, Henry’s Lake State Park awaits. There’s a fish-cleaning station and 44 campsites, not to mention 585 acres of water to explore—what else do you need for a long weekend? Another stillwater option, and just nine miles northwest of West Yellowstone, is Hebgen Lake. Hebgen’s a great place to rent boats and kayaks, spend the night at lakeside cabins, and fish right from the shore. Before hitting any of these gems, the friendly folks at Blue Ribbon Flies in West can impart local knowledge and tell you what the fish are biting on.

Fly fishing on the madison river

If you’re set on sightseeing, options are equally as numerous. Take a drive up a well-graded dirt road to the summit of Sawtell Peak, which tops out just shy of 10,000 feet and offers a commanding view of the Centennial Valley. A little closer to Island Park, though, is the oft-overlooked Bechler entrance to Yellowstone. It provides easy access to the Park’s greatest number of waterfalls, including Cave Falls—a fantastic spot to soak in some cool mist on a hot summer day. For less swimming and more staring, check out the massive Mesa Falls on the Henry’s Fork—both the upper and lower falls are impressive. Get an early start and you can hit both in the same day.

Options abound for hiking, too, as access to Yellowstone’s staggering 1,100 miles of trails is a breeze from the town of West. Outside the Park, the Rendezvous Trails offer 22 miles of gentle slopes and wide trails, perfect for a family hike. But be prepared to share the trails with horseback riders. West Yellowstone is proud to call itself horse country, and with trails like Whit’s Road and Red Canyon Road in close proximity, there are miles of pack trails leading into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.

Then, of course, there’s the social scene. The Wild West Yellowstone Rodeo runs through the summer at an arena just six miles west of town. Or check out West’s main event, Wild Bill Days, beginning on July 11. Just down the road is the Island Park Festival on July 21. The event is free to the public and hosts all sorts of activities throughout the weekend. Peruse artwork and other locally made goods, and come ready to take home something special for friends and family. After a day of exploring, rest your head at one of Casago Yellowstone's locally owned vacation rentals. 

Getting out of Bozeman can be challenging when it feels like we have everything we need right here. However, there’s much more out there beyond the Bozone. This summer, hop in the car and head south to West Yellowstone and Island Park—you’ll be glad you did.

For more info and things to do in the area, visit and