The Mountain Goat Gallery

Harriman State Park

Posted by Jim Steele on January 26th, 2009 filed in Cross Country Skiing

My trail reviews have been sparse for the last month or so. In a completely unexpected development, it turns out that we have received considerable snowfall over the past couple of months, which has prevented me from hiking, leaving me depressed and irritable while robbing of fresh, engaging subject matter. Sigh.

But winter is not a total loss. There is something about seeing a beautiful forest with an inch of new snow on all of the trees, animal tracks wandering through a meadow, or an almost-frozen river surrounded by ice and snow that is almost magical. One place to experience all three of these winterscapes is Harriman State Park in Island Park, Idaho.

The Tetons rise in the distance above the Henry\'s Fork in Harriman State Park. This photo was taken on the \

Harriman is an old ranch that was owned by a group of investors in the Union Pacific Railroad and donated to the state in 1982 by Roland Averell Harriman. It sits on the south end of Island Park, with the Henry’s Fork running through the eastern edge of the park. More importantly, Harriman has a trail system that includes 25 miles of groomed trails and some skier defined trails.

View Larger Map

One of my favorite things about Harriman is that you can basically pick your own adventure – the extensive trail system gives you plenty of options. The Ridge Trail climbs above the meadows of Harriman State Park, giving you a view of the Tetons and much of Island Park. The trails that follow the Henry’s Fork offer you an unbeatable chance to see trumpeter swans and enjoy a beautiful river. You can ski a loop around Silver Lake or back to the smaller Golden Lake. And in addition to grooming most of the trails (part of the Silver Lake Loop and the Ridge Trail excepted) for cross country skiing, some of the trails are also groomed for skate skiing.

The Railroad Ranch, photographed on January 15, 2007.

One of the other cool things about Harriman is that some of the facilities are open in the winter. The Jones House, a former residence on the ranch overlooking the Henry’s Fork, is open limited hours on weekends as a warming hut; it’s only accessible via skis in the winter. The Jones House is a great place to buy a warm drink and watch trumpeter swans on the river. There is another small warming hut on the north end of the park. Large enough to hold a half dozen people, it has a stove and usually has some tinder and logs ready for you to start a fire. There are also some yurts near the visitor center that are available for rental.

To get to Harriman, drive 18 miles north from Ashton, Idaho, along U.S. Highway 20 or 45 miles south from West Yellowstone, Montana. You’ll see a sign for Harriman State Park south of the Osborne Bridge. Follow the road to the visitor’s center, which is the trailhead and sits at the south end of the Harriman system. A $4 per car and $2 per skier admission fee is assessed; you can pay at the visitor’s center. The $2 portion of the fee goes to pay to groom the trails.

You can pick up a map at the visitor’s center or download it from Harriman’s Web site. There are about 25 junctions throughout the trail system, and most are well marked with maps. Here are some ideas:’

Silver Lake, photographed on January 15, 2007.

Silver Lake Loop: This trail mostly follows the shores of Silver Lake, which will probably be completely frozen over, although signs warn of thin ice. The loop begins near the visitor’s center. The southwest half of the loop is not groomed and follows rolling hills through the forests along the southwest shore. Eventually you’ll make a wide circle around the northwest end of the lake, where you’ll rejoin the groomed trail system. From here you can continue skiing deeper into Harriman or begin to return to the visitor center via groomed trail on the second half of the Silver Lake Loop. I like this trail because you’ll probably have the ungroomed portion of the loop mostly to yourself – although there will likely be tracks to follow – and because the setting is serene. All told, the loop is about five miles. The park considers it “intermediate-advanced.”

The view of the Tetons from the peak of the Ridge Trail in Harriman State Park. Silver Lake is in the foreground. Photographed January 17, 2009.

Ridge Trail: This is one of the coolest trails in the park. It climbs about 400 feet on top of a ridge on the west end of the park, where a couple of points offer you views of Silver Lake, the Henry’s Fork, Island Park, and the Tetons in the distance. On a clear day, the view is tough to beat. You’ll probably also see some animal tracks. This is a challenging trail, both because of the elevation gain and the fact that the trails are not groomed. It is less heavily traveled and there may not be tracks to follow. There are some trail markers, but if it has snowed recently and you’re not familiar with the trail, it would be difficult to follow. Proceed with caution, but prepare to be rewarded. The Ridge Trail itself is about 2.2 miles, but you’ve also got to ski about 2.5 miles to get to one of the trailheads. The park considers this an “advanced” trail.

Trumpeter swans in the Henry\'s Fork on January 13, 2008.

Henry’s Fork trails: You can follow the Henry’s Fork along the “River Trail” from the visitor’s center to the Railroad Ranch, and then continue to follow it for 2.5 more miles as part of the “Big Bend Loop” northeast of the ranch. Either segment makes for a beautiful trip. The trails generally stay near the shore, offering you a great view of the river. You’re virtually guaranteed to see plenty of trumpeter swans floating majestically on the waters. If you’re skiing along the Big Bend Loop on a clear day, you’ll get more great views of the Tetons and will see Mount Sawtelle towering over Island Park to the north. The combination of the river, the swans and the Teton views make this a great trip. The park considers the Big Bend Loop an “intermediate” trail, presumably because of the distance. This trail is mostly flat.

The Grand Loop: Last time I was at Harriman, I skied the southwest shore of Silver Lake, connected with the Ridge Trail, and then followed the park’s northernmost trails along Golden Lake to connect with the Big Bend Loop, where I skied back along the Henry’s Fork and through the Railroad Ranch. All told, it was about a 12-mile adventure and took about six hours, including plenty of breaks for photography. I saw the Tetons from the Ridge Trail and the Big Bend Loop, dozens of Trumpeter Swans, both of the park’s lakes, and skied through the historic Railroad Ranch. If the weather is good, if you have some experience cross country skiing, and you have a day to spend touring, I highly recommend this option.

Two trumpeter swans catch the last light of the day in the Henry\'s Fork. This photo was taken between the trailhead and the Railroad Ranch on January 17, 2009.

Other options: There are plenty of shorter loops, including the Meadow Loop, the Thurmon Creek Loop, and the Golden Lake Loop. The trip to the Railroad Ranch is fun if you’re looking for a shorter trip, especially if you ski back along the River Trail as part of your loop. From the Railroad Ranch, you’re about a mile and a half from the Becker Warming Hut and the Thurman Overlook, which gives you some decent views of the park, although not as cool as the ones from the Ridge Trail. One of my favorite things about Harriman is that there are so many trails that you can change your plans on the fly.

Notes: These trails are very popular among residents of Eastern Idaho, so if you’re after solitude, you might not find it. However, the vast majority of skiers stay on the trails near the visitor’s center and the Railroad Ranch. You won’t see nearly as many people on the rest of the trails. Although the parking lot was packed on my most recent rip, I only ran into three people on the Ridge Trail and two near the Big Bend Loop. Also, these trails are open for hiking and horseback riding in the summer.


Harriman State Park Website

Harriman winter trail guide

Comments are closed.