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We Are East Idaho: Island Park

We Are East Idaho

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EastIdahoNews.com is spending the year introducing you to places and people that make east Idaho special. In our We Are East Idaho series, we're going on a road trip and sharing things you may not know about this beautiful place we call home.

ISLAND PARK — The official population of Island Park is around 300, but every year, tens of thousands of people drive through and visit the longest Main Street in America.

Measuring at 33 miles on U.S. Highway 20, this picturesque town in Fremont County attracts visitors from all over the world. Some love it so much, they make Island Park their permanent home.

“Fly fishing brought me here in around 1997. I came here starting to fish and fell in love with it,” Millie Paini tells EastIdahoNews.com.

PHOTO GALLERY | ISLAND PARK

Paini never returned to her hometown of Moab, Utah. She met her future husband, Rich Paini, and they joined forces with Jon Stiehl to open TroutHunter, a lodge, restaurant and fly shop that offers guided fishing trips in the summer.

Paini says the number of visitors coming to Island Park has grown over the decades, but the past few years have been particularly busy.

“It’s insane now. From about the end of May until the middle of October, I live across the highway, and I have a hard time getting to work some mornings. It’s crazy,” she says with a laugh.

The history of Island Park

Native Americans were the first to settle in Island Park. Next came trappers and traders, followed by explorers, guides, and scouts beginning in 1810, according to the Fremont County website.

The first of these was Major Andrew Henry. Henrys Lake and the Henrys Fork of the Snake River are named after him. Other settlers arrived during the late 1860s and built ranches. Many mined, cut timber, built roads and fished.

Island Park became incorporated in 1947 because Idaho’s liquor laws required it to be a city for the purpose of regulation. City lines were drawn around existing lodges along Highway 20.

During this time, more Americans were buying cars and able to travel to Yellowstone National Park. Along the way, many stopped at Big Springs and Johnny Sack’s cabin.

The Johnny Sack Cabin

The Johnny Sack cabin at Big Springs. | Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com

Johnny Sack was a German cabinet maker who measured only 4 feet 11 inches tall. He came to the United States in his 20s and leased a piece of land at Big Springs, about five miles east of Mack’s Inn.

He began building a cabin in 1932 and finished three years later. He lived alone his entire life and constructed a small water wheel that provided electricity to his house.

Sack died in 1957, and locals fought to keep the cabin standing. More than 20 years later, the structure was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and today visitors can tour the cabin during summer months.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT THE JOHNNY SACK CABIN

Island Park activities

Steve and Susan Hyde moved to Island Park several years ago to manage Eagle Ridge Ranch. The beautiful 2,000 acre property open to the public and has five lakes full of fish, 12 cabins for rent, horseback rides, canoes and more.

“A lot of people love high mountain summers,” Steve Hyde says. “We’ll have several hundred people a day that come just for day activities. We’ll get people from Germany, England, Europe — just a little bit of everywhere. They want to come with their family and see a little bit of nature.”

During summer evenings, visitors can eat at local restaurants or attend the Yellowstone Playhouse, a dinner theater that opened in a new building this year on the north end of Island Park. It was formerly known as Mack’s Inn, but its popularly forced management to move.

The Yellowstone Playhouse opened in a new building this year. | Courtesy Drew Durrant

“When we took over the theater in 2008, there were 5,000 people coming. Last year, we had 13,000 people come. We were turning people away. So this new building is going to help us get more people in,” managing partner Drew Durrant told EastIdahoNews.com in May.

Just outside of Island Park is Mesa Falls. At Upper Mesa Falls, water pours over remnants of an ancient volcanic super-eruption. It’s 114 feet tall — as high as a 10-story building — and every day at its peak, around 2.5 billion gallons of water dump down the falls.

A mile south, a similar thing happens at Lower Mesa Falls. These are the last prominent waterfalls on the Snake River unaffected by manmade influences, and visitors can enjoy a scenic walking path leading to spectacular viewpoints.

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT MESA FALLS

Island Park in the winter

Although Island Park is beautiful in the summer, winter can be a different story. It snows. A lot. And temperatures can be brutal.

“You get a love for a snow shovel,” Hyde says with a smile.

In February, U.S 20, Interstate 15, and Idaho Highways 32, 47 and 87 all closed in Island Park due to severe weather. Locals say it was the first time in years they could recall being stranded, and many visitors were stuck for days until roads could be cleared.

Despite the intimidating weather, people still flock to the area for winter activities.

“You can snowmobile, and it really isn’t as cold as people think it is. You put your winter clothes on, and you work hard so you stay warm,” Paini says. “There is also cross country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing and other winter sports.”

Hyde enjoys ice fishing in the winter and uses a shanty to stay warm. A shanty is a portable shed placed on a frozen lake to provide shelter.

“You can have some awesome ice fishing days set up in a shanty. The little kids have a good time, and inside those shanties they heat up. You don’t even wear gloves or nothing,” Hyde says.

Living in Island Park

Most of the people who live in Island Park full-time year-round wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Island Park is a great place to live,” says Jon Stiehl, a partner at TroutHunter. “It’s a great community, it’s a good size, and it’s certainly unique in that we are so seasonal. The winters scare a lot of people off, but that means the people sticking around are a little more hardcore and tightly bound.”

Paini adds, “I love it because I’m surrounded by people that love and appreciate the area. You can’t live here if you don’t love it here.”

Residents have noticed a huge increase over the past few years of people using their cabins as Airbnb units. It means neighbors are often temporary “strangers,” according to Stiehl, but it’s a change that comes with the times.

Locals say they enjoy seeing worldwide visitors discover Island Park and whether you’re looking to fish, camp, float the river, hunt, snowmobile, cross country ski, ride a horse, or just enjoy nature, the town with the longest Main Street in America is proud to part of east Idaho.

“If you need a break from your life and the insanity of it, get to Island Park because it’s peace and quiet, and you can just relax,” Paini says with a smile.

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