Upper Mesa Falls

Caribou-Targhee National Forest / near Ashton / Fremont County, Idaho, USA

Rating: 3     Difficulty: 1.5
Upper Mesa Falls

TABLE OF CONTENTS



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INTRODUCTION

Upper Mesa Falls was a spectacular river waterfall on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River. Said to be as tall as a 10-story building (114ft) and 200ft wide with a flow rate that would vary between 600-1500 cubic feet per second (or 387-967 million gallons per day), it was one of the few remaining giant waterfalls on the Snake River system not to succumb to human interference. Typically, we give big wide river waterfalls a lot of love as you can see from the ratings that we gave waterfalls such as (Niagara Falls, Cumberland Falls, Tahquamenon Falls, Rhine Falls, Raukawa Falls, and even the nearby Cave Falls just to name a few), and this waterfall was no different. If there was one thing holding us back from giving this falls an even higher score, it would be that we couldn't get that satifying view of the entire width of the falls. Nevertheless, we were still able to experience the power and beauty of this falls from an easy trail and boardwalk that looped from the historic Big Falls Inn and took in a handful of lookouts both near the falls and further away to better appreciate the surroundings. Interpretive signs were also placed throughout the loop walk to learn more about both the geologic and human history here as well as the inner workings of the native ecosystem.

The waterfall formed from a combination of rhyolite tuff (referred to here as the Mesa Falls tuff) and basalt lava that resulted from a supervolcano eruption said to have occurred about a million years ago (said to be the second of three such eruptions each in their own separate giant calderas of which the most famous one was within the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the northeast of here). Tuff was basically the result of superheated volcanic ash and molten granite fusing together in the high temperatures of the eruption to form the hard erosion-resistant rock layer that gave rise to the drop in the Henry's Fork that we know today as the Upper Mesa Falls.

The Big Falls Inn was originally built around 1915 as possibly an office or accommodation for workers of the Snake River Electric Light and Power Company. The Montana Power Company then took over the inn in 1936. Amazingly a hydroelectric plant was never built for one reason or another even though both owners of the inn had intended to erect one to harness the obvious power that the waterfall displayed. Somehow the inn then instead became a hotel, cafe, and dance hall, then it later became a stagecoach stop for tourist as well as ranchers and sportsmen headed to Yellowstone via the west entrance. These days (since 1986), the Big Falls Inn was repurposed into a forest service visitor center and shop. Indeed, the end result of this haphazard circumstance of a near miss when it came to taming the Snake River ensured that everyone would get to enjoy this part of Eastern Idaho for generations to come.

Our short 3/4-mile loop walk began by taking a short path from one of the parking lots to the Big Falls Inn. Then, we had our choice of which direction to walk (it was a loop walk anyways so which way we went didn't matter much). The paved paths were wheelchair-accessible, and it wound up bringing us to a couple of lookouts with distant top down views of the Upper Mesa Falls, but the steps and boardwalks were what brought us right onto the rim of the Henry's Fork where we not only got the view you see pictured at the top of the falls, but it also brought us to its brink and some of the scenery further upstream of the falls. When we observed the steep cliffs opposite the Henry's Fork, we could clearly see hints of the violent past (such as the rhyolite tuff layer and hexagonal basalt layer) that gave rise to such beauty that we got to enjoy this day. Overall, we spent about an hour away from the car though we really took our time and even took the time chatting with some of the other visitors who were also enjoying their time here.




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PHOTO JOURNAL

The Mesa Falls Scenic Byway was a detour we took on the way to Yellowstone National Park, where we could experience predictable geysers like the Old Faithful GeyserThe Mesa Falls Scenic Byway was a detour we took on the way to Yellowstone National Park, where we could experience predictable geysers like the Old Faithful Geyser
Had we gone west from Idaho Falls instead of north to the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, we would have reached the Craters of the Moon National Monument, which was a desolate yet scenic placeHad we gone west from Idaho Falls instead of north to the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, we would have reached the Craters of the Moon National Monument, which was a desolate yet scenic place
And if we went east from Idaho Falls instead of north to the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, we would have entered the Grand Teton National Park from the southAnd if we went east from Idaho Falls instead of north to the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, we would have entered the Grand Teton National Park from the south
At the Upper Mesa Falls parking lotAt the parking lot

Approaching the historic Big Falls InnApproaching the historic Big Falls Inn

Julie and Tahia checking out how high the snow had gotten this past WinterJulie and Tahia checking out how high the snow had gotten this past Winter

Julie and Tahia following along a wheelchair-accessible path as we approached the Upper Mesa FallsJulie and Tahia following along a wheelchair-accessible path as we approached the falls

Looking at the stairs that would lead us down to the closest lookouts for the Henry's Fork and the Upper Mesa FallsLooking at the stairs that would lead us down to the closest lookouts for the Henry's Fork and the Upper Mesa Falls

Looking downstream at the Henry's ForkLooking downstream at the Henry's Fork

Context of the lookouts that were right on the rim of the canyon carved out by the Henry's Fork of the Snake RiverContext of the lookouts that were right on the rim of the canyon carved out by the Henry's Fork of the Snake River

Making it down to an attractive profile view of the Upper Mesa FallsMaking it down to an attractive profile view of the Upper Mesa Falls

Context of some folks checking out the Upper Mesa FallsContext of some folks checking out the Upper Mesa Falls

This was what the Upper Mesa Falls looked like back in June 2004This was what the Upper Mesa Falls looked like back in June 2004

Descending towards the lookouts by the brink of the Upper Mesa FallsDescending towards the lookouts by the brink of the falls

During our August 2017 visit, we happened to have arrived when there was a pretty large group at the brink of the Upper Mesa FallsDuring our August 2017 visit, we happened to have arrived when there was a pretty large group at the brink of the falls

Looking back at the viewing spots right at the brink of Upper Mesa FallsLooking back at the viewing spots right at the brink of the falls

The brink of the Upper Mesa FallsThe brink of the Upper Mesa Falls

Looking at the Upper Mesa Falls from its brink back in June 2004Looking at the falls from its brink back in June 2004

Looking over the top of Upper Mesa Falls as we were taking these steps back upLooking over the top of the falls as we were taking these steps back up

Looking back at the boardwalk that was a little higher than the ones along the brink that we had just passed through earlierLooking back at the boardwalk that was a little higher than the ones along the brink that we had just passed through earlier

Looking down at a visitor who had just finished checking out Upper Mesa Falls from its brink. This kind of provided some sense of scale regarding the size of this waterfallLooking down at a visitor who had just finished checking out Upper Mesa Falls from its brink. This kind of provided some sense of scale regarding the size of this waterfall.

Julie and Tahia looking for huckleberries along the trailJulie and Tahia looking for huckleberries along the trail

Back at the Big Falls Inn to complete the loopBack at the Big Falls Inn to complete the loop

On the porch of the Big Falls InnOn the portch of the Big Falls Inn


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VIDEOS OF THE FALLS


Checking out the falls from the best viewing spots


Pretty much experiencing all the overlooks near the brink of the falls


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DRIVING DIRECTIONS

We managed to visit this waterfall by driving along the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway (Hwy 47), which detoured from the Hwy 20 in two places. The nearest town to the south was Ashton and the nearest major town to the north was West Yellowstone, Montana.

So coming from Ashton, we'd exit the US Hwy 20 at Main Street, then drive east for over 15 miles to the well-signed turnoff for the Upper Mesa Falls on the left (roughly 0.6 miles north of the turnoff for the Lower Mesa Falls). A short 0.7-mile spur road led down to a couple of fairly large parking lots near the Big Falls Inn. There was someone collecting USDA Forest Service fees at the parking lot, but she accepted our Interagency Pass (formerly the National Parks Pass). This drive would take under 30 minutes.

Coming from West Yellowstone, we'd drive west then south along the US Hwy 20 for a little over 35 miles before turning left (easy to miss) onto the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway (or Hwy 47). We'd then follow that road for almost the next 13 miles before turning right onto the well-signed turnoff for the Upper Mesa Falls. This stretch of driving was about 49 miles (taking just under an hour).

For additional context, West Yellowstone, Montana was 55 miles (under an hour drive) north of Ashton via the US Hwy 20, 58 miles (at least 90 minutes drive) south of Gardiner, Montana, 90 miles (over 90 minutes drive) south of Bozeman, Montana, 72 miles (under 2 hours drive) north of Flagg Ranch (near Yellowstone's South Entrance), 108 miles (2 hours drive) north of Idaho Falls, Idaho, 158 miles (over 2.5 hours drive) north of Pocatello, and 321 miles (about 4.5 hours drive) north of Salt Lake City, Utah.




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ITINERARIES

For more information about our itineraries involving this waterfall, check out the following links.




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MAP OF THE FALLS



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TRIP REPORTS

For more information about our experiences with this waterfall, check out the following travel stories.




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TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES




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NEARBY WATERFALLS




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