Upper Mesa Falls

Caribou-Targhee National Forest / Ashton, Idaho, USA

About Upper Mesa Falls

Hiking Distance: 3/4 mile loop
Suggested Time: 30-45 minutes

Date first visited: 2004-06-18
Date last visited: 2017-08-14

Waterfall Latitude: 44.18782
Waterfall Longitude: -111.32966

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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.

Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_043_08142017 - Upper Mesa Falls
Upper Mesa Falls

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 Upper Mesa 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 help us learn more about both the geologic and human history here as well as the inner workings of the native ecosystem.

Upper Mesa Falls History

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.

This eruption was 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.

Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_010_08142017 - The historic Big Falls Inn
The historic Big Falls Inn

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 re-purposed 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.

Experiencing Upper Mesa Falls

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. Since it was a loop walk anyways, it didn’t matter which direction we went.

Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_071_08142017 - The boardwalk along the rim of the Henrys Fork near the brink of the Upper Mesa Falls.  Wheelchair accessibility only gets you up to overlooks higher up the slope
The boardwalk along the rim of the Henrys Fork near the brink of the Upper Mesa Falls. Wheelchair accessibility only gets you up to overlooks higher up the slope

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.

However, the steps and boardwalks were what brought us right onto the rim of the Henry’s Fork. Once down at the rim, 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.


Upper Mesa Falls resides in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_001_08142017 - At the Upper Mesa Falls parking lot
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_017_08142017 - Julie and Tahia checking out how high the snow had gotten this past Winter
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_018_08142017 - Julie and Tahia following along a wheelchair-accessible path as we approached the Upper Mesa Falls
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_090_08142017 - Looking at the stairs that would lead us down to the closest lookouts for the Henry's Fork and the Upper Mesa Falls
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_092_08142017 - Looking downstream at the Henry's Fork
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_095_08142017 - Context of the lookouts that were right on the rim of the canyon carved out by the Henry's Fork of the Snake River
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_033_08142017 - Making it down to an attractive profile view of the Upper Mesa Falls
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_047_08142017 - Context of some folks checking out the Upper Mesa Falls
Upper_Mesa_Falls_006_06182004 - This was what the Upper Mesa Falls looked like back in June 2004
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_049_08142017 - Descending towards the lookouts by the brink of the Upper Mesa Falls
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_051_08142017 - During our August 2017 visit, we happened to have arrived when there was a pretty large group at the brink of the Upper Mesa Falls
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_065_08142017 - The brink of the Upper Mesa Falls
Upper_Mesa_Falls_001_06182004 - Looking at the Upper Mesa Falls from its brink back in June 2004
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_086_08142017 - Looking over the top of Upper Mesa Falls as we were taking these steps back up
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_091_08142017 - Looking back at the boardwalk that was a little higher than the ones along the brink that we had just passed through earlier
Upper_Mesa_Falls_014_06182004 - 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 waterfall
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_098_08142017 - Julie and Tahia looking for huckleberries along the trail
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_099_08142017 - Back at the Big Falls Inn to complete the loop
Upper_Mesa_Falls_17_103_08142017 - On the porch of the Big Falls Inn


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.

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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Tagged with: idaho falls, idaho, waterfall, targhee, caribou, national forest, ashton, west yellowstone, yellowstone, henrys fork, freemont, mesa falls scenic byway

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