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 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.
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.
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.
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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