By: Marc Bowen
A couple of weeks ago I drove up to Mesa Falls, about a 45 minute drive from where I live. This area is located just north of Ashton Idaho on the Mesa Falls Scenic By Way. What a beautiful drive, most of it along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. After you pass the Bear Gulch area one of the first turnouts you come to is the Lower Mesa Falls parking lot. If you walk over to the viewing area you can see the lower falls down in the canyon. Personally I have not shot a photo of the lower falls from this viewing area because I haven’t found an angle that I like. You really need a long lens to get a decent shot from this vantage point. Less then a mile up the road is the turn off to Upper Mesa Falls. This is a fee area and there is a visitor center there that is worth checking out.
HIKING MESA FALLS NATURE TRAIL
As I parked my car in the parking lot I put my backpack on with the intention of hiking the Mesa Falls Nature Trail. The trail head is at the south end of the parking lot and is an easy 2.2 mile in and out hike that takes you to a plateau just above the lower falls. My plan was to hike this trail, get some shots of Lower Mesa Falls and then shoot the upper falls. It’s a pretty hike through fairly thick forest. I saw and heard plenty of birds during this first part of the hike. About half way down the trail I decided to leave the trail and hike over to the edge of the canyon for some photos but also to see if there was a way down into the canyon. I wanted, if possible, to find a way down and then hike up river to get a shot of the upper falls from a different vantage point.
There are steep cliffs pretty much all along the canyon below the upper falls. I searched at great length for a way down and found a few places where I MIGHT have been able to descend safely but I probably wouldn’t have been able to climb back out so I gave up.
At that point I discovered that I had lost my water bottle somewhere so I searched for a while but didn’t find it. I decided not to hike the rest of the way down to the lower falls and back without water. So I hiked back to the upper falls to get a few shots.
Upper Mesa Falls is about 114 feet high and 200 feet wide. You can hear the roar of the falls from the parking lot. There is a half mile of boardwalk and viewing platforms between the falls and the visitor center. After exploring some of the paths and enjoying the view from some of the platforms I headed home, did some research and and found out that there is indeed a way down into the canyon.
DESCENDING INTO THE CANYON
So… today’s trip to the falls was for the purpose of getting some shots from down in the canyon. I arrived just before sunrise before anyone else was there, loaded my camera gear, water and snacks into my backpack and headed down to the southern most viewing platform. I then carefully climbed over the guard rail onto a rocky outcropping and then down a very steep mostly unused trail.
In the above photo (upper right corner) you can see the stairs down to one of several viewing platforms. To the right of the platform is where the trail begins. I doubt very much that the park staff want visitors climbing over the rail. That’s why I went early before the visitor center opened or any other visitors arrived. I didn’t want anybody else following me over the rail and down the steep dangerous trail. If you are not a photographer I would not recommend doing this. Its just not worth it considering there are better views of the falls from above.
ON THE RIVER BELOW THE FALLS
It took me about 20 minutes to reach the river. One thing not real noticeable until you see the falls from this perspective is that Upper Mesa Falls is actually a series of two falls with a smaller water fall just below the big one.
The hike back out with 25-30 lbs on my back was definitely more challenging then the hike down. After climbing back out and over the rail, the bench in the viewing area was a welcome sight and sorely needed until I got my breathing under control and some water down me. No regrets though. Another little adventure checked off my list. I still want to finish the Mesa Falls Nature Trail hike and explore the Lower Mesa Falls area and will do so in the near future.