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The Falls of Greater Yellowstone Country

Day Trip destinations to the crown jewels of our region's waterways

Published in the June 2022 Issue Published online: Jun 30, 2022 Discover Idaho Falls: Parks and Recreation, East Idaho Outdoors, Outdoors, Road Trips Steve Smede
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FEW SCENIC VISTAS CAN MATCH THE GRANDEUR OF OUR REGION’S ICONIC RIVERS AND THEIR THUNDERING VERTICAL CASCADES. From the secluded and the quaint to the wildly majestic, waterfalls dot the map. Most of them are readily accessible, while some require a bit more dedicated exploration into the heart of our fabled wilderness areas. A comprehensive summary could easily fill a book, but here’s just a handful to consider for your upcoming adventures.

East Idaho’s Island Park area has at least half a dozen waterfalls, but Upper Mesa Falls is definitely the star of the show. The water feature itself is eye-popping, made all the more impressive by the riverside viewing platforms that put visitors right in the thralls of its misty microclimate.

Adjacent to the upper falls is the historic Mesa Falls Visitor Center, which features a treasure trove of information about the falls, the river and natural features of the area. It also serves as the trailhead for the Mesa Nature Trail, which follows the ancient volcanic rim downstream to the viewing area of the lower falls.

Both waterfalls and the surrounding riverscape are the result of ancient volcanic processes stretching back a million years or more. The upper falls drops 114 feet and spans 200 feet across the entire width of the river. The lower falls is a shorter 65-foot drop, but looking at it from a nearly bird’s-eye vantage point at its designated overlook, you’d think the lower falls was the larger of the two.

More of a tumbling cascade than a waterfall, Warm River Springs is just a quick hop from Upper Mesa Falls as you head north on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. At its headwaters, Warm River literally “springs” out of the mountainside. The waters are crystal clear, embroidered with lush mint-green foliage. 

It doesn’t have the wow-factor of Mesa, but it’s an enchanting little side trip that would be well worth your time. Drive slow as you near the springs and you might be able to catch a glimpse of a resident moose crossing the river. It’s also a decent fishing spot for small trout.

Next to the springs is the historical Warm River Cabin, built back in 1938. It is available for rent from the U.S. Forest Service between May and March.

For most visitors to Yellowstone, Cave Falls on the Fall River is a remote isolated corner of the park that would be hardly worth a visit. Well, they are about half-right. This attraction is indeed way off the beaten path for the hordes of traffic flooding through the main entrances. But for east Idaho travelers, it’s an easy-access side trip from Island Park. In fact, the turnoff to Cave Falls Road is just outside of Marysville where the scenic byway begins.

Still inside the park, Cave Falls occurs shortly downstream of the Fall River’s confluence with the Bechler River. The whole area inside the park is known as the Bechler Backcountry, which includes numerous other falls, including Dunanda Falls, Silver Scarf Falls, Ouzel Falls, Colonnade Falls and Iris Falls.

The vertical drop at Cave Falls is only 20 feet, but the formation spans 250 across–the entire length of the river. Access is excellent right off the roadway and parking area. Just don’t forget your skeeter spray.

At 308 feet high, Lower Yellowstone Falls sits in the heart of Yellowstone National Park. It has nearly twice the total drop as Niagara Falls. It’s only 70 feet wide, which makes the violent outpour all the more spectacular. You’ll find vantage points aplenty, including Uncle Tom’s Trail, a switchback series of stairs that drape the cliffs above the river. It’s Yellowstone, after all, so be ready to battle the crowds.

BTW, just upstream, Upper Yellowstone Falls is also certainly worth a look. With a drop of “only” 109 feet, it is significantly smaller than its downstream counterpart, but it’s every bit as breathtaking, especially when you’re standing on the viewing platform near its precipice.

If you’re willing to trek it up to the park’s northeastern corner, check out Tower Fall. (Note that’s singular, not plural as usual. Who knows why.) Its historical significance is tied to photographer William Henry Jackson in 1871, whose iconic image of the waterfall helped convince U.S. legislators to establish Yellowstone as the country’s first national park in 1872. It plunges 132 feet, flanked by interesting volcanic rock formations. It’s also smack-dab in the middle of intense wildlife territory, frequented by bighorn sheep, various birds of prey and the occasional black bear.

Take the turnoff for Firehole Canyon right off the main loop road, and you’ll eventually find this stunning 40-foot tall water feature. Viewing access is easy, assuming you can find a space in the small adjacent parking lot. Put this one on your list if you come back in winter. Depending on the light and temperature, you might be treated to a visual treat of steam billowing from the river as the falls rumble down.

This quaint but picturesque waterfall can be found just off the road between Madison and Norris junctions. Its easy access and ample parking make it a bit of circus environment in peak park hours, but there are numerous vantage points to get a good picture or two. The Gibbon River drapes over rolling rock formations for about 84 feet into a small, clear pool. 

One of the signature features of the majestic South Fork of the Snake River, Fall Creek Falls drops 60 feet from its source—Fall Creek—into a quiet eddy that’s just a stone’s throw upstream from the highway bridge at Swan Valley. It’s a beautiful sight, especially in the fall. You can also access the eddy by boat, providing an even more interesting perspective. Mornings are best for photos from up top, while evenings provide great light from the waterline.

Located off of U.S. Highway 20 just south of Island Park, this waterfall/cascade is probably the least spectacular in terms of height and volume, but the scenery is incredible. The trail itself is a delight, full of adjacent wildflower meadows and all kinds of wildlife viewing opportunities. Bring a fishing pole and you’ll find some great spots further downstream where you can wet a line and cast for resident rainbow trout.

If you’re willing to expand your early summer adventure footprint another 2 hours west, consider a late May to mid June excursion to “The Niagara of the West,” better known as Shoshone Falls.

Located just north of the city of Twin Falls, Shoshone drops 212 feet over a rim that spans an amazing 1,000 feet. Rich in history, it has been a tourist attraction since the 1860s. It gets more traffic today than ever before, especially in early summer when flows are at their peak. Flow rates can reach upwards of 20,000 cubic feet per second during late spring. 

Are you new to Idaho Falls, or just visiting on your way up north to Yellowstone? True to its name, East Idaho’s City on the Snake has an amazing—albeit not entirely natural— waterfall that is a magnet for tourists and locals alike. In fact, it is the long-time centerpiece of the city’s expansive greenbelt system, now known as the Idaho Falls River Walk. The best view of the falls can be found on the west bank along River Parkway, where you’ll find a roundabout, a fair amount of riverside parking, plenty of benches and nearby eateries. The city’s historic downtown district is just a stone’s throw away across the Broadway Bridge.

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