The destruction that created Mesa Falls

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Upper Mesa Falls Photo credit: Janai Smith

Lava consumed the forest, carving its path with molten flows while heavy volcanic ash crept over the trees into the sky, absorbing sunlight and throwing the world into darkness.

After the ash had drifted thousands of feet high, it began to fall, settling and forming rhyolite tuff, the rock that formed the canyons at Mesa Falls. It stood unchanged until a small stream of water began to wind its way over the rocks, growing into the river that designed the massive canyon we see today.

The water continues to follow the path it created for itself a million years ago, before falling over 100 feet at Upper Mesa Falls. It moves its way over ancient rock, falling again at Lower Mesa Falls before continuing on through the Targhee National Forest, unaware of the destruction that created it.

According to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, a volcano 2,500 times more powerful than the 1980 Mt. St. Helen’s eruption in Washington, covered Idaho in ash and lava, burying places in Eastern Idaho in nearly 1,000 feet of volcanic ash.

The United States Geological Survey estimated that the Mesa Falls tuffs are about 1.3 million years old, a canvas of history anyone can enjoy by walking to the stunning overlook of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.

The Snake River Electric Light and Power Company built the Big Falls Inn in 1915, which became a popular spot for family and friends to gather, as it sits just a few feet away from Upper Mesa Falls and the volcanic rock cliffs. About 70 years later, Targhee National Forest received ownership of the land surrounding Mesa Falls and entered into a partnership with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to create a safe environment for the public to view the powerful waterfall.

The Big Falls Inn became the Mesa Falls Visitor Center, which is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The visitor center showcases natural and cultural exhibits while sharing the history of the volcano that created the Falls. It is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the summer and has limited hours in the winter on select weekends.

From the center, visitors can follow the short trail to the boardwalk to view Upper Mesa Falls. The trail overlooks the Snake River, as it moves through the national forest while the ground is littered with flowers in the early spring and summer months. From a few different beautiful lookouts, visitors can view the entire Upper Falls, where the roaring of the powerful water drowns conversation, and cool mist battles the summer heat.

According to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, 2.5 billion gallons of water pour over Upper Mesa Falls each day during its peak season. The water is part of a larger watershed that includes 1.7 million acres and over 3000 miles of rivers and streams including the area of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the department reported. As the water travels over thousands of miles, it brings new life for the future.

“Mesa Falls hasn’t really changed much in the last 100 years, so I doubt in the next 100 years it will change very much at all,” said Liz Davy, a forest service district ranger. “It is volcanic rock. It’s not sedimentary so it takes geological time to break it down and erode it.”

The rhyolite tuff forming the canyon walls surrounding Mesa Falls will stand for hundreds of years to come, making it a beautiful place for generations of visitors to come and see.

From Upper Mesa Falls, visitors can continue on and hike about one mile to Lower Mesa Falls through the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. If one is lucky, they may have the chance of spotting a moose, fox, peregrine falcon, osprey hawk or black bear from a distance. Even though the trail is well-used by hikers, it offers a peaceful and serene escape from the rest of the world.

The river controls the forest, carving its path through the great rock canyons while bright-green swallows dart above the tree-line, their colorful feathers catching the light as they fill the air with song.

“It’s the most beautiful place on the planet,” Davis said. “I believe that truly.”