Thursday, August 14, 2008

Yay! More Uncharted!

Visiting Idaho’s Hidden Falls

Here’s the deal: Finding Fall Creek Falls in Bonneville County, Idaho, isn’t the easiest thing to do if you’ve never been there. But once you find them, once you feel the mist floating through the ordinarily dry air and see the Snake River winding through that shag carpet of greenery sixty feet below your feet, you’ll never forget where the falls fall.

I drove right past the falls the first time through and had to do the ultimate in Guy Humiliation – stop and ask directions. But heading back was worth it. Going from east to west, you can see the falls – ribbons of water tumbling down to the river – through the pine and quaken aspen boughs; they’re just not visible going west to east.

The falls are often called Idaho’s hidden falls – they’re not readily visible, as I mentioned, from the east and are, in fact, even a bit hard to see even when you’re practically standing on top of them. They’re not visible at all from the other side of the river – the river here is at least a half-mile wide, interrupted by islands populated with rather tall cottonwoods. The falls are most often seen from the river, and then only from the two channels closest to the falls.

They’re worth finding. From one small creek that rushes out of a sloping valley that hangs practically on the river’s edge, the falls divide into ribbons of white water, splashing over formations of travertine rock to tumble onto travertine-coated basalt a the bottom, sixty feet below. The falls have one major fall, decorated on both sides by a multitude of smaller ribbons.

The travertine rock may look a little dirty and nondescript (indeed, I thought it was simply carefully-layered mud until I hit my head on an outcropping) but considering it’s the same type of stone that the architects of the Taj Mahal at Agra, India, the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris, and the rock formations at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, beauty lies in what is not on the surface. The rock is formed from calcium that precipitates out of the water. Big hunks of the cliff have fallen as the falls and river erode the rock below. The fallen rock has exposed cavities in the rock, which swallows and other local birds use as nests. As we sat on the cliff edge, watching the water, the birds darted into and out of their holes behind and below us, amazing our kids with their stunt flying. At times, it looked like they were going to crash, as the holes they were aiming for were visible only to them.

The jagged cliffs make for easy climbing – the only way to get to the base of the falls if you haven’t arrived by boat.

And plenty of people do arrive by boat. During the hour we climbed the cliffs and watched the falls, about half a dozen boats and rafts came and went. We never did spot the family we could hear hooting and hollering from the rocks below, as the falls spread over about thirty feet of cliff, including part we couldn’t get to through the thick brush that lines the creek’s northern edge.

If you get tired of looking at the falls, look at the river. It meanders through the valley in both directions, dominating the landscape. Its shores and islands are dotted with cottonwood trees, forming one of the largest cottonwood forests in the world.

Getting there: From Idaho Falls (or Jackson, Wyoming, if you’re coming from the other direction) travel on U.S. Highway 26. Either way, you’re looking for the bridge that crosses the Snake River just a few miles from where the highway descends into the Conant Valley from the west. On the south side of the river, just before the highway crosses on the bridge, there’s a gravel road that squeezes between the river and the cliffs, heading east. Take that road for about a mile or so, until the road crosses a small creek. Immediately after crossing the creek, pull into the pullout on your left. Walk up one of the trails from the pullout to the cliff’s edge, and you’ll see Fall Creek Falls.

What to bring: Lunch; this is a good spot for a picnic. Binoculars; the area around the falls is a popular fishing spot with the local birds of prey. Sturdy shoes and a swimsuit; The falls are popular with bathers, but the only way down to the falls from the top is to clamber down a travertine cliff. We did the first leg with three small children and a wiener dog quite easily. Once at the bottom, enjoy splashing in the pools that form at the falls’ base, or in the river itself, which eddies into a small cove at the falls’ feet. You can also stand under the falls themselves. Be careful of the river channel itself, especially in springtime. The Snake is notorious for undercurrents and fast water that can take even an experienced swimmer by surprise.

Trivia: When you stand at the top of the falls, you’re standing at exactly 5,280 feet above sea level – exactly one mile.

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