Friday, June 24, 2011

Fools Following the Marmots and Deer


The thing about following game trails is this:

Deer will go anywhere and climb up pretty much anything without giving a hoot or holler for who might follow them.

It might not be deer. The trails we follow as we walk our way to and around Upper and Lower Mesa Falls on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River may very well have been carved by generations of marmots, which are even more mobile and more loco than the deer.

Then there’s the wife factor. Not that she minds following the trails at random, wandering through the scrub under the canopy of pines and quaken aspen. It’s just that she jogs. She’s in better shape than I am. So when I get to the top of a rather steep slope, wheezing and looking for a place to park my sorry carcass, she’s pacing to and fro, fretting in her own kind way: “Come on, I’ve got to keep my heart rate up. That’s the deal!”

Here’s the other deal: If you travel along Idaho’s Mesa Falls Scenic Byway and only stop long enough to see the Upper Mesa Falls, you’re missing a lot of awesome stuff that you can only see when you park your car and follow one of the many trails that lead to and from the two waterfalls in the area and then in random directions, depending on where the deer or marmot wanted to head that day.

We start with a fairly basic trail from our camping spot at Grandview Campground (so called, I suppose, for the fact that from anywhere in the campsite you can hear Lower Mesa Falls tumbling 85 feet through a tight U-bend in the rock to the river below but you can’t really see it unless you head to the lookout north of camp). The trail winds through forests, meadows filled with bluebells and wild daisies, brief stretches of fragrant sagebrush flats and near and far from the canyon rim for about a mile before it merges with the road that snakes down the canyon to Upper Mesa Falls.

My advice: Go visit now. An unusually wet winter coupled with an extremely soggy spring has brought out the green in full force along the trail. I literally have never seen this area so green, and so varied in its greens – the blue-green of sagebrush filling the air with that odd, nostrummy tang of sage and pepper; the bright, eager green of the quaken aspen leaves, the dark, barky green of snake grass and the green of the pine needles, alternating between the spiky green of the old needles to the downy green of spring’s new growth.

Walk slowly through all that green. As you do you’ll see the wild birds the populate the area – Cooper’s hawks, robins, yellow finches and, occasionally, the mountain bluebird. You’ll hear the sharp barky cries of the marmots, calling out to each other as they watch you through the undergrowth. We saw several of them, including a young ‘un, perched on the side of the road watching as we descended to Upper Mesa Falls, watching from a fallen log as we walked the trail back to camp. They probably wanted to know what we were doing on their private highway.

Then there’s the other trail – wilder, steeper, more mysterious. We found it leading from the corner of a tiny parking lot just south of Grandview, where boaters park to prepare their light craft for a strenuous journey down the skid trail to the river. We wanted to find the river so the boys could throw rocks. We never found it. Instead, wandering down that trail that sometimes brought us close to the roar of the falls through the trees and sometimes brought us to spots where the trees swallowed up the roar of the falls completely, we came to a spot where the deer or marmot decided walking along the canyon rim would be a good idea. Mountainous trees to the right, a rocky stumble of volcanic basalt blocks descending fifty or sixty feet to the right.

We opted to turn around. Next time, though, I’m going further.

Next time, too, we’re finding that trail that leads exclusively from the upper falls to the lower falls so we can stand on the butte overlooking that tight U-bend where the water tumbles, living again the axiom science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke put in the mouth of space explorer Robert Kleinman in “Imperial Earth”:

Space is small; only the planets are big.

Our planet is big. We know this as we wander the tiny trails off the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. We only traveled along those trails for five miles or so and saw not even the tiniest fraction of the entire canyon, where the Henry’s Fork punches through the southern wall of the Island Park caldera to the Snake River Plain below.

Space is small; only the planets are big. And we’re only beginning our explorations.

Getting there: The Lower Mesa Falls overlook off State Highway 47, about ten miles northeast of Ashton, Idaho, is an excellent place to leave your vehicle behind and begin exploring the Mesa Falls area. From the overlook, you can either walk north to the Upper Mesa Falls, about two miles away, or south along the canyon rim past the Lower Mesa Falls lookout, Grandview Campground and on towards Bear Gulch, where other trails, including a rails-to-trails that links Ashton, Idaho, to West Yellowstone, Montana, branch off.

Parking at the Lower Mesa Falls overlook is free. Parking at Upper Mesa Falls isn’t – that costs $10 per carload. Nothing stops you from making the walk to Upper Mesa Falls from the lower falls to avoid paying the fee, however. Potable water and bathrooms are also available at the Grandview campground.

The campground itself costs $13 per night. If you have a second vehicle, the price goes up $6. There aren’t many spots at the campsite, so plan on getting there early – it’s first come, first served.

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