In the wooded regions of Idaho there is an attraction that would certainly enjoy greater notoriety were it not for the cumbersome proximity of Yellowstone Park, whose majesty inevitably tends to diminish the natural beauty of the surroundings. I refer to the Mesa Falls, hidden gem of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, a forest of over 10000 square kilometers that extends to the parks of Grand Teton and Yellowstone. The Mesa Falls are actually 2: le Upper Mesa Falls e le Lower Mesa Falls and are accessible via the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway.
The falls area is easily accessible, representing a fascinating strategic stop for those who decide to visit Yellowstone from the West side. So let's see how to visit the entire site and fully enjoy all the attractions it offers.
- Where they are and how to get there
- Upper Mesa Falls
- Lower Mesa Falls
- Mesa Falls Nature Trail
- Grandview Overlook
- Mesa Falls Scenic Byway
- Where to eat
Where they are and how to get there
Mesa Falls are located in eastern Idaho, near the village of Ashton, in Fremont County, not far from the Montana and Wyoming border, an hour away from the town of West Yellowstone, from which you can easily plan a day trip. If you are heading to the famous Yellowstone Park from Salt Lake City you will encounter these falls along the way, making only a small detour on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, which we'll talk about shortly.
It is a destination that can also be visited for those who decide to travel the route Jackson-West Yellowstone passing outside the park (in this case the falls are just under 2 hours from Jackson), although in truth it is quite rare to opt for this itinerary when you have the opportunity to cross Yellowstone passing by some pearls such as Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring and Norris Geyser Basin.
The first thing to do is to reach the Visitor Center (Upper Mesa Falls Rd, Ashton, ID 83420), a beautiful mountain chalet from which the 2 trails that allow you to enjoy a close view of the Upper and Lower Mesa Falls. To reach the viewpoint on the Lower Mesa Falls instead (Grandview Overlook) you will have to take the car back. But let's take it slow, let's start with the nearest waterfalls.
Upper Mesa Falls
A short walk from the visitor center is the trail that descends to the viewing platform for a close up view of the thunderous Upper Mesa Falls. The path is short (about 1 km round trip) and quite simple (the descent is facilitated by a comfortable walkway with steps). There are many vantage points from which to take photos, and if you're lucky, just like Niagara Falls, you can catch a glimpse of a rainbow forming in front of the falls on sunny mornings. The path is well indicated and enriched by explanatory panels about the history and formation of the falls.
Lower Mesa Falls
There are 2 ways to see Lower Mesa Falls, one from afar and one up close.
- the easiest way is to see them through the lookout point Grandview Overlook, easily accessible by car
- if you have more time to invest you can walk the path Mesa Falls Nature Trail which allows a close view of the falls
Mesa Falls Nature Trail
The trail starts from the Visitor Center parking lot, is 3,5km round trip, and leads to the plateau above the Lower Mesa Falls. The more adventurous continue from here until they reach the very edge of the falls, obviously you need to be careful. The walk winds its way through the forest and, as it does not present particular slopes or differences in height, it is quite easy for everyone to tackle.
The Grandview Overlook is a viewpoint that allows you to admire the falls from a greater distance, but at the same time offers a beautiful overview, it is also very convenient and easy to reach (just 5 minutes by car from the Visitor Center). From the Visitor Center, go back to get back there Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, turn right and after 900 meters you will find a turning to the right again for a parking lot. Park the car, in a few steps you will reach the belevedere from which to admire the Lower Falls in all their majesty.
Do you like waterfalls? You may not have known that, but in Idaho there are Niagara Falls of the West: they are called Shoshone Falls and are worth seeing! And if your tour also touches the State of Washington you could reach the Palouse Falls, a beautiful little-known waterfall that truly offers a postcard view.
Mesa Falls Scenic Byway
The Mesa Falls Parkway is a detour from US-20 that starts at Ashton Village (from ID 47) and rejoins the main road after 28,7 miles (approximately 46km), taking approximately 1 hour to be fully covered. The main attractions are the 2 waterfalls we talked about and Harriman State Park, an enchanting natural reserve of approximately 4500 hectares. The road runs mostly along wooded areas but personally it is the sun-kissed grasslands of the first part of the Byway that have won me over the most.
Are you in the mood for a little detour?
Once off the panoramic road, drive for about half an hour on US-20 and, in correspondence with the town of Island Park, take the right Big Springs Loop Road heading to Big Springs, where it awaits you Johnny Sack’s Cabin, the perfect subject for a postcard photo.
Where to eat
As a stop for lunch I recommend the Frostop Drive Inn, in Ashton, just over 20 minutes by car from the falls; it is a very quaint place where I ate a great burger, also suitable for a very quick stop as you can order directly from the car (we are in a Drive Inn after all). If you are curious you can also taste the home-made root beer, a particular source of pride for the restaurant.
There is a number of accommodations around the Mesa Falls, particularly useful for those who want to explore the Caribou-Targhee National Forest area, however in most cases they tend to use the Mesa Falls as a stopover and sleep then to West Yellowstone, an ideal base for exploring the park and the surrounding beauties (not to be discarded absolutely also Virginia and Nevada City). For targeted advice in this regard, I refer you to our tips on where to sleep in West Yellowstone.