Shoshone Falls: Tamed but never conquered
In the mid to late 19th century, many travelers on the Oregon Trail took a slight detour off the main route as it passed through Southern Idaho in order to visit Shoshone Falls, which some called the “Niagara of the West.”
In those days, Shoshone Falls was spectacular. Shaped like a massive crescent—it is about 1,000 feet wide—this marvelous waterfall on the Snake River had a spill of 212 feet—a longer fall, in fact, than Niagara.
Progress, however, forever changed Shoshone Falls. While it’s still possible to see the river thunder over the falls, particularly in high-water years or during the winter and spring, the waterfall becomes a trickle in dry years or high water use times.
The reason for Shoshone Falls’ seasonal flows is that during the summer and fall the river is diverted to irrigate farms in the surrounding Magic Valley.
While there was some discussion about designating the area a national park, the issue was settled in 1902 by a landmark court decision in favor of the irrigation interests.
Starting in 1901, a giant vertical tunnel was constructed into the rock above the falls. A 500-watt power plant was constructed in 1905-07 to provide power for the nearby town of Twin Falls, Idaho.
Despite the changes made to the Shoshone Falls ecosystem, a visit to the site is worthwhile. The falls are part of the visually spectacular Snake River Canyon, a deep, winding chasm at the north edge of Twin Falls.
While originally shaped by glacial and volcanic activity, many of the unusual geological formations found in the canyon region were created some 30,000 years ago by a massive flood known as the Bonneville Flood.
Historians say that was when ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered nearly all of northern Utah and parts of southern Idaho, spilled over its traditional boundaries, causing a wall of water—believed to be one cubic mile in size—to crash into the Snake River near what is now Pocatello.
The incredible force of the water created the Snake River Canyon’s large depressions and picturesque cliffs—of which Shoshone Falls in the most impressive.
Even in the months when the flow of the Snake River is lower, it’s worth visiting Shoshone Falls because more of the sheer cliff walls are exposed. During those times, you can usually view two large ribbons of water spilling over the worn yet expressive basalt walls.
Shoshone Falls Park, adjacent to the falls, makes for a pleasant place for an afternoon picnic in the shadow of the cascading water. The park includes a fenced overlook that provides a splendid panoramic view of the area.
In the wetter spring months, Shoshone Falls widens and smaller rivulets of water will erupt from the surrounding canyon walls, including around the Shoshone Falls Park area, to support the blossoming of a virtual paradise of greenery.
Another place to catch a glimpse of the beauty of the Snake River Canyon is adjacent to the Twin Falls Visitor Center on Blue Lake Boulevard. From the parking lot, you can look out across the broad canyon.
Nearby Perrine Bridge is a manmade marvel, measuring 1,500-feet across and standing 486-feet above the Snake River. The present bridge, built in 1974, replaced an earlier version that was, at the time of its construction, the highest bridge in the world.
Visitors to Twin Falls can learn more about the region at the Twin Falls County Historical Society Museum, three miles west of the town on Highway 30. The museum features antique farming machinery, a restored, furnished 19th century house and a nice collection of historic photographs of the area.
Twin Falls is 43 miles north of Jackpot, Nevada, a booming gaming resort community located on U.S. 93 at the Nevada-Idaho border. For more information, go to http://www.visitidaho.org/attraction/natural-attractions/shoshone-falls/.
Rich Moreno writes about Nevada and the West.