Idaho’s Shoshone Falls: Niagara of the West

July 04, 2018

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Photographer: Ray Boren 
Summary Author: Ray Boren 

When the spring thaw replenishes the West’s 1,078-mile-long (1,735 km) Snake River, Shoshone Falls can truly live up to its nickname — The Niagara of the West — as illustrated in this photograph, taken on May 13, 2018. Like Niagara Falls, on the Niagara River and the international border of Canada and the United States below Lake Erie, the Snake River at Shoshone Falls tumbles impressively in broad and roiling white-water cascades into a vast and misty cauldron, just a few miles east of the community of Twin Falls, Idaho.

“There seems to be but one opinion,” Maj. Osborne Cross wrote in his journal during an 1849 American military survey of the Oregon Trail, “that it equalled [sic] in proportion to [the] column of water [at] … Niagara falls." Cross and his expedition mates decided that the cataract’s short-lived name of Canadian Falls — bestowed a few years earlier by a traveling priest in recognition of the Oregon Country’s Canada-based fur companies — should be changed to honor the primary Native American tribe of the area, the Shoshone. And so it was.

Surprisingly perhaps, Shoshone Falls is some 45 feet (14 m) taller than Niagara, at 212 feet (65 m) high. However, Niagara’s three major waterfalls (Horseshoe, American and Bridal Veil Falls) stretch along a wider rim and combine for a greater flow volume over the cataract. As Canada’s Niagara Parks notes, more than 6 million cubic feet (168,000 cubic meters) of water slip over Niagara’s crest every minute during peak daytime tourist hours. At its spring peak, Shoshone Falls can propel 900,000 cubic feet (25,485 cubic meters) per minute over the rim — a figure that dwindles greatly in winter and other low-flow times. It also should be noted that for more than a century both Niagara Falls and Shoshone Falls have been dammed, tapped and controlled for hydroelectric power generation, and the latter for irrigation, affecting their modern flows.

The Snake River, which rises in Yellowstone National Park, trends west toward the Pacific Ocean, as the major tributary of the Columbia River. At Shoshone Falls, and through much of southern Idaho, the river is entrenched in a steep-sided basalt chasm on the volcanic Snake River Plain, related to the Yellowstone hotspot under the North American tectonic plate. The Snake’s course was scoured and carved even more deeply by a catastrophic flood an estimated 14,500 years ago, when Lake Bonneville, the name given a Pleistocene great lake that covered parts of Utah, Idaho and Nevada, burst through Red Rock Pass, about 160 miles (258 km) to the east.

Photo Details: Camera: NIKON D3200; Exposure Time: 0.0031s (1/320); Aperture: ƒ/10.0; ISO equivalent: 400; Focal Length (35mm): 22