Outdoors

Grab your kayak or paddleboard for a new view of Idaho’s impressive Shoshone Falls

Each spring, thousands of people flock to marvel at Idaho’s most famous waterfall when river flows are at their highest. By summertime, flows over Shoshone Falls ease up — offering the chance to see the “Niagara of the West” from a different perspective.

Most visitors head to the scenic overlook at Shoshone Falls Park, about 2.5 miles east of the Perrine Bridge into Twin Falls. But this time of year, when the breathtaking springtime river flows have calmed a bit, arguably the best way to experience the falls is from the water.

Near Twin Falls, the Snake River flows at about 2,000 cubic feet per second in late July (a sharp contrast to the springtime flows, which can get as high as 10,000 cfs). That makes it a great spot to fish, boat or swim, as evidenced by the dozens of people out on the water on a sunny Saturday in early August. It’s also ideal for heading upriver in a kayak or on a standup paddleboard, which is how you can access Shoshone Falls. If you arrive early and don’t mind muscling through a tough portage, you can have a stunning view of the falls without the crowds.

Start by heading to Centennial Waterfront Park in Twin Falls. Don’t own your own watercraft? Rentals are available at the park. We reserved several kayaks about a week in advance through AWOL Adventure Sports, which also provided paddles and life vests. (The company says its adult vests are one-size-fits-all, but my life jacket was riding up near my ears. The vests even seemed large on my dad, who is over 6 feet tall. I’d advise bringing your own properly fitting personal flotation device if you have concerns about staying afloat.)

The AWOL team had all our gear available at its park kiosk and sent us off from a nearby dock, advising us to stay to the right of the river until we’d passed Pillar Falls, a cluster of massive rocks in the middle of the Snake about 2 miles from the put-in. Downriver from Pillar Falls, you’re still sharing the water with motorboats, though we saw only a few.

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Outdoors reporter Nicole Blanchard paddles toward the Perrine Bridge on the Snake River on August 3, 2019. Kayakers can paddle upriver to reach Shoshone Falls, passing under the bridge and past Pillar Falls on the way. Max Graham

Right away, the views of the canyon are fascinating. You’ll paddle upriver past marshy areas and alien-looking rhyolite lava rock cliffs. Keep an eye out for smaller waterfalls, as well as smatterings of orb-like cliff swallow nests clinging to the rock. Shortly after leaving the dock, Twin Falls’ iconic Perrine Bridge comes into view. If you’re lucky, you may get to watch BASE jumpers launching from the 486-foot-tall structure — though you’ll want to keep moving to avoid being in a potential landing area.

Though I’ve seen this trek recommended for intermediate or advanced kayakers, I think beginners can handle it as long as they’re prepared for the portage and take time early on to familiarize themselves with steering. I’d kayaked only a handful of times on flat water and didn’t find the journey too strenuous. (That said, apparently the trek is harder on a paddleboard, so keep that in mind if you prefer to take a SUP.)

Once on the water and past the Perrine, you’ll continue paddling until you reach the enormous columns of Pillar Falls, where you can either turn back or face the most difficult part of the trip: the portage around the falls. Stick to the far right (south side) between the canyon wall and southernmost pillar. While there’s no defined trail, the path around the falls is pretty straightforward.

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Kayakers and swimmers gather at Pillar Falls on the Snake River on August 3, 2019. Pillar Falls is roughly the halfway point for people paddling upriver to Shoshone Falls. Max Graham

Start by carrying your watercraft over lava rock for 100 yards before wading through ankle-deep pools and marsh for another 100 yards (water shoes were a lifesaver here). Finally, cross another small stretch of lava rock before returning to the river. With two tandem kayaks and one single kayak between five people, it still took my family roughly 20 minutes to move all the boats. This truly is the biggest challenge of the trip, so be sure you’re prepared to carry your kayak on uneven ground if you plan to make it to Shoshone Falls.

This is also a great (and popular) spot to stop for a dip in the river or to refuel with some snacks.

From here, it’s a quick journey to the main attraction. You’ll round a bend in the river and see the massive waterfall ahead, which is just the motivation you’ll need to keep paddling. As you draw closer to the falls, there are several gravel beaches or rock outcroppings on the south side of the canyon where you can stop to take a break and enjoy the scenery.

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A tandem kayak sits on the rocks near the portage around Pillar Falls on August 3, 2019. Kayakers and paddleboarders can head upriver to Shoshone Falls, but they must carry their watercraft across rocks and through shallow ponds to circumnavigate Pillar Falls. Max Graham

You can paddle up to the large pool near the base of the falls, but stay mindful of the current. AWOL warns that the turbulence from the falls can start pulling watercraft toward the dangerous crashing water.

Even from 200 yards away, you can feel the mist created by the churning water, and your watercraft will rock in the waves. While flows aren’t near their peak, it’s still amazing to be near the base of the falls and witness the incredible amount of water pouring down.

When you’re ready to head back, the river current is on your side. Navigate the portage in reverse and take your time paddling back to the dock — there are plenty of places to cool off in the river or watch for wildlife like herons and birds of prey.

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Water crashes over Shoshone Falls in southern Idaho on Saturday, August 3, 2019. Kayaking up the Snake River offers a different view of the 212-foot waterfall. Max Graham

Getting there

From Boise, head east on Interstate 84 toward Twin Falls for 120 miles. Take exit 173 and turn right onto U.S. 93 south. Cross the Perrine Bridge and follow the road as it turns into Blue Lakes Blvd. In one mile, turn right onto Canyon Springs Road. Follow the road down into the canyon, staying right to follow signs toward Centennial Park when you reach the bottom.

Distance: About 7 miles for the round trip if you make it all the way to Shoshone Falls

Bring: Plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen and water shoes.

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