There are several famous waterfalls across the United States. Niagara, Yosemite and Multnomah, just to name a few. The number of people who travel to these falls each year is astounding, and as lovely as they are, I have to question the need to travel so far to see something that can easily be found in our own back yard.
If there’s one resource the Pacific Northwest isn’t lacking, it’s water. Our geography is molded by glaciers, rivers and lakes. Between Idaho, Washington and Oregon, there are over 4,000 recorded waterfalls — the trick is knowing where to find them.
In mid-March Kyle and I loaded up our packs and Juneau and set out to find one of these hidden gems. We had our hearts set on Shadow Falls, tucked away just off of the Coeur d’Alene River. Making sure to pack snacks and some water, we began the almost two-hour drive from town.
The road following the river is familiar to us. We know the bends, turns and note-worthy sights. I rolled down the window, clutching my camera, hoping for a sign of wildlife. In the rearview mirror I watched Juneau, hang her head out the window. Her ears flopped in the wind, tongue hanging out of her ever-increasing smile.
We passed the Shoshone Base Camp, once home of our sixth grade camp “Trail Creek”. Memories of campfires, bunk beds and sloppy joes come flooding back. I remember, quite vividly, a hike taking us up a forest service road and ending at a helicopter landing site. There, the camp leaders instructed us to find a quiet place to sit and listen to the nature around us. I closed my eyes and could hear the faint sounds of the river, rippling over rocks and crashing along the banks. I also remember hearing birds chirping and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees.
While passing this site I closed my eyes once more, listening to the same sounds almost 15 years later. Unlike most things in life, this place seems to have remained unchanged and it’s familiarity filled me with a sense of nostalgia.
A few miles up the road we rounded a sharp curve, coming across a large amount of ice and snow on the road. The car slipped and was thrown around in the icy wheel grooves. Despite the road conditions, we decided to move forward hoping for better conditions ahead. Sure enough we reached our turn-off onto a dirt road that climbed up into the forested hills.
The road was mostly clear except a few down trees not yet cleared from winter. Eventually we came across a down tree blocking the road, beyond that deep snow covering the road for at least a mile or two. At this point, we decided to leave the car and continue on foot.
Juneau leapt from the car, unable to contain her excitement over the last bit of winter we discovered. She ran and dove into the snow, rolling and barking. Kyle, in his Teva sandals, was less thrilled with the prospect of hiking in the snow.
I offered to turn around and head home, perhaps another day would offer better conditions. But Kyle’s a die-hard and always up for a challenge. So, like with the icy road, we moved forward despite the snow.
I giggled to myself as I realized there had to be a “You know you’re from North Idaho when…” joke there somewhere.
After about a mile-and-a-half we came to a creek that we thought would surely lead us to our destination. Looking at my notes, I saw a small set of falls much closer than our original destination which was reassuring since the snow didn’t seem to disperse in the near future.
We had to tread lightly as every few steps gave way and we’d sink. I was grateful the sun was out, it warmed my hair and dark jacket, but failed to warm my feet which started getting wet from the snow filling the top of my boots. I knew I couldn’t complain though, after all, Kyle’s feet had little protection.
The creek was larger than I expected, at least 20 feet across in parts. As we walked upstream I could see the current picking up speed. It wrapped itself around trees and rocks, several small rapids crashing into the colorful river rock along the way.
Every so often we found a patch of dry, sunny path. At these points we paused so Kyle could warm his feet on the rocks. Juneau used these opportunities to explore the creek and hillside. She dipped her front paws in the water, taking a drink here and there. Always on alert, she watched the tree line and branches for signs of squirrels to chase. Every small rustle earned a head-tilt and investigation.
The late afternoon sun warmed the snow, making it more difficult to trudge through. But the sheer beauty of the water, greenery and striking rock formations was enough to keep us moving.
Giant granite deposits lined the mountainside creating cliffs and massive boulders. Moss and ferns sprouted in the cracks and crevices, like vertical gardens lining the trail. Looking down at the trail, we saw several signs of moose and deer – some tracks seemed fresh, as if our paths just missed each other.
A misty chill filled the air which signaled to me we must be close. The creek flowed swiftly, creating swirling currents in the small eddies. The rush of the rapids filled the air with energy, a buzz that permeated our winter layers and quickened our steps.
We spotted a bridge up ahead and listened for the familiar roar of the falls. The bridge was dampened with the waterfall’s mist, small pockets of moss clung to the joints of the railings and trusses. The falls themselves were small, but not underwhelming. The creek bellowed over moss-covered river rock. The water cascaded into a delicate veil, landing softly on the rock bed below before picking up speed and joining the creek.
I stood on the bridge for several minutes, forgetting about the cold that numbed my fingers. Much like I had up at the helipad several years before, I closed my eyes and just listened, losing myself in the forest’s meditative soundtrack.
My thoughts were starkly interrupted by Juneau, who had proceeded to bark at Kyle as he approached the falls for a closer look. Refusing to leave the bridge, she whined and stared at me as if asking my permission to follow.
We climbed over the bridge and walked up to the falls, slipping on the icy forest floor. Having never seen a waterfall before, Juneau was nervous and hesitant to be that close. Drops of water flicked her face and ears. As each drop landed she shook her head and backed up a little further, not wanting to be any closer to this strange body of water than absolutely necessary.
To ease her nerves, I turned and headed back to the bridge. It was well after 2 p.m. at this point, the sun hung low in the sky, shadows from the pines covered the trail. It was time to make the trek back to the car. As we made our way through the snow, I recapped the day’s activities and was so thankful we decided not to turn around despite the challenges of our journey.
We could have turned around when we hit the icy roads, or when the road to the trail was blocked by down trees and snow. We could have turned around because of our lack of preparations for the conditions, but we continued on and our reward was a private showing of one of nature’s greatest gifts.