Three Views of Veil Falls

Three views of Veil Falls, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho.

This one really must be viewed large!

Veil Falls, deep in the lower canyon of Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, is one of those places that makes people set down their cameras with a sigh of, “A photo can’t possibly capture it.” A small stream flows off the lip of an enormous overhanging granite amphitheater, and in falling disintegrates into individual water droplets, glowing in the sun and carried far from their original trajectories by the wind. For scale, note the person standing at the bottom of the middle photo.

I’m sympathetic to photographic apathy brought on by such scenic overload. Indeed, the only way to experience the place fully is to slow down, find a comfy boulder and take it in. It’s also a location that, due to logistical issues and it’s extreme remoteness (to get there by foot instead of raft would require at least two days of backpacking into one of the country’s deepest canyons and a stout bushwhack at the end), is almost impossible to visit at any time but midday. And due to its aspect in the canyon, golden hour light would never hit it anyway. But I’ve been lucky enough to visit Veil many times by river, and a photographer can’t help but try. One photo definitely can’t even begin to encompass it, but three start to convey a fuller impression.

Still, there are aspects of Veil that I never hope to capture. Tracking the individual water droplets with your eye as they leisurely sail to the ground; the twisting of the falls in the currents of the breeze, one moment a spiraling galaxy of drops, the next a curtain unfurling to mist the entire back wall of the grotto; the White-throated Swifts courting on the wing, flitting in and out of the stream, seemingly flirting with the waterfall as much as with each other. There’s no substitute for being there.

Just for fun and context, if you crawl around the corner from Veil on the granite ledges, you’re treated to this downstream view of the Impassable Canyon. Porcupine Rapid is immediately below; its tail-waves make it into this shot, but a view including the rapid wouldn’t be feasible without climbing gear. The Impassable Canyon received its name during the Sheepeater War of 1879. The U.S. army had spent months toiling through the upstream reaches of the Middle Fork Canyon in search of the area’s small Shoshone population, with little to show for their efforts. Down here, they threw in the towel and gave up on following the river. Even today, the trail system avoids the lower canyon by climbing 6,000 feet to skirt it via the high country. Shoshone rock art is abundant down there, however, and the canyon is perfectly and quite enjoyably passable for rafters.

The Impassable Canyon on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River

I used this view of the Impassable Canyon from a very different perspective for my blog banner. The jagged peaks on the center horizon are the Bighorn Crags, where Veil Falls has its source.

The Bighorn Crags fall away to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River


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