Kootenai Falls

Libby / Troy, Montana, USA

About Kootenai Falls

Hiking Distance: 1 mile round trip (falls only); 2 miles round trip (both falls and suspension bridge)
Suggested Time: 60-75 minutes

Date first visited: 2017-08-05
Date last visited: 2017-08-05

Waterfall Latitude: 48.45532
Waterfall Longitude: -115.77129

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Kootenai Falls was an impressively wide and powerful series of waterfalls and rapids on the Kootenai River. As you can see in the photo at the top of this page, pictures really don’t do this place justice as it doesn’t convey the power and size of the Kootenai River rushing fiercely over a series of drops said to be around 90ft of cumulative height in a stretch covering less than a mile. The main part of the falls actually consisted of a pair of wide segments where the one pictured above dropped visibly 30ft over a width that I’m guessing was at least 200ft. This doesn’t even count the parallel segment where the drop wasn’t as pronounced and it took on more of a cross between rapids and a violent chute of water. In addition to the waterfall, there was a popular suspension bridge or swinging bridge spanning the full width of the Kootenai River another half-mile downstream. It provided access to the shores of the north side of the river as well as a look down at fossilized stromatolytes (ancient algae back when the area was once part of the sea and thus might have been evidence of the earliest signs of life over a billion years ago) towards the southern end of the bridge.

The formation of the falls was said to be due to a succession of phenomena. First, the underlying Belt Supergroup layer of crust was the result of the despoition of quartzites, mudstones, and shale from when the area was an ancient sea floor. Next, tectonic forces caused there to be a folding action where the crust compressed up against a different tectonic plate as they were headed in opposite directions. The Kootenai River exposed the hard rocks of this Belt Supergroup including the tectonic folds and faults that now resulted in the “steps” over which the river flowed and created the waterfalls and cascades. Such violent geologic forces ultimately would give rise to the rugged Rocky Mountains that dominated the Continental Divide separating the ancient seas of the west and the Great Plains to the east (a process that’s still going on now in the Himalayas, where the tallest mountains in the world currently reside). During my visit, I was able to witness several more tiers of the Kootenai Falls further downstream of the main falls, which corroborated the notion of the folding action of the crust over millions of years.

From the spacious parking lot and trailhead right off the US Highway 2 (see directions below), I followed a paved walkway for the first 0.1 mile amongst a forested setting to an obstructed overlook. Then, the trail descended to a caged railway bridge before going down a series of steps eventually leading down to a narrower dirt trail. Next, there was a signposted trail junction at roughly a quarter-mile from the trailhead. I kept right at this junction to get right up to the overlook of the main part of Kootenai Falls in another 1/8-mile. Along the way, there were several “social trails” that were well-used that also led to alternate views of the main falls as well as views of more waterfalls and cascades further downstream.

Once I had my fill of these viewing areas, I then returned to the main trail and hiked back past the trail junction before continuing another quarter-mile towards the popular Swinging Bridge. This was my turnaround point, but I saw plenty of people going across the bridge to access a small “beach” area on the shores of the river further upstream. I also regretted not paying closer attention to the fossilized stromatolytes close to the southern end of the suspension bridge. In any case, when all was said and done, I wound up spending a little over 60 minutes away from the car, but it was very easy to spend an entire afternoon here as I witnessed many others do, especially on a warm day like when we made our visit. And speaking of warm, Julie bought some huckleberry ice cream from the trailhead grill, and she swore that we hadn’t had as good quality for the remainder of the trip!

Kootenai_Falls_001_08052017 - The busy and spacious parking lot for the Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_002_08052017 - The parking lot was right by the US Highway 2
Kootenai_Falls_141_08052017 - There were restroom facilities at the Kootenai Falls Trailhead
Kootenai_Falls_013_08052017 - The initial part of the hike was paved as it meandered through this forested section
Kootenai_Falls_021_08052017 - After the overlook, the trail then descended on this dirt path towards the railway bridge
Kootenai_Falls_022_08052017 - Crossing over the caged bridge traversing the railroad
Kootenai_Falls_136_08052017 - Looking towards the railroad that I had just crossed
Kootenai_Falls_133_08052017 - Looking back at the steps leading up to the caged railway bridge
Kootenai_Falls_025_08052017 - At the signed trail junction where going left led to the Sswinging Bridge and going right went to the main drop of Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_026_08052017 - On the well-used trail leading closer to Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_028_08052017 - Getting closer to the main part of Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_048_08052017 - Finally arriving at the viewing area for the main drop of Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_050_08052017 - Looking upstream at the main drop of Kootenai Falls where there was one onlooker providing somewhat of a sense of scale
Kootenai_Falls_033_08052017 - Looking to the leftmost segment of Kootenai Falls where it really looked more like a rapid and chutes than a waterfall
Kootenai_Falls_037_08052017 - Looking downstream from Kootenai Falls at the turbulent Kootenai River. No wonder why early settlers had to portage around this area as running it on a kayak would be foolish
Kootenai_Falls_103_08052017 - Looking back upstream towards the main part of Kootenai Falls as well as some intermediate cascades after taking one of the informal trails towards this alternate viewpoint
Kootenai_Falls_095_08052017 - Looking across another one of the tectonic 'folds' that gave rise to an intermediate waterfall on the Kootenai River
Kootenai_Falls_100_08052017 - Looking across at yet another one of the tectonic folds giving rise to yet another intermediate waterfall on the Kootenai River
Kootenai_Falls_108_08052017 - Looking downstream at the Swinging Bridge over the Kootenai River as I was making my way towards that bridge
Kootenai_Falls_121_08052017 - Looking across the Swinging Bridge with some people going slowly across it
Kootenai_Falls_142_08052017 - Making it back to the very busy parking lot for the Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_005_08052017 - Back at the trailhead. This was where we got some surprisingly high-quality huckleberry ice cream at the end of the hike


We made it to Kootenai Falls after driving east from Moyie Falls about 32 miles away along US Highway 2.

We’ll pick up the driving directions from Spokane, Washington as well as from Kalispell, Montana since these were our driving routes when we made our visit.

From Spokane, we drove east on the I-90 towards the suburb of Spokane Valley (where we actually overnighted; 10 miles to the east) and ultimately taking the exit 12 for Hwy 95 towards Sandpoint and Moscow (about 31 miles or a little over 30 minutes drive), which was in Coeur d’Alene. Then, we drove about 80 miles (roughly over 90 minutes drive) north to the junction with US2 just north of Bonners Ferry. We then drove east for about 36 miles eventually reaching the fairly big roadside trailhead parking for Kootenai Falls. Overall, this drive would take under 3 hours (though with the change in time zones from Pacific to Mountain, we lost an additional hour so it would take 4 hours).

From Kalispell, we’d drive west on the US2 for about 101 miles before encountering the well-signed Kootenai Falls parking lot on the right. This drive would take under 2 hours.

Finally for some geographic context, Libby was about 89 miles west of Kalispell, about 52 miles (under an hour drive) east of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, 84 miles (over 90 minutes drive) east of Sandpoint, Idaho, 129 miles (over 2.5 hours drive) north of Coeur d’Alene, and 120 miles (over 2 hours drive) west of West Glacier.

Fully examining the main drops of Kootenai Falls from a few different vantage points all within a few paces of each other

360 degree sweep from an alternative viewpoint of some lower cascades of Kootenai Falls

540 degree sweep showing the Kootenai River from the suspension bridge

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Tagged with: libby, troy, kootenay river, suspension bridge, historical marker, kootenai river, montana, waterfall, huckleberry ice cream

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