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: -115.76387

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Kootenai Falls was an impressively wide and powerful series of waterfalls and rapids on the Kootenai River.

The cumulative height of these drops was said to be around 90ft in a stretch covering less than a mile.

Kootenai_Falls_032_08052017 - Kootenai Falls
Kootenai Falls

As you can see in the photo above, pictures really don’t do this place justice as it doesn’t adequately convey the Kootenai River’s power and size.

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 Kootenai Falls, there was a popular suspension bridge or swinging bridge spanning the full width of the Kootenai River another half-mile downstream.

Kootenai_Falls_121_08052017 - The Kootenai River Suspension Bridge
The Kootenai River Suspension Bridge

It provided access to the shores of the north side of the river as well as a look down at fossilized stromatolytes towards the southern end of the bridge.

The stromatolytes were 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.

The Formation of Kootenai Falls

The formation of the Kootenai 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.

Kootenai_Falls_092_08052017 - Looking upstream at intermediate 'steps' culminating in the Kootenai Falls, which was probably the biggest step in this series
Looking upstream at intermediate ‘steps’ culminating in the Kootenai Falls, which was probably the biggest step in this series

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.

These steps were what resulted in the waterfalls and cascades of the Kootenai Falls.

Such violent geologic forces ultimately would give rise to the rugged Rocky Mountains that dominated the Continental Divide.

Kootenai_Falls_095_08052017 - Looking across another one of the 'steps' on the Kootenai River where you can see the differing layers from the tectonic folds and faults in the rocks
Looking across another one of the ‘steps’ on the Kootenai River where you can see the differing layers from the tectonic folds and faults in the rocks

This would separate the ancient seas of the west and the Great Plains to the east.

By the way, this is a process that’s still going on now in the Himalayas, where the tallest mountains in the world currently reside.

During my visit in August 2017, I was able to witness several more tiers of the Kootenai Falls further downstream of the main falls.

So this observation corroborated the notion of the folding action of the crust over millions of years.

Kootenai Falls Trail Description – hiking to the waterfalls

Kootenai_Falls_013_08052017 - The paved walkway at the start of the Kootenai Falls Trail
The paved walkway at the start of the Kootenai Falls Trail

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.

It meandered through 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.

Kootenai_Falls_025_08052017 - The signposted trail junction leading upstream to Kootenai Falls and downstream to Swinging Bridge
The signposted trail junction leading upstream to Kootenai Falls and downstream to Swinging Bridge

I kept right at this junction to head in the upstream direction.

It would get me 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.

They also resulted in views of more waterfalls and cascades further downstream of the main falls.

Kootenai Falls Trail Description – hiking to the Swinging Bridge

Kootenai_Falls_108_08052017 - Looking downstream towards the Swinging Bridge as I was hiking towards it after having visited the Kootenai Falls
Looking downstream towards the Swinging Bridge as I was hiking towards it after having visited the Kootenai Falls

Once I had my fill of these viewing areas, I then returned to the main trail and hiked back past the trail junction.

Then, I continued 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.

Kootenai_Falls_139_08052017 - Going back across the caged bridge going over the railway on the Kootenai Falls Trail
Going back across the caged bridge going over the railway on the Kootenai Falls Trail

In any case, when all was said and done, I wound up spending a little over 60 minutes away from the car.

However, 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 anything with as good quality for the remainder of the trip!

Authorities

Kootenai Falls resides in the Kootenai National Forest near Libby in Lincoln County, Montana. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Kootenai_Falls_141_08052017 - There were restroom facilities at the Kootenai Falls Trailhead
Kootenai_Falls_012_08052017 - This was the start of the trail leading to Kootenai Falls and the Suspension Bridge
Kootenai_Falls_021_08052017 - After the overlook, the Kootenai Falls Trail then descended on this dirt path towards the railway bridge
Kootenai_Falls_022_08052017 - Crossing over the caged bridge traversing the railroad on the way to Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_136_08052017 - Looking towards the railroad that I had just crossed while making my way to the Kootenai Falls and the Swinging Bridge
Kootenai_Falls_133_08052017 - Looking back at the steps leading down from the caged railway bridge
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 where you can see both the trail in context with the falls
Kootenai_Falls_030_08052017 - Looking across the Kootenai Falls while continuing to walk towards the end of the trail
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 were some onlookers 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 chute 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_041_08052017 - Contextual view of Kootenai Falls with some people scrambling to get a closer look on the right
Kootenai_Falls_043_08052017 - More angled look back at the left segment of Kootenai Falls, which again looked like a rapid or chute with a short drop given the high volume of water
Kootenai_Falls_047_08052017 - Portrait view of the main segment of the Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_059_08052017 - As I started to head back downstream, I got this glimpse back towards the Kootenai Falls with some people checking it out
Kootenai_Falls_084_08052017 - Contextual view of this couple checking out the turbulent Kootenai River and the chute of the left segment of the Kootenai Falls
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_097_08052017 - Looking upstream over some intermediate 'steps' towards the main drop of Kootenai Falls
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_103_08052017 - Contextual look back upstream towards some of the intermediate 'steps' before the main drop of Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_106_08052017 - Looking downstream at the Swinging Bridge over the Kootenai River as I was making my way towards that bridge
Kootenai_Falls_115_08052017 - Looking across the Suspension Bridge traversing the Kootenai River
Kootenai_Falls_132_08052017 - Looking back towards one of the intermediate steps on the Kootenai River that revealed some of the geologic history that gave rise to the Kootenai Falls
Kootenai_Falls_142_08052017 - Making it back to the very busy parking lot for the Kootenai Falls to end the excursion
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 Kootenai Falls hike

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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).

Kootenai_Falls_001_08052017 - Looking towards the busy and spacious parking area for the Kootenai Falls
Looking towards the busy and spacious parking area for the Kootenai Falls

Ultimately, we took 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).

Kootenai_Falls_002_08052017 - Context of the US Hwy 2, which was right next to the parking area for Kootenai Falls
Context of the US Hwy 2, which was right next to the parking area for Kootenai Falls

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

Trip Planning Resources


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



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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