About Kootenai Falls
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
We made it to Kootenai Falls after driving east from Moyie Falls about 32 miles away along US Highway 2.
From Spokane, we drove east on the I-90 towards the suburb of Spokane Valley (where we actually overnighted; 10 miles to the east).
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).
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.
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