Kootenai Falls is not a waterfall like Niagara Falls, but boy, is it powerful. Located on the Kootenai River, these falls are more like whitewater river-rafting falls rather than huge, view-from-a-packed-boat-like-sardines-in-a-can falls (like Niagara Falls). Located at Kootenai River Rd, Libby, MT 59923, it sits in the top, most-western corner of Montana, in a rather remote area. In Montana, the falls are approximately 4.5 hours from Butte or Helena, 3 hours from Missoula, and 5.2 hours from Great Falls. It’s only about 20 minutes past Ross Creek Cedars and 2.2 hours from Glacier National Park.
In Idaho, it’s only 1 hour from Hope, 1.2 hours from Sandpoint, and 2.2 hours from Coeur d’ Alene. However, from Boise, it’s quite far, coming in at almost 9 hours.
The beauty is almost impossible to describe, but I will try, although my words cannot and will not do it justice. I’ve been to Niagara Falls/Horseshoe Falls, the Seven Sisters Waterfall in Norway (plus other various Norwegian waterfalls), as well as various waterfalls in Tennessee, Illinois, and California. None compared to the tranquility, peacefulness, beauty, and power of these falls. Perhaps Niagara did, long before it was industrialized, devaluing it into an expensive tourist trap surrounded by large skyscrapers and 21st century noise and pollution.
Luckily, Kootenai Falls and this area of the country has yet to fall prey to industrialization polluting it into a shell of its former self. It’s very rural, with the nearest town being Libby, Montana, about 17 miles away, with a population of about 2,700. It’s the largest undammed falls in the state of Montana and is one of the largest waterfalls in the United States by flow rate. The falls are also considered to be a scared place to the Kootenai Tribe, as they “see the falls as the center of the world and a place where tribal members can commune with the spiritual forces that give direction to the tribe and to individual members“.
When you first arrive at the falls, there is one giant grey slab of parking lot. There are no lines or parking spaces, and everyone kind of just wings it the best they can. Right up front is a small concession stand selling the typical concession stand food likes cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and French fries, as well as handkerchiefs, sunscreen, headache medicine, etc. Close by are a couple of port-a-potty style bathrooms, a water fountain, and a large sign describing the area and the history.
While at first the falls and the suspension bridge are in the same direction, after a short walk down the paved path, you will come to a T. Left goes to the suspension bridge and right goes to the falls. Both can be done easily in one day, even in just a couple of hours if all you are there to see are the falls and the bridge.
The hike to the falls is reasonably easy and simple, with a well-worn and maintained path that is only slightly rocky in some areas. After hiking for probably .25 miles, if not less, you come to a cliffside of sorts. It’s like a rocky shelf that you can walk on and inch yourself towards the falls. The rocky shelf is relatively flat and very stable; however, I can see someone very clumsy and fall-prone rolling down like a bowling ball. It’d be difficult, but achievable, so be forewarned!
I hung out on this rock shelf marveling at the power of the falls for approximately 30 minutes. I just… sat. It’s rare to be able to sit in nature, thinking, reflecting, basking in it, especially since I lived in southern California at the time, constantly surrounded by people, things, and noise. If you are like me, then Kootenai Falls is a perfect place for you.
I was unsure if I had gotten lucky or if it was normal, but there were only a few people there. This was in mid-June of 2020, so perhaps the pandemic had something to do with it, but either way, it was wonderful. However, my friend believes this was likely due to me going on a weekday. She and her husband went on a weekend only a few days after I went, and she said there were a lot of people there. So, just plan accordingly!
The falls are not the only attraction drawing people to Kootenai. There is also a gigantic and very scary suspension bridge. Originally built in 1948, it was rebuilt even stronger after being destroyed by a major flood. To me, it was utterly terrifying. It’s awfully long, bridging a wide gape of a relatively calm section of the Kootenai River, and is also very swingy. If you’ve ever been on a suspension bridge, you know exactly what I am talking about. If you have not, this is not a bridge that is stationary or will stand still as you walk across it. The thing moves, it swings, it jars you from side to side, especially if you attempt to walk across as someone else walks across from the other side.
In fact, this bridge is almost not wide enough for two people to cross at the same time. Most people are polite (or just terrified themselves) and will wait to cross one at a time. If you are like me and insist on getting that picture from the middle of the bridge, hopefully there are polite people who will wait to cross because otherwise that phone might go straight into the river… unless you’ve got Iron Man’s grip. 😬
The hike to the suspension bridge is notably more difficult than the hike to the falls. It’s probably around .5 miles and is a much more strenuous and rockier walk. In fact, at one point, you have to Spiderman your way down a slight, rocky hill covered with loose dirt. There are no stairs or handrails, and there is no actual trail. I am unsure why this is still part of the trail like this, but it is. Once you make it down there, you must climb down 3 sets of stairs, which takes you over train tracks. Then it’s on to a fairly easy hike; however, there are parts that are tougher and more tiring than others. There are many opportunities to jet off the trail along the way and make your way to different viewpoints of the river; however, I did none of them for 1) safety reasons and 2) time reasons.
Once I reached the bridge, there were about 6 or 7 people on one side and 5 on the other. After waiting for my chance to walk to the middle and take some pictures, I got the heck out of dodge. I am deathly afraid of heights and was deathly afraid of dropping my iPhone into a violent river, never to be seen again. I never made it to the other side, something I regret not forcing myself to do. Although, I don’t think there was too much over there, as I watched people walk over, piddle around for a bit, and then just walk back.
Overall, Kootenai Falls is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s extremely peaceful, grand, and magnificent, and one of the best places I’ve ever been to in nature. It’s rather isolated, however, the isolation keeps it so clean and gorgeous. Visit this place if you can because I promise, you will not regret it!