Want to walk over a rickety-feeling swinging bridge, above a roaring torrent of water that just crashed over a fierce waterfall? Of course you do! And you can, at Kootenai Falls and the Swinging Bridge, west of Libby, Montana. It’s free, and it requires just a short hike through the woods.
After spending the night in Libby, I decided to backtrack slightly, and drive back up US 2 to something I had missed on the way into town, the previous night. How could anyone pass up a scary swinging bridge, and the biggest un-dammed waterfall in Montana? With just one stop, you get to see both.
From the parking area, the hike to the waterfall and the bridge begins…
… with another bridge. This one crosses the railroad tracks that run between US 2 and the Kootenai River. The caged overpass isn’t too scary…
… but the staircase on the far side is terrifying — I think it worried me more than the swinging bridge! A spiral staircase, constructed of an open-grate metal, takes you down to the ground. It’s at least 3 stories high, and the metal seems to give-way under your feet. Not to mention, you can see straight down, too!
Once you’re safely on the ground, you have a choice to make.
The waterfall is to the right, and the swinging bridge is to the left. Both are roughly the same distance away, just a short 5-10 minute walk.
I decided to go to the bridge first, because, well, swinging bridges are cool. And while this one is obviously well-constructed, its height and length were enough to cause me to hesitate for a moment.
As you cross, this is the view ahead…
… and the view looking straight down.
I decided to sit down for a minute and collect my thoughts.
The bridge does sway, and bounce, and if you jump on it, it will bounce a lot, so don’t do that.
In the middle of the bridge, you’ll have a great view downstream, to the west…
… and upstream, to the east. Kootenai Falls is just around the bend, up ahead.
If you’re a Meryl Streep or Kevin Bacon fan, there’s a good chance this bridge looks familiar. The movie, The River Wild, was filmed here.
These days, the bridge is used by the forest service, as well as kayakers who want to access something called the “SuperHole”: a patch of intense water, directly underneath Kootenai Falls. I’d try to describe it further, but since I’m not a kayaker, I’d probably sound like an idiot. I’m quite sure, though, that something called a “SuperHole” directly under a waterfall is probably a heck of a lot scarier than a swinging bridge.
Once you’ve explored the area on the far side of the bridge, hike back over to the south side, and retrace your steps back to the split in the trail, then continue on to the waterfall.
I’m not sure if Kootenai Falls is always this powerful, this intimidating, but it certainly was an incredible sight in late June, 2014. Perhaps the snow-melt had increased the river’s flow — or maybe not, since the Kootenai River is dammed 23 miles upstream from here, at the Libby Dam. Standing at the edge of the water, the sound was deafening.
The river loses 300 feet of elevation in just a few hundred yards, although not all at once.
You’re free to walk along the edge of the river, and get as close to the water as you think is safe. Be sure to check out this unusual (presumably natural) feature, a dam that holds back the river. As you walk here, the river is well above your head, on the other side of that rock wall.
This is the view looking west, from the top of the falls.
You’ll find plenty of places to view the falls, and thanks to the roar of the river, it won’t matter if other people are nearby — you’ll feel swallowed-up by this place, until of course, you have to turn around and return to your car (and climb those metal stairs again!).
The Bottom Line
You get to enjoy two great attractions in one stop, with just a short hike. Even if you don’t feel safe crossing the bridge, it’s still fun to see.
The swinging bridge and waterfall is located along the Kootenai River, 11 miles west of Libby, Montana. From Libby, take US 2 west. After 11 miles, watch for a wide parking area on the north side (the river side) of the road. There is a sign at the parking area, but there is no sign warning you before you get there.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Kootenai Falls and Bridge, through Libby, to the Libby Dam: