I was up early this morning to hike Kootenai Falls before it got too crowded. In my childhood, this area used to be a well-kept local secret. You had to know which of the many fishermen’s pull-outs along Highway 2 would lead you to this beauty and its unique overlook. When the highway was improved in the late 80s, it became a prominent, well-signed point of interest, much to local consternation. This is the view at the access now.
Of course, when you draw so much attention to a feature like this, you must make it tourist-proof.
When we were kids, we would cross the railroad tracks carefully, and grandpa would leave pennies on the tracks as we passed. We would later have to hunt the smashed beauties, sometimes moved quite far down the track by the passing train. I must say, the “improved” view leaves much to be desired.
But the real view I came for is about the same.
Kootenai Falls is the largest undammed falls in Montana, and is one of the largest free-flowing falls in the northwest. It is a sacred site for the local Kootenai Indians, who used it to commune with their ancestors. They monitored things quite closely when The River Wild was filmed here. Oddly enough, many of the tourists don’t take the time to see the falls up close, from the banks of the river. The real attraction is the “swinging bridge,” a cable suspension foot bridge over the gorge below the falls.
The bridge has also seen changes over the years. One person visiting the family this week says her grandfather has photos of the bridge when it was a hand-crank cable car. A river flood in 1948 destroyed the footbridge and it had to be rebuilt. It was originally placed here as a way to get across the river in the event of a forest fire. As a child, my uncles would wait for us to reach the middle of the span, and then they would jump on the end, sending a sinuous wave across as we giggled and screamed. I think more safety improvements have been made since the highway project. It sure seemed scarier then.
While the bridge and the water are beautiful, one thing I really enjoy is the geology, because about a billion years ago, this area was a giant body of water with a silty bottom, called the Belt Sea. You can see gentle mud ripples preserved in the rocks, and if you close your eyes, you can imagine the water softly lapping the shore.
80 million years ago, the magic of continental drift raised the rock layers into steep, sometimes vertical formations, and they crack and break in the most beautiful ways.
Too bad most folks head straight for the bridge, walk across, and return to their cars right away. There’s sure a lot here to appreciate, including some great, extended trails on the Indian land on the other side of the bridge – please be respectful if you hike here.