U.S. Highway 2 enters northwest Montana in Lincoln County and from there the federal highway stretches eastward through the towns of Troy and Libby with vast rural stretches along the way to Kalispell. Paralleling the highway is the historic route of the Great Northern Railway, which brought timber and mining industries to this corner of Montana.
Before you encounter the towns, however, there is a spot that is among my favorite in the state, and a place that I discussed in some depth in the book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History: Kootenai Falls.
The river and the falls were a natural dividing line between the Upper and Lower Kootenai Indians. Both groups shared the falls and considered it sacred. David Thompson, the North West Company fur trader, visited the falls during own of his sojourns from Canada into northwest Montana in the early 19th century and left an early description. But in 1984 it took some dedication to gaze upon this most sacred and beautiful landscape. There was sort of a pull-off from the highway and then you meandered across the forest, carefully crossing the Great Northern tracks, to then find a good vantage point.
Today there is the 135-acre Kooteenai Falls Park, one of the best improvements in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 years. Not only is access to the falls much safer but public interpretation explains the site’s vital importance to Native American peoples who were here long before the railroad, the logger, the miners, and the town builders.
The falls is spectacular, no matter what time of the year you visit. But do stop and consider the mountains and bluffs that surround it. The entire landscape is what mattered to the Native Americans as they navigated through the area, or took vision quests at isolated places, or stopped to fish along the banks or hunt the wild game who also came to the falls for nourishment.
There are few less untouched places than Kootenai Falls. The county park provides access and information. It is then up to you to explore, stop, and think about how humans have interacted with this places, taking aways thoughts and messages that we can only guess at, for thousands of years.