Kootenay: Awe-inspiring Canadian Rockies
They rise up like titans, ancient seabeds thrust into vertical slabs of sedimentary rock, bent and folded into towering peaks capped with icy glaciers. Welcome to the Kootenay (“koot-knee”) Rockies, southeastern British Columbia’s impressive and largely undiscovered mountain playground — a perfect place for an RV getaway.
British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains are like the U.S. Rockies, only higher, steeper and even more spectacularly breathtaking. Kootenay, named after the indigenous Ktunaxa people of North America, is a place where scenic byways outnumber people. Rivers, lakes, waterfalls, mineral hot springs, alpine meadows and snow-dusted mountains dominate this region that’s also home to four of British Columbia’s national parks. The roads are well maintained, the wildlife is plentiful, and there are numerous beautiful and out-of-the-way places to park the motorhome.
We start out from Calgary, traveling west on Highway 1, Canada’s famed Trans-Canada Highway. We pass through Alberta’s grassy, rolling plains and, at Canmore, 30 minutes outside of Banff, we’re confronted by the stone giants that make up the Front Range of the Canadian Rockies. The road divides and follows the Bow River while the mountains get higher, climbing to between 7,000 and 8,000 feet.
We notice several wide concrete overpasses topped with trees and bushes. These are wildlife bridges, Canada’s innovative answer to keeping migrating wildlife from crossing the highway. Animals from elk to lynx to black and grizzly bears use these million-dollar crossways.
Suddenly the road descends sharply. This is the “big hill,” named by railroad pioneers who maneuvered trains — and often derailed — down this steep grade. A wide turnout with kiosks tells about the spiral tunnels, an ingenious series of passageways bored through the mountains that enabled trains to negotiate the treacherous hill.
Awe and Wonder in Yoho
We turn off at Yoho National Park’s West Gate and Kicking Horse Campground. “Yoho” is Cree for “awe” or “wonder” and it’s an apt name. The campground has no hookups, but it sits along the glacial Kicking Horse River hard up against the vertical faces of Mount Stephen and Mount Field and within sight of magnificent Mount Cathedral. This is a great place to spend a couple of days exploring this part of the Kootenays.
We pull into a level gravel spot, one of 75 RV spaces in this campground, next to our fire pit and picnic table. We’ve paid a little extra so we can load up on pre-cut firewood. Later, we’ll take advantage of the flush toilets and surely use the water fill and dump station, but, for now, we enjoy the mountain views and the sound of the river.
After breakfast, we head a short distance along the river to Emerald Lake, the largest of Yoho’s 61 lakes. The lake is a beautiful green pearlesque color due to glacial sediment, called “rock flour,” from the grinding action of slow moving glaciers feeding the lake. We meet a Parks Canada interpretive guide for an easy three-mile hike around the lake. Half the trail is paved, making it wheelchair accessible.
The lake is surrounded by the mountains of the President Range, Mount Burgess and Wapta Mountain, which together create a “weather bowl” that traps severe storms and high snowfalls. It makes this area unique and more like a coastal rain forest with Douglas fir, cedar and horsetail ferns. We pass the remnants of an avalanche scar, a barren area that climbs far up the mountainside. Our guide tells us that in February 2011 a huge avalanche dumped debris that nearly filled the lake. It took workers three months to clean out the trees, rocks and sediment. Today, the area is populated with glacier lilies, one of the first flowers to return after an avalanche, and visitors can often see grizzlies and black bears munching on them here.
The guide points out other wildflowers — fairy slippers, purple mountain orchids, white mountain avens and purple butterwort, the area’s only carnivorous wildflower. She also shows us Burgess Shale Fossil Site high up on Burgess Mountain, where scientists have found fossils 505 million years old from an ancient sea that once covered the area. The fossils were not only some of the oldest ever found, the mud that buried them preserved soft tissues, even stomach contents, of the nectocaris, odontogriphus and anomalocaris creatures in the shale. Visitors can take a vigorous six-mile guided hike to this important geological find.
After our hike, we grab a quick grilled salmon salad and duck breast pizza at Emerald Lake Lodge’s Cilantro restaurant before heading out in one of the rental canoes. The weather is cool and the clouds swirl overhead so we have the lake to ourselves. Well, aside from the loon that plays hide and seek as we paddle the calm waters.
Hot Springs and Vineyards
The next morning, as we leave Kicking Horse Campground, we’re treated to a big black bear grazing on dandelions alongside the road. We head west on Highway 1 toward Golden. The Kicking Horse River is renowned for its white-water rafting and we’ve hooked up with Glacier Rafting Company to experience it for ourselves.
After being outfitted with life jackets and neck-to-toe neoprene wet suits complete with booties and mittens that make us look like Gumby, we board a school bus for the short ride to the raft launch. Isaac, a veteran with 10 years of experience on the river, tells us the water today is higher than it’s been in 30 years. One look at the swirling, frothing chocolate brown water confirms his observation.
For the next couple of hours it’s a wild ride on class two, three and four rapids with names like Man Eater and The Last Waltz that buck like the horse for which this river is named. Fortunately for us, our guides are skilled and they get us down the river safely and, all too soon, we’re high-fiving our crewmates, total strangers who now feel like new friends.
We head south from Golden on Highway 95 into the Columbia Valley wetlands and the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River. This is the largest continuous wetland in North America and, judging from the dozens of osprey and ducks we spot, an important birding habitat.
The land opens, becoming rolling ranch land studded with cottonwoods. We’re in the Rocky Mountain Trench, a wide area between the Rockies and the Purcell Mountain range that’s so large it can be seen from space. This is where the North American tectonic plate and the Pacific Plate come together and the pressure from these two colliding behemoths formed the Rocky Mountains.
This highway is part of the Mountains and Vineyards Circle Route and the area is home to hot springs like Radium Hot Springs, a classic health resort whose Swiss architecture is a throwback to the 1960s. It’s also part of Kootenay National Park. We stop long enough to snap a few pictures of the pools, but we have a date with another hot spring so we keep going.
The land has become mountainous again and, since this area is in the Purcell Mountain rain shadow, the trees are ponderosa pine, aspen and birch that thrive in drier climates. We spot four Rocky Mountain sheep with big curled horns grazing on the side of the road and pause to shoot pictures. Before long, there’s what locals call a “ram jam” of cars and RVs stopping to take a look.
We turn off at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, the largest natural hot springs in Canada, and park the motorhome at its deluxe RV park. While the resort boasts championship golfing in summer and skiing in winter, the biggest draw is the natural mineral hot spring. The same process that raised the Rocky Mountains left deep faults in the rock where water collects and runs deep into the mountains. Super-heated, the water bubbles back to the surface, forming mineral-rich, and, some say healing, hot springs.
Lucky for us, Fairmont offers 244 level, concrete sites — many pull-throughs — with full hookups, picnic tables, shower houses, a covered group pavilion and magnificent views of the Rockies. Just a skip away are hiking trails and a bridge that connects the RV park to the resort’s hot pools. You can’t have open fires in this park, but just down the road the resort’s Spruce Grove RV Park has fire pits and sites right on the Columbia River.
We settle into the park and pull on our bathing suits. After our chilly Kicking Horse white-water adventure, the hot water feels perfect and we soak in pools of various temperatures until we resemble prunes.
After a quick breakfast the following morning, we’re on Highway 93S and it’s not long before we come to Fort Steele Heritage Town, a former 1860s gold rush boomtown that’s been restored, complete with wooden sidewalks, vintage buildings, and employees in period costumes giving demonstrations in blacksmithing and candy making. There’s even a daily old-time live theater and an antique steam locomotive visitors can ride.
We pass through the City of Cranbrook, past Moyie Lake, and take the highway to the little town of Creston, a quaint farming community tucked into a verdant valley. We easily while away the day touring the Columbia Beer Distillery, sipping wine and enjoying lunch at the Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery and Skimmerhorn Winery and Bistro, and sampling excellent organic, unpasteurized Alpine-style cheeses at the Kootenay Alpine Cheese Company.
Our visit to Creston has taken us out of our way, but it was a great detour. We head back on scenic Highway 3. Eagle’s Nest RV Park on Moyie Lake looks inviting, but we’re keen to explore Fernie, an artist colony in the southwest corner of British Columbia that’s famous for some of the best skiing in the west.
It’s worth the push. The two-and-a-half-hour drive takes us along the Elk River and through beautiful canyons. It’s 7 p.m. when we pull the motorhome into Mount Fernie Provincial Park Campground. This same road will take us to Island Lake Lodge, a cat-ski lodge that’s renowned for some of the deepest winter powder in the world.
Tomorrow we’ll head up the road and explore the old growth grove and take a heart-pounding hike up the lodge’s Tamarack Trail for spectacular views of the Lizard Range. Then maybe we’ll even tuck into some of the lodge’s fork-tender elk osso bucco.
But, for now, we’re content to enjoy our shady spot amid the trees, listen to waterfalls, and, as the light fades, let the peaks of the Kootenay Rockies put on a show.
For more information
Fairmont Hot Springs Resort
Glacier Raft Company
Mount Fernie Provincial Park Campground