Kootenay Rockies Roadtrip
8 Adventures in the East Kootenays
Golden fields dotted with dark ponderosa sweep past us, the sloping snow-packed Purcell Mountains on our left and the ragged Rockies to our right. We cross the Kootenay River, babbling and milky with glacial silt, then the storied Columbia, running young and strong and clear. We're tired, our boots muddy and soaked from creek crossings, but a vibrant and sustaining mountain culture is evident everywhere here from charming ski towns to far-flung trails and backcountry cabins and we're amped for a week of explorations. But first: some Kicking Horse coffee.
This past August we teamed up with Destination BC for a week-long adventure in the East Kootenays, travelling from Fernie to Radium and back again with fellow BC-based photographer and new best friend Kari Medig. Here are some of our favourite moments, and eight great things to see and do on your next Kootenay-Rockies adventure.
1. VISIT ISLAND LAKE LODGE
Located just outside the historic ski town of Fernie BC, Island Lake Lodge is a spectacular Rocky Mountain retreat. Tucked into a quiet 7,000 acre property spanning a wooded valley with towering peaks and a spring-fed lake, four comfortable guest lodges overlook a magnificent scene. In the summer you can borrow canoes, hike or bike the trails, and sample the award-winning food. Come winter the lodge becomes a leading backcountry catskiing destination, complete with multi-day packages as well as spa and day trip opportunities.
We arrived in the afternoon, checked into the Red Eagle Lodge, then made our way down to the lake for a quick paddle around its mineral-rich waters. The Lizard Range looms picturesquely over the lake, which seemingly as often as not offers back a perfect reflection. As the sun slowly set behind the mountains we bounded into the berry-filled forest trying to catch last light as it receded up Tamarack Ridge. Though we missed it by half an hour maybe, the viewpoint gave us a taste of the trail we'd be hiking at first light the next morning.
2. HIKE HEIKO'S TRAIL
Named in honour of the man who built it — after he retired from almost singhandedly transforming Fernie into a world-class big mountain ski destination — Heiko's Trail is a 25km (16 mile) trek past caves, canyons, waterfalls, old growth forests, lush subalpine meadows, remote grizzly bear habitat, and plenty of epic mountain scenery. It is a long and at times challenging trail, but it's also one of the province's best and most rewarding.
Hiked either as a full day trek or an overnighter, the trail is generally hikeable from late June to mid October. Joined by Megan Kelly, an affable and informative guide from Island Lake Lodge, we started at Hartley Lake and quickly ascended out of the forest to gaze at mighty rock walls and drink from burbling streams. We camped below the shoulder of Fernie's iconic Three Sisters, then hiked the remaining mountain passes and long scenic descent down Tamarack Ridge to end with a delicious lunch of grilled salmon tacos and roasted beet sandwiches at the Island Lake Lodge.
3. GO SUPSQUATCHING DOWN THE ELK RIVER
Fernie's Elk River is a gem. Whether you're into swimming, fly fishing, sightseeing, or drifting lazily downcurrent on an inflatable, it is a true treasure. And now Mountain High Adventures offers a new way to experience the river: on a 6 person stand up paddleboard adventure called SUPsquatching.
Cutting right through town, the Elk River has its share af scenic turns, slow sections, and even a couple white-knuckled class I and II rapids that will get almost anyone's heart racing. It was our first time on a SUP, but due to its size we found the board pretty stable and we were in the guide Jon's confident hands. Great fun for all ages.
4. GO HORSEBACK RIDING AT THREE BARS RANCH
While the East Kootenays are dominated by two towering mountain ranges, the dry expansive valley between them offers a range all its own: vast fields and forests perfect for ranching and riding. You'll find herds of cattle on the sides of highways and along the wooded back roads, but to see horses up close you'll want to book a stay at Three Bars Guest Ranch.
Located midway between Cranbrook and Kimberley, Three Bars offers horseback riding, western-inspired log cabins, and opportunities for fly fishing & hiking on 35,000 acres bordering the St Mary's River. We were up before dawn to watch a couple wranglers head out into the nearby fields to corral horses for the lodge's guests. It had barely rained for weeks, and the horses kicked up dust in the fresh morning light, putting on a magnificent show. By 7:00AM several dozen horses were saddled and waiting, and by 7:30AM a slow stream of guests ambled in from the cabins to grab a horse and set off to explore the woods and meadows.
5. HIKE THE PURCELL RANGE
The Purcells were already fast becoming my favourite mountain range in BC, and the hike to Thunderwater Lake pretty well cinched the deal. Just west of Radium and Invermere, the trail required some route finding and iffy creek crossings, but the elevation gain is minimal, the meadows lush, the approach spectacularly scenic, and the startling blue lake nestled in the grey granite slopes something special. We wandered the rocky shoreline, buffeted by strong winds and a sprinkling rain, and the skies erupted into a dramatic light show. And then, after a restful night in our tents and a morning clambering on the rocks, we discovered a route back down that avoided the sketchy the creek crossings. All in all a stunning trail (and easy if you find a good route up!).
6. STAY AT NIPIKA'S COZY CABINS
Tucked down a dirt road below the southern border of Kootenay National Park, Nipika Mountain Resort is surrounded by sprawling mountain scenery. Its nine rustic-but-modern log cabins are scattered in a circle around an open field, and each cabin is somehow cuter and more idyllic than the last. You'll find families mingling in the meadows, horses wandering around, and a network of trails winding through the woods overlooking the rushing sparkling Kootenay River and the Rockies beyond. Bring your mountain bike or rent one from the lodge in summer, pack your crosscountry skis or fat tire bike in winter, or just come to nestle into a cozy cabin with your book.
7. CAMP ON A MOUNTAINTOP
If you want a mountain camping experience without lugging all your gear up a hill, Fernie Alpine Resort has a perfect solution for you: Charlift camping! They'll truck your gear up and take care of food, so all you have to do is hop on a lift up to the campground and start exploring the trails. We hiked to the Lost Boys Lookout then up the Timber Headwall for expansive views of the mountains overlooking Fernie. Not a bad place to catch sunrise and sunset.
8. RELAX IN A HOTSPRING
After a week on the road it can become necessary to unwind a bit, and there's no better way to relax than by settling into some hotsprings. Lucky for us the Kootenays have a whole bunch, with three well-known springs right on our route off Highway 95. Each offers a different feel and experience — the Parks Canada-operated Radium pools have a neat canyon setting, Fairmont is more of a resort and spa, and the undeveloped Lussier Hotsprings flow into pools carved out of the rocky banks of a river.
We clambered into the pools, the hot water immediately easing the cold bite of morning, and it was all we could do to stifle back a satisfied and full body-tingling ahhhhh. It had been a wonderful and event-packed week, and after a soaking for a few rejuvenating minutes we were just about ready to get back out there and do it all over again.
But first: some Kicking Horse coffee.
Big thanks to Destination BC for helping make this trip possible. Check out their website for more great trip ideas