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 —
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 DEEP INTO THE PURCELL BACKCOUNTRY TO THUNDERWATER LAKE
The Purcells were already fast becoming my favourite mountain range in BC, and the hike to
pretty well cinched the deal. Just west of Radium
and Invermere, the trail required some route finding and
iffy rock-hopping creek crossings, and it tested us. But the elevation gain was 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 worst of the creek crossings. All in all a stunning trail (and easy enough 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.