The Silvery Slocan
Travelling the West Kootenay's Silvery Slocan Circle Route
Crystal clear lakes, towering mountains, hot springs, and charming small towns with cozy coffee shops wait for you on the Silvery Slocan Circle Route. Travelling through Nelson, Kaslo, New Denver and the Slocan Valley, you trace a loop back in time to where silver once ruled the day, where towns boomed overnight and disappeared almost as fast, to an area rich with colourful history, stunning wilderness, and a delightfully offbeat and laid-back vibe.
Begin your tour in Nelson. When silver was found in the nearby mountains in 1867, Nelson grew quickly as the region's primary transportation hub, with stately granite buildings and a burgeoning retail sector. Today it lives on as a thriving arts community, with a lively downtown packed with good restaurants, cafes, and local shops. It's also a renowned outdoor recreation destination, with world class skiing in the winter and plenty of great hiking, biking, and paddling options in summer.
Spend some time wandering the heritage district and historic Baker Street, enjoying the vibrant street culture. There are regular street festivals in the summer, from Market Fest to the Arts Walk, and every Saturday hosts the Cottonwood Community Market.
Next, head down to Lakeside Park to while away a summer day on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake. Swim, paddle, or just sit on the sand and snack. Plus you can take the historic trolley!
There are few better ways to get to know a city than to spend some time in its local cafes, and Nelson has more than its share of quality coffee shops including Oso Negro, John Ward, Empire Coffee, and No 6. Oso in particular has become a local institution, with a decidedly laid-back Kootenay style, fresh-roasted beans, and a lively and loyal clientele.
There's also great selection of craft breweries — from Nelson Brewing Co's organic ales to up and comers like Backroads Brewing & Torchlight, Nelson is known as one of Canada's best beer towns and is an integral stop on the West Kootenay Ale Trail.
When you're ready to continue on your journey (don't worry, the roadtrip is a loop so you'll be back!), head out of town over the big orange bridge and along the shore of Kootenay Lake. No matter the weather, you'll find ample opportunities to stop along the way. If it’s hot, pull off at one of the many beaches for a refreshing swim, or if the temperatures are cooler (or you just need to relax after hiking in Kokanee Glacier Park) you'll want to stop for a rejuvenating soak in the mineral-rich waters of Ainsworth Hot Springs.
The next town on your journey is cute little Kaslo. On the shore of Kootenay Lake and surrounded by mountain views, Kaslo is one of Canada's prettiest villages. With the Selkirks to the west and the Purcells to the east there are ample opportunities to head off on a hike or a scenic paddle.
Similar to Nelson, the village of Kaslo had its beginnings in the late 1800s as a mining town, and many of its historic buildings date back to this time. Strolling its scenic downtown, heritage attractions include the Langham Theatre, old city hall, and the Japanese Canadian Museum.
While Kaslo is quite a bit smaller than Nelson, it also has its share of culinary gems including hearty burgers and rice bowls at Bluebelle Bistro and fantastic pizza at Buddy's Pizzeria. Make sure to also stop in at Angry Hen Brewing to try some inspired local ales.
Among Kaslo’s most iconic stops is the SS Moyie, the world’s oldest intact steam-powered sternwheelers, now a national historic site and lovingly restored as a museum. Before the highways were built the lake communities were served by a fleet of these ships, hauling passengers and freight up the various valleys. You really get a sense of the history when stepping inside the well-appointed passenger deck, glimpsing what life might have been like journeying up and down the lake in style. The SS Moyie served the lake communities faithfully until 1957, the last of its kind in BC, as most of the others were broken up and either sunk or destroyed.
Continuing on your journey, turn off Hwy 3A onto 31A, leaving Kootenay Lake behind and cutting across the Selkirk mountains to New Denver. Now known as the Valley of Ghosts, this stretch of road was once filled with bustling mining communities that have long since disappeared save for a few scattered buildings. Sandon, one of the province’s best-known ghost towns, is your next recommended stop.
Built along the narrow valley beside Carpenter Creek, Sandon was one of the principal mining towns in the region. The first municipality in BC with electricity, at its height it boasted 28 saloons, 29 hotels, 2 theatres, 2 railroads, 3 breweries, 3 sawmills, 2 newspapers, and a massive red light district. But there was always a severe lack of space in the narrow valley, and in 1900 a fire spread quickly between the close-knit wood buildings. The town rebuilt almost immediately, but then dwindling silver prices, conscription to the world wars, and floods slowly hollowed the town out, and when it was all but abandoned scavengers slowly pilfered what was left of the buildings board by board.
Only a scant few buildings remain, but a couple people still live there tending to the little general store, museum, the handful of shacks and cabins, and running Canada’s oldest continually operating hydroelectric generating station. And all the vacant lots means more space for other antiques — like an old locomotive and a fleet of vintage Vancouver buses.
Just past Sandon is the start of the road up to Idaho Peak. Once an active fire lookout keeping watch over the surrounding mountains and valleys, it has become a classic hike with stunning views of Slocan Lake and the Valhalla and Kokanee ranges. You gain most of the elevation via a narrow winding road up to the trailhead, and after leaving the parking lot it’s a fairly easy 2km ridgeline ramble to the lookout. The meadows are abloom with wildflowers in late July and early August, and by September the bushes are already turning the glowing yellows and reds of autumn.
Directly downhill from Idaho Peak waits the next little town of New Denver. On the shores of Slocan Lake, the towering Valhalla Range loom large from across the water.
Stroll the little main street, stopping in at Apple Tree Sandwich Shop or Nuru Cafe for a bite, visit the original Valhalla Pure Outfitters store, then head down to the lakeshore to admire the views. Unique lodgings can be had at The Domes, and we highly recommend visiting the Nikkei Memorial to see what life was like for the interred Japanese Canadians during WWII.
After the silver boom the Village of Slocan continued life as a quiet forestry town until the mill too eventually shut down, but through it all Slocan remained a nice place to visit and the main portal to get out to explore the nearby granite towers and alpine lakes of Valhalla Provincial Park. Fuel up at Flaca's Bakery, rent a canoe from Smiling Otter, and go for swim at the beach.
Slocan is also the start of the Slocan Valley Rail Trail, a 52km non-motorized trail winding down the valley. For the most part following the scenic bends of the river, you pass ample viewpoints, swimming holes, and cafes (we love Sleep is for Sissies in Winlaw and the Frog Peak Cafe in Crescent Valley!). You can also spot large depressions, the remains of old pit houses where Sinixt First Nations once wintered, and read interpretive signs about the history and significance of the area. It's the perfect way to get out and explore this quiet and beautiful area.
Big thanks to Kootenay Rockies for helping make this trip possible!