Kootenay Rockies Information
The Kootenay Rockies destination is situated in Southeastern British Colombia. The region’s rugged and spectacular Columbia Mountains and Canadian Rockies—with the Monashees and Selkirks in the West Kootenays, and the Purcells in the East Kootenays—are a draw for year-round tourist activity and very popular for skiing in the winter. Beginning at the border with Alberta, the BC Rockies are approximately 175 km/108 miles from Calgary, a spectacular drive of about 2.5 hours. The region is serviced by Cranbrook’s Canadian Rockies International Airport with regular flights from Vancouver and Calgary. The Western Kootenays is only 202 km/126 miles (2.5 hours drive) from Spokane, USA, and is also serviced by a regional airport in Castlegar with flights from Vancouver and Calgary.
Also defined by its major rivers, the Columbia and Kootenay, these water systems generate a considerable amount of electricity, supplying the BC and United States markets. While the main economic activities are coal mining, zinc and lead smelting and refining, and pulp, lumber, and wood products manufacturing, tourism is growing – especially new resort development. Retirement and lakefront properties are currently hot items in the Kootenay region. Small communities, some from a by-gone era, others with a counter-culture all of their own, have plenty of arts and crafts, music, spirituality, healthy living, and organic farming for exploring.
Inhabited for thousands of years by the Kootenay First Nations people, the Ktunaxa Nation and their ancestors, the BC Rockies began drawing European and Chinese settlers with the discovery of valuable minerals and precious metals in the early 19th century. Tensions between the established population and the newcomers rose until relative peace took hold in the later part of the 1800s, helped by the bust of the gold rush and the subsequent diminishment of new arrivals. Many communities which had established themselves overnight, housing prospectors, traders, and suppliers, disappeared just as quickly, and the region is peppered with ghost towns.
Prodigious snowfall make the BC mountains a prime destination for winter activists of all proclivities. Snowmobiling, snowshoeing, snowboarding, and skiing by helicopter and snowcat – all are well-represented at the many ski areas and resorts throughout the region, and many spots are considered among the world’s best. Back-country ski spots are especially popular with the locals, and visitors can often discover "secret" spots that are deep in powder and devoid of crowds.
What is less well-known, however, is that ample sunshine and hot weather reign in the summer throughout the Rockies, and the spectacular lakes draw many people searching for an active getaway. Temperatures in July and August can sometimes soar above 35°C (95°F), making the beaches around the refreshing lakes feel more like Aruba than the Arctic.
The Kootenays and the BC Rockies are serviced by a well-maintained network of highways, accessible in all seasons (although winter travelers should ensure to have adequate tires) and providing breathtaking views of the area (frequent viewpoints and rest stops along the way!). One of the most popular routes is the Selkirk Loop, an elliptical drive whose top half runs through some of the most stunning lake-and-mountain country in Canada, and which can easily be done in a day (with picnic stops).
This mountainous playground offers a number of guided outdoor activities and things to do in summer such as horseback riding, heli tours, white water rafting, tree top adventures and ziplining. Seven of Canada’s national parks have been established in the region and there are many areas for camping, hiking, nature-viewing, mountain-biking and family fun.
Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, near the south end of Kootenay Lake, is one of BC’s largest wildlife management areas supporting a range of animal and bird life in the wetlands environment. With canoe trips through the marsh accompanied by your own naturalist to guide you while paddling, it is possible to see colonies of great blue herons and a variety of waterfowl.
Yoho National Park on the rugged western slopes of the Canadian Rockies is full of impressive landscapes with plunging waterfalls, steep rock walls, brilliant lakes, refreshing forests, ice fields, and snow capped mountain peaks, and Kootenay National Park provides ideal mountain scenery to view bighorn sheep, elk, deer, mountain goats and bear. The Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell Mountains between the picturesque towns of Golden and Radium Hot Springs, is great for climbing and some of the remote wilderness attracts experienced adventurers. Cody Caves Provincial Park is where you can explore its system of underground streams that flow 800 metres (2625 feet) through ancient limestone and exquisitely fragile calcite formations.
There are numerous other parks throughout the region all with unique features from easily accessed picnic spots to pure wilderness experiences.
Linked by winding roads and spiral tunnels, engineering marvels in their own right, the region’s urban centres are characterized by smaller communities rather than by busy metropolitan action.
Cranbrook is the largest city in the Kootenays with a population of 19,000. Other cities in the region include Castlegar with a population of 7,000, Nelson with around 9,700 inhabitants, and Revelstoke with more than 7,000.
Many museums and heritage centres are accessible throughout the Kootenays for the visitor interested in history and culture. The communities in and around Castlegar and Grand Forks are rich in Doukhobor history, the ‘spirit wrestlers’ who fled persecution in Russia to pursue pacificism. The city of Nelson has its own quirky spirit, too, with art galleries in almost every café, inspired Victorian heritage charm with some 355 restored buildings, and plenty of zest for outdoor living with access to skiing, bike trails, fishing, and hiking. About an hour’s drive away is the village of Kaslo where the paddle-wheeler SS Moyie is now moored as a designated national historic site to provide a link to the past.
Revelstoke, situated on the rushing Illecillewaet River and the slow-moving Columbia River, is a launch spot for many outdoor adventure pursuits including white water rafting and mountain biking in the summer, and skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. Be aware this is avalanche country during the winter months.
Click here to return to the British Columbia regional overview page.
Photo credits: Fernie Town BC courtesy Tourism BC; Field BC courtesy Canadian Rockie Mountain Resorts, Robert Leyermeyer; Revelstoke BC courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission; David Gluns; Golden BC courtesy Tourism BC, Albert Normandin
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"A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles" - Tim Cahill