Columbia Valley Scenic Drives
Highway 93/95 south from Radium Hot Springs takes you 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the city of Cranbrook, which sits on Highway 3, a major transprovincial route across the southern portion of British Columbia. This highway accesses four provincial parks: Whiteswan, Top of the World, Elk Lakes, and Height of the Rockies, each well worth visiting if you have the time.
Radium Hot Springs
The small service center of Radium Hot Springs (pop. 900) sits along Highway 93/95 at the southwest entrance to Kootenay National Park. Its setting is spectacular; most of the town lies on benchlands above the Columbia River, from which the panoramic views take in the Canadian Rockies to the east and the Purcell Mountains to the west. As well as providing accommodations and other services for park visitors and highway travelers, Radium is a destination in itself for many travelers. The town is just three kilometers (two miles) from the hot springs for which it is named and boasts a wildlife-rich wetland on its back doorstep, two excellent golf courses, and many other recreational opportunities.
Radium sits in the Rocky Mountain Trench, which has been carved over millions of years by the Columbia River. From its headwaters south of Radium, the Columbia flows northward through a 180-kilometer-long (110-mile-long) wetland to Golden, continuing north for a similar distance before reversing course and flowing south into the United States. The wetland nearby Radium holds international significance, not only for its size (26,000 hectares/64,250 acres), but also for the sheer concentration of wildlife it supports. More than 100 species of birds live among the sedges, grasses, dogwoods, and black cottonwoods surrounding the convoluted banks of the Columbia. Of special interest are blue herons in large numbers and ospreys in one of the world’s highest concentrations.
North from Radium along Highway 95
From Radium, Highway 95 follows the Columbia River north for 105 kilometers (65 miles) to Golden, from where the TransCanada Highway heads east, through Yoho National Park and across the Continental Divide to Banff National Park. Between Radium and Golden are several small, historic towns worthy of a stop. The first is Edgewater, where a farmers market is held each Saturday. Continuing north is Brisco, gateway to the mountaineering mecca of Bugaboo Provincial Park. Named for a member of the 1859 Palliser expedition, Brisco was founded on the mining industry and later grew as a regional center for surrounding farmland. Brisco General Store is a throwback to those earlier times, selling just about everything. Nearby Spillimacheen (“white water” to First Nations) sits at the confluence of the Spillimacheen River and Bugaboo Creek.
The commercial center of the Columbia River Valley is Invermere (pop. 3,500), on the shoreline of Lake Windermere 15 kilometers (nine miles) south of Radium. The population swells threefold throughout summer as vacation homes in Invermere and surrounding lakeside communities fill with a mostly Albertan influx of visitors who come for the water sports, the swimming, and the holiday atmosphere.
Off the Invermere access road, toward Wilmer, a small plaque marks the site of Kootenae House. Established by David Thompson in 1807, it was the first trading post on the Columbia River. The valley’s first permanent settlement, known as Athalmer, was alongside the outlet of Lake Windermere, but continual flooding led to the town’s expansion on higher ground. The old town site is now a popular recreation area, where a pleasant grassy area dotted with picnic tables runs right down to a sandy beach and the warm, shallow waters of the lake. It’s on the left as you travel along the Invermere access road. As you approach the town itself, consider a stop at Windermere Valley Museum (622 3rd St., 250/342-9769, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mon. to Fri. in summer, donation), where the entire history of the valley is contained in seven historic buildings.
Fairmont Hot Springs
Kootenay people used these springs, south of Invermere along Highway 93/95, as a healing source for eons prior to the arrival of Europeans, but they wouldn’t recognize the place today. Surrounding the site is Fairmont Hot Springs Resort (250/345-6311 or 800/663-4979, www.fairmontresort.com), comprising a sprawling residential and resort complex, three golf courses, a small ski resort, a strip of shops and restaurants, and an airstrip. Despite all the commercialism, the hot springs (5225 Fairmont Resort Rd., 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, adult $14, child $10) are still the main attraction. Their appeal is simple: Unlike most other springs, the hot water bubbling up from underground here contains calcium, not sulfur with its attendant smell. The pools are a magical experience, especially in the evening. Lazily swim or float around in the large warm pool, dive into the cool pool, or soak away your cares in the hottest pool.
South from Fairmont
Immediately south of Fairmont, the highway approaches and passes the weirdly shaped Dutch Creek Hoodoos, a set of photogenic rock formations carved over time by ice, water, and wind. It then climbs to a high point and passes tiny Thunder Hill Provincial Park, which overlooks turquoise-and-blue Columbia Lake.
The small lumber-mill town of Canal Flats lies between the Kootenay River and Columbia Lake. In 1889 the two waterways were connected by a canal with a single lock, but the passage was so narrow and dangerous that only two steamboats ever got through.
Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park
Access to this popular British Columbia park is from Highway 93/95, 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Radium Hot Springs and 28 kilometers (17.4 miles) north of Skookumchuck. From a signed turnoff, an unpaved logging road takes off east into the mountains, leading first to 1,994-hectare (4.930-acre) Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park, then to Top of the World Provincial Park. The road climbs steadily from the highway, entering Lussier Gorge after 11 kilometers (6.8 miles). Within the gorge, a steep trail leads down to Lussier Hot Springs. Two small pools have been constructed to contain the odorless hot (43°C/110°F) water as it bubbles out of the ground and flows into the Lussier River. Within the park itself, the road closely follows the southern shorelines of first Alces Lake, then the larger Whiteswan Lake. The two lakes attract abundant birdlife; loons, grebes, and herons are all common. They also attract anglers, who come for great rainbow trout fishing. Both lakes are stocked and have a daily quota of two fish per person.
Top of the World Provincial Park
This wild and remote 8,790-hectare (21,720-acre) park lies beyond Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park, a rough 52 kilometers (32 miles) from Highway 93/95 (turn off the Whiteswan Lake access road at Alces Lake). You can’t drive into the park, but it’s a fairly easy six-kilometer (3.7-mile) walk from the end of the road to picturesque Fish Lake, the park’s largest body of water. The trail climbs alongside the pretty Lussier River to the lake, which is encircled with Engelmann spruce and surrounded by peaks up to 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) high. The hike to the lake gains just over 200 vertical meters (660 vertical feet) and makes a good day trip. Trails from the lake lead to other alpine lakes and to a viewpoint that allows a good overall perspective on the high plateau for which the park is named. Fish Lake is productive for cutthroat and Dolly Varden trout.
Height of the Rockies Provincial Park
This long and narrow, 68,000-hectare (134,000-acre) park protects a 50-kilometer-long (31-mile-long) section of the Canadian Rockies, including a 25-kilometer-long (15.5-mile-long) stretch bordering the Continental Divide. The park lies entirely in British Columbia, bordered by Elk Lakes and Peter Lougheed Provincial Parks to the east and Banff National Park at its narrow northern reaches. It is accessible only on foot and is not a destination for the casual day-tripper. Mountains dominate the landscape, with 26 peaks—some of which remained unnamed until recently—rising over the magical 10,000-foot (3,050-meter) mark. They lie in two distinct ranges: the Royal Group in the north and the Italian Group in the south. The dominant peak is 3,460-meter (11,350-foot) Mount King George, in the Royal Group, which is flanked by massive hanging glaciers on its north- and east-facing slopes. Mountain goats thrive on all massifs, while the remote valleys are home to high concentrations of elk and grizzly bears.
The park can be reached from two directions. Neither is signposted, so before setting out for the park, pick up a good map of the area at a local information center or Forest Service office. The following directions are intended only as a guide. Connor Lake is the most popular destination in the south of the park. It is reached by passing through Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park, then continuing along a rough logging road that parallels the White River to its upper reaches. (The most important intersection to watch for is 11 km/6.8 miles from Whiteswan Lake; stay right, immediately crossing the river.) At the end of the road, a tortuous 72 kilometers (45 miles) from Highway 93/95, is a small area set aside for tents and horse corrals. From this trailhead, it’s an easy walk up Maiyuk Creek and over a low ridge to Connor Lake, where you’ll enjoy great views of the Italian Group to the north and Mount Forsyth to the southwest. Small Queen Mary Lake lies in the western shadow of the impressive Royal Group. It is generally the destination only of those on horseback or mountaineers continuing into the Royal Group. To get there, turn off Highway 93/95 at Canal Flats and follow a logging road up the Kootenay River watershed. For the first 48 kilometers (30 miles), the road follows the Kootenay itself. Then it turns westward and climbs along the south side of the Palliser River 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) farther to road’s end. From this point, it’s a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) hike up a forested valley, with numerous creek crossings, to the lake.
Continuing South Via Fort Steele
Back on Highway 93/95, the highway divides, with the western option (Highway 93A) passing through Kimberley and a more direct route following the Kootenay River through an area that was flooded with miners after gold was discovered on Wild Horse Creek in 1865. It also passes Wasa Lake Provincial Park, with excellent camping and some of the warmest swimming in the Canadian Rockies.
At Fort Steele Heritage Town (9851 Hwy. 93/95, 250/417-6000, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily May to mid-June, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily mid-June to Aug., 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily Sept. to mid-Oct., adult $12, senior $10, child $5), along the more direct option, you’ll see over 60 restored and reconstructed buildings, including log barracks, hotels, a courthouse, a jail, a dentist’s office, a ferry office, a printing office, and a general store all crammed to the rafters with intriguing historical artifacts. Park staff bring Fort Steele back to life with appropriately costumed working blacksmiths, carpenters, quilters, weavers, bakers, ice-cream makers, and many others. Hop on a steam train (adult $10, child $5), heckle a street politician, witness a crime and testify at a trial, pan for gold, watch a silent movie, and view operatic performances in the Opera House. One of the highlights is Fort Steele Follies, a professional 1880s-style live-theater company performing a musical comedy at the Wild Horse Theatre. Showtimes are at 2 p.m. daily during the summer only (adult $15, senior $10, child $5).
To get to the original Wild Horse Creek diggings, continue north from Fort Steele and take the logging road to Bull River and Kootenay Trout Hatchery, then the first road on the left (before the creek crossing). Fisherville—the first township in the East Kootenays and once home to over 5,000 miners—was established at the diggings in 1864 but was relocated upstream when it was discovered that the richest seam of gold was right below the main street. About five kilometers (three miles) from the highway is Wild Horse Graveyard. From this point you can hike a section of Wild Horse Creek to see a number of historic sites, including the Chinese burial ground, the site of the Wild Horse post office, the remains of Fisherville, and the diggings. It takes about two hours to do the trail, allowing for stops at all the plaques along the way.
Kimberley (pop. 6,300), 31 kilometers (19 miles) north of Cranbrook on Highway 95A, is a charming little town with no commercial strip or fast-food outlets, just streets of old stucco mining cottages and a downtown that’s been “Bavarianized.” A few downtown shops and businesses have been decorated Bavarian-style with dark wood finish and flowery trim, steep triangular roofs, fancy balconies, brightly painted window shutters, and flower-filled window boxes. Although named for a famous South African diamond mine, Kimberley boomed as a result of the silver and lead deposits unearthed on nearby North Star Mountain. The deposits were discovered in 1892, and by 1899 over 200 claims had been staked. As was so often the case, only operations run by larger companies proved profitable. The last of these, and one of the world’s largest lead and zinc mines, Cominco’s Sullivan Mine, closed in late 2001 as reserves became exhausted.
Strolling Kimberley’s Bavarian Platzl, you’ll feel as though you’ve just driven into a village high in the Swiss Alps, with only bell-wearing cows and brightly dressed milkmaids missing. This is the focus of downtown: a redbrick, pedestrian plaza complete with babbling brook, ornamental bridges, and the “World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock.” At the far end of the Platzl, Kimberley Heritage Museum (250/427-7510, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tues. to Sat. July to Aug., 1 to 4 p.m. Mon. to Fri. Sept. to June, donation) houses mining-history exhibits, a stuffed grizzly bear, and displays relating to local recreation. Cominco Gardens enjoys a hilltop location (4th Ave., 250/427-2293, free). Originally planted in 1927 to promote a fertilizer developed by Cominco, the five-hectare (12-acre) gardens now hold close to 50,000 flowers. Departing up to six times daily through summer (weekends only in spring and fall), the Underground Mining Railway (250/427-0022, June to early Sept., adult $20, youth $15, child $8) was constructed from materials salvaged from mining towns around the province. From just west of the Platzl, the seven-kilometer (4.3-mile) track climbs a steep-sided valley, crosses a trestle bridge, passes through a tunnel, and stops at particularly impressive mountain viewpoints and the original town site before arriving at Kimberley Alpine Resort.