As I depart from Calgary on a sunny autumn morning, the drive west and then south is spectacular. The Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains are world famous, thanks to icons like Banff National Park, but so is the lesser-known British Columbia portion of the majestic peaks. The East Kootenays, a valley region sandwiched between the Rockies and the Purcell Mountains, offers plentiful opportunities for sightseeing, arts and culture, and easy access to nature without crowds, line-ups, or parking issues that you might find in other mountain playgrounds in Western Canada.
Exploring Radium Hot Springs
Located in the Columbia Valley at the headwaters of the Columbia River, the Village of Radium Hot Springs is a great place to stop after you’ve crossed into British Columbia. Refresh yourself in the natural mineral waters of the village’s namesake hot springs. Operated by Parks Canada, the hot springs are open year-round. Everything is well set up and easy to navigate. Stepping into the warm water feels divine.
“No matter what time of the year you’re there, it has a distinct seasonal beauty, whether it’s frost in the winter, or the colours of the fall leaves,” says Columbia Valley resident Brenda Holden, who appreciates the utter relaxation, as well as the healing properties, the hot springs offer. “Sometimes it’s just a nice warm soak, and at other times, it has strong medicinal effects.”
The Radium area offers plenty of outdoor recreation options, including hiking and parasailing, Holden notes. And “you don’t have to be a really outdoorsy person come here and enjoy nature to stop and enjoy a picnic,” she says.
St. Eugene Mission Golf Resort and Casino
Located just north of Cranbrook in a peaceful valley on the St. Mary River, and a five-minute drive from the Canadian Rockies International Airport, St. Eugene Resort is a full-service luxury hotel offering friendly service and good food. It is notable for being an Indigenous-owned property. Guests can learn about the history of the Ktunaxa (pronounced too-nah-ha) people – dating back more than 10,000 years — in the photos, artwork, and cultural information seen throughout the resort, as well as about St. Eugene Mission Residential School, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1970. “It’s our story we are telling,” says elder Margaret Teneese, archivist with Ktunaxa Nation Council, Interpretive Centre tour guide, and a former student at the residential school.
With St. Eugene Mission Golf Resort and Casino, the Indigenous communities that own the resort have turned “something that was painful into something that we can all be proud of,” she explains.
Listening to Indigenous people’s stories is important, Teneese emphasizes. And, in terms of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “I think we all need to do our part. Choose one of those [Calls to Action] and master it,” she suggests.
When travellers visit Indigenous tourism businesses, they have the opportunity to learn about culture and build relationships, says Emma-Leigh Snow, social media manager for Painted Warriors, an Indigenous tourism company in Alberta. “We really need those relationships in order to move forward,” says Snow, who has also worked for other Indigenous tourism businesses.
It’s important to keep in mind that your presence and openness to learning about the often overlooked history of Indigenous peoples in Canada is helpful in cultivating trust and healing among those communities. There’s also the benefit of an exceptional, nature-filled getaway. During my three-night stay, the October weather was unseasonably warm and the resort’s immaculate lawns were vibrant green, with the flower beds and baskets overflowing with blooms. In the elegantly renovated Mission building, my room overlooked the golf course and the Purcell Mountains, a picturesque location with plenty of appeal.
Hiking the Kootenay Rockies
I met my guide, Kootenay Rockies Tourism regional media relations specialist, Heidi Korven, at the trailhead for Wycliffe Buttes.
Located halfway between the cities of Kimberley and Cranbrook, Wycliffe Buttes is home to a pleasant walk with views of the Rockies to the east and the Purcells to the west, with a gentle rise to a hilltop viewpoint. It’s a great destination if you’re looking for an opportunity to stretch your legs, and short enough (2 kilometres with a 130-metre elevation gain to the south butte) that you’ll still have lots of time to do other things the same day.
That includes taking time to explore Kimberley. Burrito Grill will satiate your hunger after the hike. It offers a varied, fresh, and health-oriented menu, accompanied by Mexican hot chocolate, topped with whipped cream and cocoa powder. After lunch, I stopped at Kimberley’s central Platzl, then checked out several charming boutique shops, including Moody Bee, Arrow and Axe General Store, Kimberley Stoke Market, and Fullfill Zero Waste Market.
My city tour ended with a mid-afternoon stroll in Kimberley Nature Park, B.C.’s largest municipal park at 840 hectares with more than 50 kilometres (31 miles) of trails. Eimer’s Lake, a spring-fed pond, is an easy hike (1.8 kilometres with a 35-metre elevation gain), accessed from the park’s Higgins Street entrance. Amidst the mixed conifer forest of Douglas firs, lodgepole pines, and old-growth cedar, magnificent larches were turning from green to gold. It was calm and quiet as the sunshine warmed my face.
Chill Out in Cranbrook
Cranbrook, which prides itself on being “the basecamp of the Kootenay Rockies”, invites visitors to stop in, and check out what’s on offer.
“There is so much more to Cranbrook than you can even imagine,” says Cranbrook Tourism Visitor Services manager, Shaun Penner, who was born and raised in the city, moved away as an adult, and then returned to live, work, and play. “There’s an energy in downtown Cranbrook. It really represents the Kootenay life. It’s relaxed, it’s fun, it’s vibrant.”
Among the attractions is Fort Steele Heritage Town, a living history museum located just a few minutes’ drive northeast of Cranbrook, in a time trip back to the Western Canadian frontier. The site includes restored buildings from the original town, alongside reconstructed buildings (from 1890-1905).
In the Cranbrook region, nature activities are the major draw and not just during the busy ski season.
Shoulder season tends to be longer in Cranbrook, Penner notes. “When you’re out on your bike, you can enjoy the trails much earlier in the year and much later in the year. We have some of the best nature around us. Whether it’s a waterfall hike, hot springs, mountain biking, or cycling, you’re going to be able to find that here.”
At North Star Bicycle Company, Cranbrook’s newest bike shop, you can rent e-bikes and ride the North Star Rails to Trails, a former rail line that’s been pulled up and paved over. (The North Star Rails to Trails isn’t associated with the North Star Bicycle Company.) You can ride from the north end of Cranbrook to downtown Kimberley, approximately 28 kilometres (17 miles) one way, have lunch in Kimberley and check out the shops, then return to Cranbrook, in an easy, scenic ride.
And for mountain biking enthusiasts, the Cranbrook Community Forest is a wonderful destination, according to Penner, with more than 80 trails — 14 easy, 44 intermediate, 21 black diamond, and four double-black diamond. “It’s really incredible, the fact we have something like that that’s readily accessible right from town,” he says.
Dining in the East Kootenays
Firehall Kitchen & Tap, a lively craft-beer gastropub located in a beautifully renovated historic building, specializes in gourmet burgers, poutine, and upscale pub food. It has 20 taps that pour B.C. beers exclusively and features live music to amp up the mood. Another spot for beer fans to check out is Heid Out Restaurant and Brewhouse, which boasts generous portions, award-winning Fisher Peak beers, and live music in an open concept space.
My three-day road trip to St. Eugene Resort and the East Kootenays was jam-packed with nature, history, culture, and delicious food and drink. And there was still much more to be explored.
MORE ABOUT VISITING THE EAST KOOTENAYS
Driving There: If your starting point is southern Alberta, consider doing a loop: Head west on the Trans-Canada Highway, then south on Highway 93 through Kootenay National Park to Radium, Kimberley and Cranbrook. It takes approximately four hours.
Flying There: Canadian Rockies International Airport is an approximately five-minute drive from St. Eugene Resort. Air Canada and WestJet both provide flights into and out of the airport.
St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino: Located just north of Cranbrook, the resort features 125 guestrooms and suites. Room rates begin at $159 for weekend night this fall. Please note: Staffing shortages may mean that not all of the resort’s restaurants are open, and the Interpretive Centre within the resort may only offer self-guided tours. The golf course is closed for the season and reopens in early spring.