Road tripping through the Kootenay Rockies in search of hot springs, rare wetlands, suspension bridges, national parks and turquoise lakes, I couldn’t resist a detour to a geological wonder that’s usually associated with the Alberta Badlands.
The Dutch Creek hoodoos — aka fairy chimneys or earth pyramids — are made of layers of gravel, sand and silt that were deposited by melting glaciers that once filled the Columbia Valley. They’ve been worn down by thousands of years of rain, wind and frost, and while the ridges and turrets make for beautiful photos, the cliff edges are dangerous and unstable.
These craggy spires are in the Dutch Creek Hoodoos Conservation Area near the Fairmont Hot Springs resort community. Endangered American badgers and Hooker’s Townsend-daisies live among the hoodoos. So do Red-tailed hawks, Red-breasted nuthatches and Violet-green swallows.
But none of this intriguing wildlife made an appearance on the day that I visited, and so after hiking back to the trailhead I drove the Kootenay Highway to a spot near Dutch Creek Bridge to see the hoodoos from below.
As I gaped at the otherworldly beauty, I thought about how Ktunaxa legends say these hoodoos are some of the ribs from a giant sea monster that was killed on the shore of Columbia Lake. The rest of the ribs can be found near Fort Steele.
However they formed, I will forever associate hoodoos with southeastern British Columbia — not just Alberta — in an area west of Banff that playfully bills itself as “the other side of the Rockies.”
My “Golden Triangle” road trip took me along a 317-kilometre (197-mile) loop that links Radium Hot Springs, Golden, and Field. If you know your geography, you’ll realize that I cheated and detoured a half hour south of Radium to see the hoodoos, but let’s not quibble.
I even spent a night at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. No, it’s not part of the luxury hotel chain, and no its ski area wasn’t quite open when I was there in November. But this beloved family resort does claim to be home to Canada’s largest natural mineral hot springs, and offers a small private pool for guests and a much larger one for the public. On a plateau overlooking the resort, I marvelled at indentations in the rocks where the Indigenous Peoples first bathed in these thermal waters long before they were developed.
Another relaxing pitstop came back in the Golden Triangle in the steamy waters at the famous Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park. It’s managed by Parks Canada and stays open 365 days a year. The modernist building — called the Aquacourt — opened in 1951 and is a Classified Federal Heritage Building (that’s the same status as the Parliament Buildings).
Radium’s other claim to fame is the iconic but dwindling Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep herd. The majestic animals wander the winding highway but are too often hit by speeding motorists. I nervously watched one brazenly walk down the centre line of the road, and shook my head at others stopping traffic in the village of Radium Hot Springs.
The roundabout into that mountain village is cleverly marked by a giant artwork named “Bighorns” featuring three-dimensional curled ram horns that flank the word “Radium”. The weathering steel art — by Idea 64 Projects and artist Adam Meikle of Meikle Studios, both of Salmon Arm in the North Okanagan — was designed as “a memorable entryway” and is 20 feet tall, 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep.
That night I slept at the Gateway motel and ate spätzle and bratwurst at the Old Salzburg Restaurant. The next morning, with a trendy turmeric latte in hand from the Big Horn Cafe, I headed north to see another roadside attraction.
The World’s Largest Paddle stands in a field on the east side of Highway 95 north of Parson. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2014 (technically as the world’s largest hand paddle/oar), it is 13 times the size of an actual paddle and the brainchild of Mark Teasdale, who was brainstorming highway signage options. He enlisted a master woodworker for the project, which wound up being 18.573 metre (60.9 feet) long, 9.2 feet (2.8 metres) high and weighs 2,404 kilograms (5,300 pounds).
“What does it take to build the World’s Largest Paddle?” a sign asks. “One Western Red Cedar log, over 60 feet long. One 4’X40’ slab of lvl (Laminated Veneer Lumber), total 840 layers. 5300 lbs of materials in total. 200 Hours of labour. 4 gallons of Varathane. A love of place and a great sense of Humour!”
Teasdale’s family runs the Columbia Wetlands Outpost, where you can (in the right season, and in carefully controlled numbers) rent kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards to explore a rare example of the province’s wetlands that runs 150 kilometres (93 miles) from Canal Flats to Golden.
Golden, the biggest community on my road trip with a population nearing 4,000, was hopping.
I popped into the Golden Skybridge to see Canada’s highest suspension bridges with guest experience manager Kate McCondichie. First I strolled across the upper bridge that’s 150 metres long (490 feet) and 130 metres high (425 feet). Then I walked back over the lower bridge that’s 140 metres long (460 feet) and 80 metres high (262 feet). Both go over the Kicking Horse River with views of Hospital Creek Falls and, of course, mountains.
Run by Pursuit, an attractions and hospitality company, the Golden Skybridge reopens in May. Daredevils will be tempted by a mountain coaster, giant canyon swing, zipline, challenge course, climbing wall and axe throwing.
The Kicking Horse Pedestrian Bridge in downtown Golden, meanwhile, may seem tame in comparison but at 45.7 metres (151 feet) it’s also the longest freestanding timber-frame bridge in Canada. Built from locally sourced timber, it spans the Kicking Horse River and its design is a nod to the area’s Swiss heritage. At the Golden Museum and Archives, executive director Brittany Newman explained how the guides — mountaineers, skiers, and alpine hikers — were brought from Switzerland by Canadian Pacific Railway to help the first tourists.
Which brings us to Golden’s quirkiest attraction — Edelweiss Village. It’s a collection of six Swiss-style chalets built around 1912 by CP on 50 acres on the northern outskirts of town for those European guides and their families. (In a fun twist, architects George S. Rees and James L. Wilson never saw Swiss architecture in person … and so the eclectic buildings.)
The village was listed for $2.3 million in 2022 and Montayne, a Canmore real estate consulting and development group, recently scooped it up. The company hasn’t revealed its plans, but I spotted people painting and renovating the houses. Locals suspect the chalets will soon be rented to tourists while the rest of the property is developed.
I stayed downtown in the Rooms at Riveredge, with a private riverfront patio, electric fireplace, and virtual front desk that texts you an entry code. It was just steps to the places that I ate (Whitetooth Mountain Bistro and Bacchus Books and Café) and hydrated (at Ethos and Wandering Fern Café).
Speaking of food, I saved the best two meals of my five-night road trip for last and both, strangely, involved barley risotto.
The first was Kuterra salmon (a land-raised sustainable Atlantic salmon from B.C.) on a pearl barley and heirloom tomato risotto with chimichurri from Truffle Pigs Bistro & Lodge in tiny Field where the population doesn’t quite reach 200.
The second was free-range elk striploin on barley risotto with smoked cherry relish and scotch butter from the Mount Burgess Dining Room at the Emerald Lake Lodge. Chef Valerie Morrison even came out to present the memorable dish.
The Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts lodge is on a private island in Yoho National Park, although you simply walk over a short bridge to get to it. The “electronics-lite” property has 24 cabin-style buildings and while my room didn’t have a television, WiFi access or cellular service, my balcony looked out over Emerald Lake.
Like all mountain lakes, I read, Emerald Lake is almost ice cold and can’t support much life. Suspended rock flour (glacial flour) gives the lake its brilliant colour but reduces visibility and cuts the penetration of light making it hard to fish and plants to grow. A few hardy Dolly Varden char, sculpins, freshwater shrimp, and one-celled plants and animals apparently beat the odds and survive here.
Emerald Lake is every bit as pretty as Lake Louise but blessedly free of crowds jostling for photos. When I walked a 5.2-kilometre (3.2-mile) trail around the small lake, I bumped into just four other people out enjoying nature. They didn’t make nearly as much noise as the Canada jays and Boreal chickadees.
MORE ABOUT VISITING THE KOOTENAYS
Where to Stay: Truffle Pigs Bistro + Lodge is in Field in Yoho National Park and open year-round. Twelve lodge rooms include singles, queens, and a family suite. The bistro is open daily, no small feat in a village where the population doesn’t quite reach 200.
Room rates: A recent search of the property’s website showed winter rates ranging from $103 to $200.
Address: 100 Center Street, Field, B.C. (see map below)
Kootenay Rockies Tourism Info: www.kootenayrockies.com