Imagine driving through the Canadian Rocky Mountains, passing numerous small mountain towns along the way, while enjoying delicious food, golfing, rafting, museums, mining tours, spas, and hot springs. This is what a Kootenays BC Road Trip is all about!
Starting in Fernie and moving up Highway 93 to Radium Hot Springs and Kootenay National Park, this is truly one of the top road trips in Canada. The landscapes are unreal, the towns are stunning, and there are activities and attractions for everyone, including golfing, adventure travel, or just kicking back while enjoying a massage.
While the optimum time to see the Kootenays is at least one week (two is better), you can also pick and choose where you want to go based on what you want to do or see. The driving time between all the towns is actually quite short, which makes it easy to navigate.
Having just experienced a 10-day Kootenay BC road trip, we’re going to list out what we did to help you plan your own. In addition, we have travel guides on some of the many destinations in the Kootenays to further enhance your trip.
First off, let’s go over what the Kootenays are.
The Kootenays is a region of southeastern British Columbia. It takes its name from the Kootenay River, which in turn was named for the Kutenai First Nations people. It’s a fairly large area that comprises many mountain towns, most of which offer incredible skiing and outdoor adventure, stunning mountain landscapes, clear lakes, waterfalls, biking, hot springs, and vibrant arts and culture scenes.
Destinations in the Kootenays include Ainsworth Hot Springs, Castlegar, Cranbrook, Creston, Fairmont Hot Springs, Fernie, Golden, Invermere, Kaslo, Kimberley, Nakusp, Nelson, Radium Hot Springs, Revelstoke, Rossland, Slocan Valley, and Trail. You can learn much more about these towns and the travel opportunities at MyKootenays.ca.
For our road trip, however, we’re going to focus on the towns on the Eastern side of the Kootenays, including Fernie, Cranbrook, Kimberley, Fairmont Hot Springs, Invermere, and Radium Hot Springs. If you decide to do the western side and the north, you should definitely allow two weeks as a minimum.
Located only 30-minutes west of Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass, Fernie is a great place to begin your Kootenay BC road trip. Fernie is a stunning mountain town surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. In fact, it’s the only town in BC completely surrounded by the Rockies. It’s home to world-class skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and rafting. It also has one of the nicest mountain towns with lots of delicious restaurants and a vibrant art scene. You can learn more about Fernie in our ultimate guide to the best things to do in Fernie. However, some highlights are below.
Considering its location, it should come as no surprise that Fernie is home to some great hiking options. We’ve done a couple of hikes in the area and can’t wait to do more down the line. One easy trail to get started with is Fairy Creek Falls, which starts just behind the Fernie Visitor Centre, which is also a great resource for planning your trip. This trail is relatively flat all the way to the beautiful waterfall, which is extra powerful in the spring. You’ll walk next to the creek for more of the short 1-hour journey, likely spotting beaver dams and chewed trees along the way.
For more difficult hikes with marvellous views, hike up to Mt. Fernie. This hike goes up the mountain, taking roughly 5 hours for a return trip. It is well marked and simple but is an incline the entire way, so make sure you’re up for the challenge. The reward is outstanding views of both the town and the mountains surrounding it.
Whether you’re looking for a calm, scenic float down the Elk River or looking to get more adventurous and go white water rafting, Fernie has something for everyone. During our spring visit, we joined Canyon Raft Company for a scenic float through town. Our guide shared lots of information with us as we gently coasted through town, marvelling at all the mountains around us. We saw an eagle, an elk, and lots of evidence of beaver activity.
Explore Historic Downtown Fernie
Fernie’s downtown core is quite beautiful with many historic buildings surrounded by stunning views. There are a few different ways to actually learn about the buildings and the history, including a visit to the Fernie Museum and a self-guided historical walking tour. You can find a map of the walk inside the Elk Valley Cultural guide.
Located roughly one hour west of Fernie, Cranbrook is another great base for exploring the Kootenays. From multiple award-winning golf courses to hiking and biking, there’s something for everyone. Cranbrook also has a lot of history. Built for the railway, the city grew around the tracks, leading to beautiful commercial buildings and elegant homes.
Some things to enjoy while you’re here include:
Cranbrook History Centre
While the Cranbrook History Centre is a great place to learn about the history of the town, it’s much more dedicated to the history of trains in the region as well as train history in general. In fact, if you have any interest in trains, this is one place you do not want to miss. Home to a collection of 20 railway cards (17 of which are available to the public), this is a rare chance to see and walk through some amazing rail cars, such as the 1929 “Trans-Canada Limited” (a classic “Jazz Era Art Deco” design), 2 cars of the 1907 “Soo-Spokane Train” (a deluxe example of “Edwardian Art Nouveau Elegance”), and the 1927 executive night car “Strathcona” which has housed many VIP guests during its time in service, including Queen Elizabeth II, John & Jackie Kennedy and Sir Winston Churchill. As of 2022, it has also housed Must Do Canada (haha). To see all of them, you’ll want to sign up for the grand tour. Also notable is the Royal Alexandra Hall, one of the original luxury railway hotels built in Winnipeg back in 1906. The Grand Cafe portion of the hotel, the only remaining piece in existence, is part of the Cranbrook History Centre and is a joy to see.
Cranbrook is a great place to go biking and during our visit, we rented e-bikes from North Star Bicycle Co. and peddled halfway to Kimberely, utilizing the North Star Rails to Trails pathway, which is a 28-km paved trail connecting the two towns via an old railway track. This is a very easy, mostly flat pathway suitable for almost anyone and a great way to enjoy the Kootenays by bike. However, Tourism Cranbook lists many other trails in the area as well for those seeking more excitement.
Play Mini Golf
During our visit, we stayed at the Elizabeth Lake Lodge, which is not only a beautiful lodge with lots of murals but is also home to one of the best mini golf courses we’ve ever experienced. Claimed as the most difficult mini-golf course in Canada, we certainly had a challenge trying to hit par. We did well for the first nine holes and then did very poorly on the last nine. It’s just such a unique course to enjoy with so many obstacles and really detailed props and buildings. In addition, they have a bird sanctuary right behind the lodge.
Although St. Eugene Mission is not really a town, it does feel like a destination in and of itself. This is thanks to the St. Eugene Resort and Casino, a beautiful resort located in a former residential school. Transformed by the local indigenous people into what it is today, this is a lovely place to spend a couple of nights, especially if you’re into golfing or gambling. Some of the things we recommend doing here are:
Take an Interpretive Tour
With so much history, albeit a dark one, there’s a lot to learn at the main building, which is known as the Red Brick Schoolhouse. Besides spacious rooms and dining, you’ll also find the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre, a small museum where you can learn about the Ktunaxa people and how they moved, lived, and crafted for thousands of years. If you want to dig deeper though, you can take a tour from one of the elders or knowledge keepers, giving you insight into the dark past of this former residential school, the original layouts, some of the disturbing stories, and why they decided to turn it into a resort rather than a demolition project.
Whether golfing is just a side hobby or something you truly play with passion, the St.Eugene Golf Course is a beautiful place to play. Surrounded by mountain views, forest, and a gushing river, this championship golf course offers a golf experience like no other, including a Par 72 championship course, up to 7,007 yards from the black tees, unlimited driving range access, a full-service “Halfway House”, the 19th Hole Restaurant & Bar, new golf carts with a GPS system for yardage, golf lessons for individuals or groups by PGA-certified professionals, and more.
Casino of the Rockies
For those who rather try their luck at the slot machines or have fun playing poker and blackjack, the resort is also home to the Casino of the Rockies, which is open year-round with a bold, nature-based design concept that pays homage to the Ktunaxa First Nations’ connection to the earth while highlighting the flora and fauna native to the mountains and foothills in their backyard.
Recently voted as the best small town in all of British Columbia in a fun competition run by the CBC, Kimberley is no longer a Kootenay secret. Located just 30 minutes north of Cranbrook, and connected via the North Star Rails to Trails trail, Kimberely is another beautiful mountain town with lots of outdoor adventure and history.
There are many things that make Kimberley stand out, such as their historic mining tour, their unique pedestrian-friendly downtown Platzl, and their consistent Purcell Mountain powder in the winter, just to name a few.
Some activities we can recommend include:
Kimberley Underground Mining Railway
Kimberley owes its existence to the historic Sullivan Mine and the Underground Mining Railway, which kickstarted this area into the thriving mountain town it is today. Although the mine is not in use anymore, it is owned and operated by the Sullivan Mine and Railway Historical Society, which have created a very popular tour that takes you into the mine on a train where you’ll get to learn about its history from a retired miner.
You’ll start by riding the rails through the beautiful Mark Creek valley as you listen to the history of Kimberley and the Sullivan Mine. You’ll then get to learn about life from an ex-miner while he demonstrates some of the equipment that was used in the Sullivan Mine. Afterwards, you’ll come back out of the mine and into daylight once again as you enter the Sullivan Mine Powerhouse for a guided tour featuring the huge compressors and generators that powered the mine.
You can then continue the experience and explore the Orpheum Theatre, the North Star Schoolhouse, the Miner’s Cabin and the Caboose as part of your adventure into history.
Tour the Downtown Platzl
One of the things that makes Kimberely quite unique in the region is their pedestrian-friendly car-free downtown Platzl. This cobblestone area really feels like a slice out of Europe, and in a way, it was designed that way. Although they’re now shedding the image, the Platzl was originally designed to look Bavarian as a way to bring in tourists. Some of this can still be seen in the buildings and some of the features, such as the Happy Hans Cuckoo Clock. Either way, it’s a beautiful place to spend an afternoon and you can do your own self-guided walking tour by picking up a map at the nearby Visitor Centre. Some of the stops include the Kimberely Heritage Museum, the Platzl Water Feature, and the Kimberley Veteran Memorial Park.
Visit the Marysville Waterfall
Located nearby in the town of Marysville is the Marysville Waterfall, which is only a 5-minute walk from the parking lot. In the spring, it’s absolutely gushing with water, and the trail snakes alongside the river itself, making it a beautiful and easy walk in nature.
Fairmont Hot Springs
Home to the largest natural hot springs in all of Canada, Fairmont Hot Springs has become BC’s best all-season family destination and has been a legendary attraction for 100 years. With over 1.2 million gallons of fresh, odourless mineral water flowing through the Fairmont Hot Springs pools daily, they’re able to use minimal levels of chlorine, further enhancing their tranquil, calming effect.
But it’s not just the hot springs that make this a great destination to visit in the Kootenays. It’s also home to three beautiful golf courses, incredible views, skiing, hiking, biking, white water rafting, horseback tours, and even a zip-line. Oh, and we should probably mention the spa. It’s also just one hour from Kimberley and less than 30 minutes from Invermere, making it a great addition to your Kootenays BC road trip.
Fairmont Hot Springs Lodge
Although there are other accommodation options in the area, the Fairmont Hot Springs Lodge is the flagship resort, with 140 rooms, fine dining, spa treatments, and the hot springs themselves. Antlers at the Lodge, their fine dining restaurant, was one of the best restaurants we ate at during our Kootenays BC road trip.
Located just minutes from the Fairmont Hot Springs Lodge is the Mountainside Golf Course, which caters to a variety of skill levels while offering stunning views of the Rocky Mountains. We had a blast while trying to look like golfers as we skirted the many gophers galavanting about and tried not to hit the many houses that back onto the golf course. It’s also very reasonable with pricing, ranging from about $60 to $75 per round depending on the time of year.
Invermere and Panorama
Popular with people from Calgary and only three hours from the major city, Invermere and Panorama are true gems of the Kootenays. Invermere is the town, located in a stunning valley that separates the Purcell Mountains from the Rocky Mountains, whereas Panorama is the mountain ski resort not far away. As if two mountain ranges weren’t enough, it also sits nestled into Windermere Lake, a beautiful lake with jaw-dropping views all around it. North of the lake is also the Columbia Basin Wetlands, one of the largest in North America. I mean, does it get any better? Well, it turns out it does. There’s also Radium Hot Springs, listed below, which is just 15-minutes away. If you can’t tell yet, we love it here.
ATV’ing and Snowmobiling
If you’re looking for a unique way to get deep into the Purcell Mountains, look no further than Toby Creek Adventures. Located very close to Panorama Mountain Resort, Toby Creek offers snowmobiling tours in the winter and ATV tours in the summer, allowing you to get behind the wheel for a guided tour up the mountains. We joined them on their flagship Paradise Mine Tour, which takes you all the way from the valley bottom to their alpine cabin at 8000 feet.
Kayaking and Canoeing
One of our favourite activities we did during our visit to the Kootenays was a kayaking tour with Columbia River Paddle. Whether you jump in a canoe or a kayak, this is such a beautiful way to experience one of the largest wildlife wetlands in North America. We paddled through the wetlands and into the Columbia River and all the way to the town of Radium Hot Springs. It was a four-hour one-way trip and we saw lots of bald eagles along the way. This is truly the best way to fully experience what makes this area so special.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, Invermere and the surrounding area is a great place to go for a hike. There are many options, ranging from alpine hiking at Panorama Mountain Resort to easy hikes around the Columbia River. We decided to do the Old Coach Trail, which utilized an old motorcoach road while offering beautiful views of the Columbia Valley. In fact, we could see the trail while kayaking, so if you don’t want to get in a kayak, this is another option for seeing the area and hopefully spotting some wildlife.
Radium Hot Springs
Located just 15 minutes north of Invermere and sandwiched between the Purcell mountains and the Canadian Rockies, Radium Hot Springs is a popular idyllic mountain town. With so much natural beauty, Radium Hot Springs is a haven for outdoor adventure, including rafting, hiking, and biking, but is also a refuge for peace and tranquillity, with spas and hot springs nearby.
Whether you drive into Radium Hot Springs from Calgary or from the hot springs themselves, you’ll drive through the iconic Sinclair Canyon, a narrow highway carved through the canyon that opens up into views of the Purcell Mountains. It’s a magical way to enter a magical place.
Some of the things we recommend doing here are:
Relax in the Hot Springs
Also called Radium Hot Springs are the actual hot springs themselves, which are located right at the entrance to town near the Sinclair Canyon. Managed by Parks Canada, these are some of our favourite hot springs. Although the pools themselves are man-made and modern, the water is as natural as natural gets. Plus, it’s right next to a cliff, which gives it a nice natural feel, especially in the winter when everything is covered in snow. The facility has towels and locker rentals, as well as a lap pool with a small waterslide and diving board.
For those who love golf, Radium Hot Springs is a true paradise. With 13+ golf courses situated in or within 45 minutes of the village, each offering a unique experience, golf is the #1 activity in the area.
If you have your heart set on a golfing getaway, you can’t go wrong with Bighorn Meadows Resort. Then again, if you’re not into golf, it’s still a great place to stay. Although we didn’t golf this time around, we did spend a night in this beautiful resort that sits right next to the ninth fairway of the Springs Golf Course. This is a great place to stay if you’re looking for apartment-style accommodation. We had a massive room, a full kitchen, a living room, a washer and dryer, and a massive deck with stunning views of the golf course and the mountains.
Valley Zipline Adventures
Another fun activity for the whole family is ziplining in the Kootenays. Located between Invermere and Radium Hot Springs, Valley Zipline Adventures offers 1.5 hours of fun spread out over 7 ziplines that take you through the forest. They have a very modern zipline system that really makes you feel safe, and once you’re used to it, you can do some cool things like hang upside down or do the starfish. They also have an Adventure Tower for those wanting to practice their rock climbing skills.
Kootenay National Park
Located just north of Radium Hot Springs and all the way to the Trans-Canada Highway, Kootenay National Park is an incredible place to get into the wilderness. Established in 1920 as part of an agreement to build a new road across the Rockies, Kootenay National Park is a place of unique contrasts, from icy mountain rivers to steamy hot springs. You can enjoy it with a quick 1-hour drive along Highway 93, by hiking some of its backcountry trails, or by camping in one of the many beautiful campgrounds. There are also oTENTiks for those wanting to go glamping instead as well as guided tours to experience such wonders as the Burgess Shale fossils, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Want More BC Travel?
While the Kootenays is truly a spectacular destination, there are a lot of incredible places to visit in British Columbia. From the rainforest of Vancouver Island to the hustle and bustle of Vancouver, below are more BC travel guides to enjoy.
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