Crowsnest Pass, or “The Pass” as the locals call it, is a singular collective of five historic mining towns, all surrounded by the majestic rocky mountains. Each community is unique and has been formed through a history of economic booms, tragedies, and a local passion for the area.
Today, small historic mining towns, incredible mountain vistas, and lots of outdoor adventure are just some of the things that attract visitors to the Crowsnest Pass. One of the most scenic areas in Alberta, the Crowsnest Highway makes for a wonderful road trip, which is also perpendicular to another famous Canada road trip – the Cowboy Trail. Whether you’re looking to explore the historic sites of some of Canada’s deadliest disasters, go hiking in the mountains, or just enjoy that small-town vibe, the Crowsnest Pass should be on your bucket list.
A Brief History of the Crowsnest Pass
The Crowsnest Pass, which takes its name from the scenic monolith-looking mountain that looms large over the area, has a storied history of rum runners, explorers, and miners, but also a vibrant First Nations history dating back thousands of years. The early 1900s saw the founding of the five small communities of Coleman, Bellevue, Hillcrest, Frank and Blairmore, to support the region’s bustling coal industry. In fact, people thought this area would be the next Pittsburg.
The boom didn’t last though but residents felt drawn to the area and remained as ranchers and settlers to build these communities into what they are today.
Despite being known for their rich mining days, however, archeological history reveals that humans have been in The Pass for at least 11,000 years, hosting early nomadic tribes as early as 8,000 BCE. The region was home to the K’tunaxa (Kutenai) and Piikani (Peigan) tribes, who are still represented in the area today.
Tourism now makes up an important part of the Crowsnest Pass economy, featuring world-class historical sites and wilderness.
The Five Towns
As mentioned above, Crowsnest Pass is a singular collective of five towns, each with a unique history that contributes to the rich tapestry of the Rocky Mountain community. Below is a quick description of each place.
Pioneer Elsie Fleutot, the daughter of an executive with the French-based West Canadian Collieries exclaimed “Quelle belle vue!” (“what a beautiful view”), after first laying eyes on the captivating vistas that surrounded the settlement.
Like all of the communities in Crowsnest Pass, Bellevue’s roots can be traced back to the region’s coal mining industry. Founded in 1905, Bellevue was in close proximity to a number of successful coal mines that contributed to the town’s economy. Bellevue has also seen many setbacks, including massive flooding and fires.
Today, the community of Bellevue is intertwined with neighbouring community Hillcrest, and has preserved its picturesque streets and century-old businesses. It is home to more than 800 residents and the region continues to derive much of its prosperity from the energy sector.
The most famous tourism site in Bellevue is The Bellevue Underground Mine, which takes visitors on a guided tour into one of the now-abandoned coal mines. You’ll learn more about that in the “things to do” section.
Hillcrest, like many of the towns in the Crowsnest Pass, developed during the coal industry boom in the early 1900s. The shelter of the valley, nearby streams and proximity to coal deposits provided an ideal place for a new community to flourish.
The town also saw the worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history. In June of 1914, half of the Hillcrest Mine’s total workforce perished in an explosion that collapsed the entrances to the mine.
The tragedy was so substantial that King George V of England sent condolences to the town on behalf of the British Royal Family. The towns of Blairmore, Frank and Coleman rushed to the aid of the community, banding The Pass together to rescue survivors and console over 130 widows and their children.
Today, it is mostly home to a few residents, some forms of accommodation, and of course – the Hillcrest Mine Disaster Cemetery & Memorial.
As one of the major commercial centres of the Crowsnest Pass, Blairmore is home to much of the region’s restaurants and accommodation. The area’s significance as a business centre goes back long before the modern town it is today as it was originally a Canadian Pacific Railway stop and served as an industry focal point for the region’s growing coal mining and lumber industries.
Prior to 1907, lumber represented the town’s primary economic engine until the Greenhill mine – located just north of Blairmore – became an economic mainstay of the community after opening in 1908. Blairmorite, a rare volcanic rock of the Crowsnest Formation, is named after Blairmore.
Blairmore was also home to an illegally operating alcohol import business which brought in alcohol from British Columbia during Alberta’s short-lived Prohibition phase. This helped spur the region’s history with rum-running.
Today, Blairmore is home to more than 2,000 people and has a vibrant array of services, shops and cafés.
Established in 1903, Coleman attracted workers and residents hoping to cash in on the economic booms of the coal mining industry and quickly grew to be a lively cultural centre for neighbouring communities. The town’s popularity even helped it surpass the population of nearby towns, Blairmore and Hillcrest. In fact, Coleman was home to a popular opera house way back in 1908.
Today, much of Coleman is a National Historic Site, featuring a small commercial street lined by miner’s cottages and historic buildings. It’s also home to the Crowsnest Museum, which is located in the old Coleman High School and houses thousands of artifacts and chronicles.
Close in size to neighbouring Blairmore, the town is also home to delicious food and beverages, such as those found at the popular Rum Rummer restaurant or Cinnamon Bear Cafe.
With more than 200 residents, this unassuming stop along the highway may seem sombre at first, but is actually one of the most well-known towns of the Crowsnest Pass, due to its unfortunate pass of being home to the deadliest landslide in Canada’s history. Early in the morning on April 19, 1903, 82 million tonnes (30 million cubic metres) of limestone crashed from the summit of Turtle Mountain and buried a portion of the community, killing more than 70 people. The aftermath of the slide is jaw-dropping to see and the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre makes it possible to learn about what caused the slide, what technological improvements have been made since then, and how resilient the community can be.
The town, however, has much more to offer than a history lesson. With a thriving arts community and local gallery, Alberta’s creative talent gathers to muse and develop their skills. Visitors can even have an art piece commissioned by local artists.
How to Get there
Located in Southern Alberta, perpendicular to the Cowboy Trail, the Crownest Pass is located along the Crownest Highway (Highway 3), which runs all the way from Hope, BC to Medicine Hat, Alberta. However, despite the massive length of the highway, the area that’s called Crownest Pass basically encompasses the area between Lundbreck Falls and Coleman, Alberta. You can arrive by driving south on the Cowboy Trail from Calgary, east from Fernie, west from Lethbridge, or north from Waterton Lakes. The Crowsnest Highway passes right through all five towns, including the rubble of Frank Slide and downtown Coleman.
When to Visit (Weather in Crowsnest Pass)
Like much of Canada, the Crowsnest Pass has relatively warm summers and cold winters. It’s located in the mountains, so the weather can fluctuate quite a bit. The “Pass” is also known for its wind (you’ll see windmills around the Pincher Creek area), but they certainly have many days with no wind as well. Regardless, the best time to visit would be in the summer months, followed by the fall and the spring. The winter can be a great time as well, but only if you’re prepared for the weather and are interested in winter activities, such as snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skiing, and so forth. However, it’s beauty is always there, whether it’s blooming flowers or sheets of snow.
What to Do in Crowsnest Pass
The Pass offers a plethora of activities for every adventurer. On the same day, visitors can experience world-class fly-fishing and 18 holes at one of Alberta’s premier local golf courses. History buffs can muse in some of Canada’s deadliest mining disasters or hikers can scramble up Turtle Mountain for jaw-dropping views of the surrounding area.
There’s certainly a lot to do year-round, and we’ll list the most popular things to do below.
Frank Slide Interpretative Centre
The region’s most striking feature is also one of the region’s top things to do. Learn about Frank Slide, Canada’s deadliest rockslide, which occurred in 1903. The centre’s programming includes two award-winning docudramas about the natural disaster: On the Edge of Destruction and In the Mountain’s Shadow. Take a seat in the cool auditorium and learn about the night the mountain fell. There’s also a series of interactive exhibits as well as artifacts from that time. Outside of the interpretive centre is also the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre loop, which takes visitors around the rubble to both learn about and see the aftermath up close.
Bellevue Underground Mine Tour
Considering the entire region was created due to coal mining, it makes sense to see what it’s all about by going inside Western Canada’s only authentic underground coal mine. The Bellevue Underground Mine tour will take you 1,000 feet into the mine, where you will be 150 feet below the surface. Explore the mine’s inner-workings while you learn about the rich history of one of Canada’s underground coal mines. The Bellevue Underground Mine tour is family-friendly, and stroller and wheelchair accessible. We did this tour with my parents who are in their 70’s and they had no issues.
Hillcrest Mine Disaster Cemetery & Memorial
Located in the community of Hillcrest, not far from the Bellevue Underground Mine Tour is the Hillcrest Mine Disaster Cemetery and Memorial. Home to Canada’s deadliest mining disaster, this free site pays tribute to those miners who lost their lives in the explosion. Aside from the memorial itself is also the cemetery, which houses the graves of those miners along with explanations of their stories, names, and age. This is also the current day cemetery, so if you want to see the old cemetery, just continue walking through the cemetery until you see the white fence with all the posted explanations.
Leitch Collieries Provincial Historic Site
One of the first sites you’ll see as you enter Crowsnest Pass from the east is the Leitch Collieries Provincial Historic Site. This is also a free site and is home to what was one of the biggest, most technologically advanced, and Canadian-owned mines from back in the day. Find out how the effects of strikes, war, untimely death, and other ill-fortune contributed to the collapse of this ambitious Canadian owned and operated mining venture. Interpretive panels, listening posts, and walking paths through the ruins create a window back in time to the early 1900s.
Hike Turtle Mountain
If you’re looking for some adventure, one of the popular and most difficult hikes in the area takes you to the top of Turtle Mountain, the same mountain that slid down to create Frank Slide. Starting from the town of Blairmore, hikers traverse up the side of the mountain for about three hours, reaching the first summit where you can look down and see the damage that the rockslide caused. It’s a very difficult hike, due to its steep incline, loose gravel, and lack of trail markings. Many seem to get lost for some periods of time, including us. In fact, we ended up spending our last 30-minutes in the dark. We’d advise you to start early to avoid this problem and allow 5 hours to complete the trek. Poles are recommended and this hike is certainly not for those afraid of heights or with difficulty coming down a mountain on loose rocks.
Crowsnest Pass Public Art Gallery
Managed by Crowsnest Pass Allied Arts Association, the Crowsnest Pass Public Art Gallery features paintings, sculptures, installation, and photography from emerging and well-known artists from across the country. To promote education in the arts, the Gallery offers art programs for adults and children, as well as special events showcasing the talents of the artistic community. There’s also a gift shop featuring unique, local gifts. Open year-round with free admission. New Summer hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 12 pm – 4 pm
Crowsnest Pass Golf Club
Located amidst some of the region’s most jaw-dropping scenery, The Crowsnest Pass Golf Club is one of the most scenic courses in Western Canada. Avid golfers will rejoice in an unparalleled golfing experience with fairways, water hazards, sand traps, and more. The course is open to all skill levels. However, in our experience playing there, we’d advise beginners to only go if it’s a non-busy day. During our day, tee times were full and people were teeing off every 10 minutes, which forces us to skip many holes as people were always right behind us. It’s a beautiful course though, so if you have the chance, we do recommend it!
Visit Chinook Lake
If you’re looking for a scenic lake to visit, you’ll want to head to Chinook Lake, which is located just 15-minutes from Coleman. It’s part of the Chinook Provincial Recreation Area and features camping, an easy walking loop that goes around the lake, and a beautiful small lake that perfect for paddle-boarding and other non-motorized water vessels.
Located in historic downtown Coleman, the Crowsnest Museum and Archives depicts and preserves the cultural history of the Crowsnest Pass. Book a guided tour for your group of the museum of the downtown National Historic Site. This is a great way to learn about the area, from the way people dressed and shopped to the infamous days of rum-running and natural disasters. There’s also a second museum just down the street that’s dedicated to Canada’s most infamous rum-running murder. Located in the historic Alberta Provincial Police Barracks, the new museum and exhibit walks you through Alberta’s prohibition heritage, the stories surrounding the Alberta Provincial Police, and the local history surrounding the shooting of Cst. Steven Lawson by Florence Lassandro and Emilio Picariello.
Coleman National Historic Site of Canada
One of the cool features of Coleman is that almost all of the old town is now a National Historic Site, including its surface mine plant, the old downtown, some of the older residential neighbourhoods, and the railway, which preserves the atmosphere of a western Canadian mining town between 1905 and 1950. It’s a great experience to just walk around and admire the old buildings, especially once you’ve visited the Crownest Museum. There’s lots of signage explaining the various areas and its free to visit.
Walk the Miner’s Path
If you’re looking for a fairly easy walk that combines nature and history, you’ll want to check out the Miner’s Path, which is located not too far from the Crownest Museum in Coleman. The Miners Path was the historic route taken by Coleman miners on their way to work at the McGillivray Mine between 1909 and 1957. Up to 200 miners on each shift would walk the trail at all times of the year. Remnants of an electric lighting system installed in the 1940s for the night shift are still visible along the trail. The trail begins at Flumerfelt Park in Coleman and follows Nez Perce Creek for one kilometre to Rainbow Falls. The trail branches at the 0.4km mark where a bridge crosses the creek and leads steeply upstairs to the old McGillivray Mine site, which still has remnants of a bygone coal mining era. Unfortunately for us (and for you if you’re visiting in 2020), the bridge is currently closed, which means you won’t be able to visit the old mining site. However, the trail itself is still pretty and worth a visit.
Visit Lundbreck Falls
Perhaps one of the region’s most popular natural attractions is Lundbreck Falls, which is located right at the bottom of the Cowboy Trail and somewhat at the start of the Crowsnest Pass region. It is adjacent to the Highway 3A crossing of the Crowsnest River, approximately 1.2 km (0.75 mi) off of the Crowsnest Highway (Highway 3), between Pincher Creek and Crowsnest Pass. The falls are very easy to visit and have a drop of approximately 12 metres (39 feet). The two falls are easily seen from the observation platform and parking area, but visitors can also walk down to the bottom of the falls, which takes around 5 minutes or less. There’s also a day-use area and overnight campground for those wanting to spend the night.
Go Mountain Biking
For those looking to go biking, there’s a fairly easy 23-kilometre trail that connects the five towns, making for a great day in the area. This trail is great for beginners and allows you to bike around the towns while also admiring the neighbouring scenery. For those with more experience and looking for thrills, there’s also the Pass Powderkeg Ski Hill, as well as other areas in the mountains.
We already mentioned the hike to the top of Turtle Mountain, but there’s plenty of other hikes as well, ranging from easy to very difficult. Some popular options include The North York Creek Plane Crash Trail, a 12-kilometre loop to an actual plane crash site, the Mount Haig Lake Trail, Window Mountain Lake Trail, Star Creek Falls Loop, and Crowsnest Mountain.
Where to stay in Crowsnest Pass
We love staying in cabins and during our 4-night stay in the area, we chose Adanac Adventures. They’re located in Hillcrest, almost walking distance to the Hillcrest Mine Disaster Memorial. Our West Cabin was as modern as a new apartment, with two rooms, a full kitchen, a big TV, and an outdoor fire pit and porch. If you’d like to have that “camping” experience but with a modern twist, this is for you.
For those who prefer a hotel, but want something unique, we’d recommend the Cosmopolitan Hotel. This hotel is in a historic building and is located in downtown Blairmore, walking distance to some of the areas best cafes. It offers rooms with free Wi-Fi and an on-site bar with a DJ, as well as a pool table, dartboard, and arcade games. Free private parking is available on site and the hotel has very good reviews.
The Kanata Inns
If you’re looking for a very modern hotel, one of the best in the area is the Kanata Inns. Located in Blairmore, this hotel offers a variety of suites, including fully equipped kitchenettes, one-bedroom suites, two-storey family suites, and even a jacuzzi room. Guest rooms also have free WiFi, a flat-screen cable TV, and a refrigerator. There’s also a fitness centre and a daily free hot breakfast is served in the breakfast room.
Country Encounters Accommodations
This charming bed and breakfast is highly ranked and located in the National Historic Site of downtown Coleman. It features free Wi-Fi, a hot tub, private bathrooms, and features antique décor. The common lounge also features cable TV with a DVD player and there’s also a sauna for relaxing after a long day out. Top it off with a garden that offers a furnished terrace. This bed and breakfast is walking distance to the Crownest Museum and many other historical buildings in Coleman.
Where to Eat in Crowsnest Pass
Between the five towns, there’s plenty of options to eat, whether you’re looking for a charming cafe, a delicious pizza, or a mouth-watering burger. There’s also a grocery store for those looking to cook at their accommodation.
The Rum Runner: Perhaps the most popular restaurant and bar in the area is the Rum Rummer, which is located right off Highway 3 in Coleman. They’re best known for their delicious half-pound burgers (we highly recommend the Mexican) but also have pizzas, pastas, and much more.
Bamboo Bistro: If you’re looking for some great Thai food and sushi, the Bamboo Bistro is a great option. In fact, it’s your only option. But that’s okay as they do a great job. We loved their Mongolian and peanut curries, as well as their sushi rolls and Pad Thai. They’re also connected and co-owned with Black Rock Pizzeria, which has the highest-ranked pizzas in Crowsnest Pass.
Stone’s Throw Cafe: Located on the main street in Blairmore, this place is popular for its coffees and breakfast. We loved their Eggs Benedict on a Croissant, but realized after that it’s not even on their menu. We heard a local order it and so we copied. I’m not sure why it’s not there because it’s very, very good. On the other hand, my mom ordered the classic bacon and eggs, but the eggs were so undercooked, she couldn’t eat it. They also do egg burritos, which might be a better option.
A Cherry on Top: This was our favourite place for coffee, lattes, and mochas. They also have a decent breakfast, which consists of an omelet-style dish in a crepe. This place is walking distance from Stone’s Throw Cafe.
The Old Dairy Ice Cream Shoppe: IF you’re looking for Ice cream and other sweet creamy treats, this is the place to go. Located right across the street from the Bellevue Mine Tour, it’s a popular place. I had the Belgian Hazelnut and Root Beer Float, but my mom’s Strawberry Cheesecake was equally delicious. Whether you’re looking for a sundae, banana split, ice cream, or shake, this place is highly recommended.
Chris’ Restaurant: Unfortunately, Chris was on holiday during our visit, but this place is one of the highest-ranked in the area. We were hoping to enjoy their popular breakfasts, which range from bacon and eggs to pancakes and french toast. Next time!
Complimentary Trips Near Crowsnest Pass
As mentioned, the Crowsnest Pass is surrounded by lots of opportunities for road trips and places to see. You could drive south to Waterton Lakes National Park, west to British Columbia, East to Lethbridge, or North to Calgary via the Cowboy Trail. There’s also a number of other smaller towns in the area, along with unique attractions of their own. You could spend weeks in this area and not run out of new things to do and places to see.
For some ideas, check out these articles below:
- Things to Do in Lethbridge
- The Remington Carriage Museum
- Things to Do in Pincher Creek
- Things to Do in Alberta
- Best Canada Road Trips