A tour of southeast British Columbia’s wild lakes, backcountry, and mountain towns
Planning time away from daily life’s demands and executing a great road trip can be stressful and a lot of work. But a truly excellent trip can quickly and completely obliterate anxious feelings from unfinished work you inevitably leave behind. This past May, I put that theory to the test on a six-day family road trip with my wife Shallan and son Remi. Our destination was the West Koot Route a few hours north of Spokane in British Columbia, Canada. When we started out, being good Americans, we were hell bent on packing in as many experiences as possible, and I was pretty sure I’d be checking my phone too often and working late in our hotel rooms each night. But as I’ve learned from many adventures in the BC Kootenays over the past 25 years, this intensely beautiful place has a supernatural quality about it that can flip your expectations.
As we set off from Spokane, my attention fixed on last-minute, on-the-road work emails, I barely noticed the traffic thinning and the views growing wilder as we hurried toward our first stop, Rossland, BC, the mountain biking capital of Canada. The West Koot Route is just that, a route through the west Kootenay region of southeast British Columbia that connects popular outdoor adventure meccas like Nelson and Rossland with lesser known yet equally spectacular mountains, rivers, parks, and trails systems in and around the towns of Castlegar, New Denver, Nakusp, Kaslo, Ainsworth, Balfour, Crawford Bay and other communities.
The two-plus hour drive north went fast, and the border crossing, with a passport or enhanced WA State drivers’ license, is quick and easy. Ten minutes later, we arrived in Rossland and stopped in at Revolution Cycles for a free map and advice on which trails would be best for our hill- and rock-hating 8-year-old. Driving the few blocks from town to the Centennial Trailhead, we passed a dozen people on bikes—mountain bikers heading to the trails and multiple parents on e-bikes pulling trailers with kids. At the trailhead parking lot, we opened the van door and the lush smells of spring mountain air rushed in. Friendly chatter from the handful of other people heading out for a hike or bike ride mixed with unseen birds chirping away in the trees drifted around us as we unloaded bikes and geared up. The first layers of all of that work tension began to soften ever so slightly.
Rossland: The MTB capital of Canada
Known more for its miles of challenging singletrack, including the Seven Summits Trail and dozens of other epic rides, we learned that there are still plenty of green and blue trails to keep kids and parents happy on area trails. By far the shortest day of riding I’ve ever had after years of riding in Rossland, our pedal along the Centennial Trail, Blue Elephant, and a few short connector trails had its own unique rewards, like watching my son make it up several dreaded hills and then fly the whole way down hooting and hollering like a maniac. And instead of blowing by trailside attractions and viewpoints, we took the time to stop and look and even read the historical interpretive signs. We marveled at the trees and reveled in the silence instead of checking Strava.
After our ride, we checked into our room at the Prestige Mountain Resort and quickly set off to wander the hilly streets of picturesque Rossland in search of local treasures, which we found in droves: a cool t-shirt and biking gear at Revolution Cycles; a banana-board style skateboard and stickers at a rad little sweets, toys, and gift shop called the Bombshack where Shallan immediately felt like besties with the owner; a bottle of BC wine at the liquor store; and a favorite Canadian cheese at Ferraro Foods. We wandered the streets, found the impressive skate park, and then had a wonderful Thai food dinner with some of the tourism folks in town. Even though we had just met, conversation flowed like with old friends by the end of the meal.
That night, back at our hotel, I indeed cracked open the laptop to tap away some worries for an hour or two before calling it a night, but my heart wasn’t in it. After a quick breakfast the next morning, we beelined it to the skate park, which has plenty of eye candy for non-skaters in the form of murals, sculptures, and other art. We watched Remi roll around the many features, mostly riding his new skateboard on his belly, while Shallan and I sipped coffee in the morning sunshine. We had planned to hike up KC Ridge that morning for a view of Rossland, but if there’s one thing we have learned about traveling with children, it’s to be flexible and slow down. With morning edging toward afternoon, we finally loaded up and hit the road to Castlegar.
Castlegar: An under-the-radar outdoor adventure town
While snow still clogs many of the high-country trails in April and May, there are snow-free lower elevation trails that are ready to ride or hike that time of year. And there are other benefits of a spring trip on the West Koot Route: fewer tourists, spring flowers, comfortable temps, and, as we found in Castlegar, incredible waterfalls.
A short drive from Castlegar, renowned for the city’s sculpture walk, there are several great waterfall hikes. Little McPhee waterfall and Tulip Falls are recommended, but we visited the crashing cascades of Rialto Creek a short drive upriver from town. The new out-and-back trail up Rialto Creek called Dirty Dreams was built as a mountain bike climbing trail, but, in the spring, it’s an incredible hike along the edge of the crashing creek cascades. Impressive wooden bridges and trail features will keep you hiking farther and farther up the trail, your curiosity piqued at what wonders may await around the next bend. Dirty Dreams looks like an awesome intermediate bike ride too, and mountain bikers of all abilities won’t want to miss the Merry Creek trail system south of town.
When we first rolled into Castlegar, we stretched our legs at the sprawling Millenial Park, which features the largest bike park in the Kootenays, while we waited for a rendezvous with ChillBilly Sportfishing Charters to head out on the Columbia River in a drift boat looking to spot sturgeon. These giant, ancient fish hang out in the shallows upstream from town, and the water at times is so clear you can observe them hanging out a few feet below from a kayak or paddleboard too. We didn’t see any sturgeon on our drift boat ride that day, but our guide was a character who shared his knowledge and love for his home waters as he rowed us up and down the river.
The highlight of our stay in Castlegar, at least for the youngster, was a surprise later that night: a Spiderman-themed hotel room with an indoor pool and towering waterslide at the Castlegar Super 8. Following him down that twisting slide over and over helped wash away lingering unease over tasks left untended at home.
Nakusp: A wilderness lake town with hot springs and high peaks
We left Castlegar with so many experiences to come back for, but when the snow-capped crags of the Valhalla mountain range came into view heading north, we were ready for our next West Koot Route stop. Nakusp stands out as a lake town with some of the best sub-alpine mountain views over water that I’ve seen in North America. While Shallan had a bad migraine that unfortunately meant an early night for her in our Airbnb and no trip up to the nearby, community-owned Nakusp Hot Springs (we’ve been there before and they are awesome), Remi and I played in the yard and struck up conversations with the neighbors about a wide range of subjects, from hiking secret local old growth cedar groves to water rights on the Columbia River that we share with Canada. After dinner, Remi and I set out on a walk along Arrow Lakes on the Nakusp Waterfront Walkway two blocks away. This paved path features benches, garden areas, and gorgeous views of distant dramatic peaks. The walkway ends at a sprawling, sandy public beach where Remi found another kid his age to build a rock wall with.
The next day we made the short drive north to the relatively new biking trails and pump track at the Mt. Abriel Recreation Area. Immediately after climbing out of the van, we made friends with a few other families from Rossland, and they invited Remi to head off with them to the pump track while we finished packing up. Once we found and joined the group of parents and kids, we spent the next several hours on the pump track and then hiding under one of the picnic shelters during occasional downpours. Once the rain let up, we pedaled along several sections of fun and flowy green and blue trails, passing and being passed by dozens of other parents and kids. There were many more miles of trails for all abilities at Mt. Abriel, but for us it was time to split for our next stop.
Heading south from Nakusp then east over the mountains from New Denver to Kaslo, it’s worth a stop at the historic mining town of Sandon. In the late 1800s, Sandon was a bustling mining burg sporting 5,000-plus residents, which is hard to imagine today given the tight canyon and limited structures. Back then, though, it was the hub of the richest silver-lead producing region in Canada. Touring the few remaining buildings, including the original City Hall and Pump House, doesn’t take long but is a great way to learn about the region’s history.
Kaslo and Ainsworth Hot Springs: Lakeside Kootenay gems
The weekend we rolled into the charming village of Kaslo, the typically quiet town was bursting at the seams with Kaslo May Days celebrations featuring logger sports competitions, music, and vendors, plus the town’s usual cool shops and restaurants. Like other communities along the West Koot Route, Kaslo has excellent hiking and mountain biking trails, but the ones here start right in town, including the Kaslo River Trail system. The paddling on Kootenay Lake from public access points in town, with enchanting views of Purcell Range peaks, is the stuff of paddleboarders’ and kayakers’ dreams. (You can rent gear or book a tour with Kaslo Kayaking if needed.)
All too soon, it was time for us to make the 20-minute drive south for our reservation at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort. Always a relaxing and restorative experience, thanks to the hot water and natural mineral content, I was about as chill as can be after a few tours through the hot springs cave with Remi. Thoughts of pre-trip life had been supplanted by dreamy meditations on distant peaks and dazzling lakes, of miles of trails out there in the lush BC forests waiting for me. After a lengthy soak, we cleaned up, thoroughly enjoyed what may have been the best meal we’ve ever had in the Kootenays at the Ktunaxa Grill at Ainsworth (see sidebar), and continued south 20 minutes to the Kootenay Lakeview Lodge in Balfour.
Balfour and Nelson: Where culture meets adventure on Kootenay Lake
The Kootenay Lakeview Lodge, perched on a forested hillside of its namesake Kootenay Lake between Nelson and Ainsworth, turned out to be a beauty of a basecamp for the remainder of our stay in Canada. We woke the next day ready for our tour down the highway a bit at Kokanee Mountain Zipline. While the rest of the family were zip-tour veterans, it was my first time on one and I wasn’t sure what I’d think. Blowing my expectations out of the water, the rides were high and blazing fast (the views flying over the Kokanee Creek canyon are carved solidly into my psyche) and the guides were real, funny and an energetic joy to trust our safety with.
After our adrenaline fix, we set out for nourishment in Nelson, with hopes of an afternoon mountain bike ride at the oft-lauded intermediate and beginner flow trail system at Morning Mountain. But Mother Nature had other plans for the day, and we ended up dodging downpours and lightning flashes inside downtown Nelson’s plethora of local outdoor gear, apparel, and other unique shops. We returned “home” to our lodge with bulging shopping bags instead of tired legs, but also happy to be free from our daily grind in such a pleasant place where the pace of life seems so much slower and sane. Thanks to a provisions stop at the Kootenay Co-op, we spent the evening’s inclement weather swilling wine and grilling local meat and veggies at the lodge’s outdoor kitchen while being serenaded by bird song and a chorus of croaking frogs.
Crawford Bay and Home
We woke the morning of our last day and departed from the official West Koot Route for our alternate course home through the Idaho Panhandle. In the community of Balfour, we lined up early at the Kootenay Lake Ferry for the free, 35-minute boat ride (the longest free ferry ride in the world). Our destination was the artisan community of Crawford Bay, BC, and while we waited to load the boat we watched bubbles whimsically floating past our windshield from a tie-died shirt and gift shop as ferry riders milled about engaged in casual conversation with just about everybody they encountered out of a vehicle or with an open window. Once we were on the ferry, we visited the snack stand for our ever-hungry child and wandered around the deck to watch the wind-blown water—which felt as wild and vast as an ocean crossing—catch sunbursts through clouds that lit up the endless mountain views.
Back on land, we drove the short distance into the village of Crawford Bay, a one-of-a-kind collection of artisan shops and homes that make up a community that feels like it’s lost in time, a living museum experience that may make you question the things you spend most of your work life doing. At the same time, the artisans who create their crafts out of roadside shops offer some sense of hope for the future. Maybe we can learn from the past that quality, handcrafted local goods are where it’s at.
Our first stop was the North Woven Broom Company that operates out of a historic log barn, where you can watch traditional brooms being made by hand. Our family had been reading the Harry Potter series out loud to each other for the past two years and was about to finish the final book while driving home later that day. It was, therefore, a surprise and auspicious timing to discover that this incredible broom shop was responsible for making brooms that were used by the Canadian publisher of the Harry Potter book series as props and prizes for book promotion events. They even sent one to the series author J.K. Rowling. We took some photos, chatted up the broom maker, awkwardly got him to sign our copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and walked out of there with a small fortune of his authentic brooms for various family members and friends back home.
We continued down the road to the Forge and Furnace Gallery and Kootenay Forge, where we watched the blacksmith create metal hooks. We learned about how fabrics were once commonly made and watched traditional foot-powered loom weaving at Barefoot Weaving. Finally, we checked out the beautiful handiwork at Dog Patch Pottery. There’s also a jewelry shop, the acclaimed Black Salt Café, and other arts and crafts shops, which happened to be closed that day. In our era of instant Amazon gratification of cheaply-made, mass-produced crap, visiting Crawford Bay is a great reminder for adults, and an important lesson for kids, of how all of our basic necessities were once made.
We made one last stop as we meandered our way toward the border to check out a recommended roadside curiosity—the Glass House, which was built in the mid 1900s out of over half a million recycled embalming fluid bottles. Quirky, but cool, this place has a gift shop and optional tour of the structure.
Soon we reached the 49th parallel with another quick and easy border crossing, this time back into the states. By this point in the trip, I could care less about all the things that had been vexing me when we began our adventure. Those stresses had been exorcised from my consciousness by the magical landscapes, friendly people, cool communities, and quality family time we experienced along the West Koot Route.
Derrick Knowles is the Publisher of Out There Outdoors. The trip featured in this story was partially sponsored by West Koot Route tourism partners.