Top 5 lesser known destinations in the Canadian Rockies
For the most part, hearing “The Canadian Rockies” conjures up images of the aquamarine waters of Lake Louise and the “Rocky Mountaineer” steam train romantically weaving through classic Canadian landscapes one after another. And while the areas in and around Banff National Park deserve as much international attention as they attract, they can be quite busy as tourists flock from all over to see for themselves. Fortunately, Canada’s Rocky Mountains cover a vast area, spanning the entire province of British Columbia. And luckily for us, there are plenty of less traveled destinations to explore. To be more specific, here are our top 5 Rocky Mountain destinations within 2 hours of Banff.
An hour’s drive from the spectacular and spectacular Kootenay National Park stands between Banff National Park and the Columbia Valley. Part of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the Columbia Valley is flanked by expansive mountain ranges on either side, making it the perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Perched on the shores of Lake Windermere and presided over by Mount Nelson, Invermere offers nearly any mountain sport you can think of, year round.
The towering Bugaboo Spiers to the north attract world-class climbers throughout the summer months, while the Purcell Mountains have long been known for their backcountry and heli-skiing possibilities. High mountain hikes are plentiful in all directions, while paddle sports and boating dominate the lake, wetlands, and river.
In winter, Lake Windermere transforms into “The Whiteway” – the largest skating rink in Canada. The local Panorama ski resort offers plenty of both groomed and off-piste options, with a comfortable and convenient village built around the base. During the summer months, the downhill biking is Panorama’s main draw, although it’s all rafting, hiking, tennis, mini-golf, and bungee trampoline. Its range of accommodation, shops, and services allow it to function as a stand-alone destination resort on its own, and touches such as hot pools and on-site restaurants ensure that luxury is not lacking.
The whole area is well established as a golfer’s paradise, with 10 golf courses within a 15 minute radius. Perhaps the best known is Gray Wolf – ranked 3rd best golf course in Canada – also located at Panorama. The activity options available in and around Invermere are vast, and precisely because it’s not Banff or Whistler, you’ll find it much quieter, cheaper, and perhaps more authentically Canadian.
The local Kicking Horse Ski Resort is widely credited with the renewed interest the area has seen in recent years and considering Golden as a year round mountain destination. The avalanche-controlled off-piste terrain within the resort limits is extensive and has proven to be a great draw for advanced and off-piste skiers and snowboarders. During the summer season, its downhill mountain biking trails are distinguished by thoughtfully designed long trails with great variation in their difficulty levels, allowing even beginners to enjoy the resort. The summit is accessible by gondola – making it a great option for non-skiers and non-bikers alike – and the 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains is breathtaking. The Golden Village neighborhood is quaint and low-key, offering a window into small-town Canadian life. And although Golden lacks a lake, the Columbia River pumps all summer long, providing excellent rafting and paddling opportunities, with its nearest mountain teeming with hiking trails and lookout points.
Just over an hour south of Invermere is the tight-knit community of Kimberly. Offering lots of atmosphere and character, this small mountain town has no shortage of activities, with something for all ages and interests. Its ski resort is a short drive from town, and although it is best known as a family resort, there are more challenging trails to entertain higher-level skiers and snowboarders. Cycle paths intertwine with the surrounding countryside, and its aquatic center and climbing center provide excellent indoor entertainment when the weather doesn’t cooperate. A leisurely stroll down the bustling pedestrianized “Platzl” street on a summer evening can leave you wondering which European country you may have fallen into, and the sense of community and identity is strong. As Kimberly is largely unknown to most international travelers, it’s a small-town piece of Canada – surrounded by big mountain activities.
4. Radium hot springs
Without lacking in tourism in its history, Radium Hot Springs is a small village located at the gateway to Kootenay National Park. As the name suggests, the region’s thermal activity has long attracted domestic visitors for a dip in its mineral-rich waters, the popularity of which has seen the birth of a charming village around it. With a distinctly European touch, hanging baskets scatter their flowers on the sidewalks, and many buildings themselves feature Austrian architecture; wooden shutters included. There are several motels and bed and breakfasts in the village, as well as a general store and all the essential stores you hope to find on a vacation destination. There are some great family hikes from Radium, such as Old Coach Road and Sinclair Canyon, with the Invermere Activity Center 15 minutes to the south and the vast Bugaboo Range to the northwest. All the offerings of the region can be easily enjoyed from this picturesque and historic spa village.
5. Fairmont Hot Springs
Similar in principle to Radium, Fairmont Hot Springs is 30 minutes south of Radium and 15 minutes south of Invermere. Having also exploited the geothermal activity of the region, a residential and tourist village has developed around it. The hot springs have been well developed into a clean and easily accessible facility, while the warm natural waters still bubble from the ground and play freely in the surrounding coves. There is a good golf course, great little hikes – such as the “Hoodoo Hike” – Columbia Lake & River and even its own ski resort (of the same name). Columbia Lake is generally warmer and less crowded than Lake Windermere to the north, and the springs of the mighty Columbia River provide a clean, scenic paddle or float during the summer months (informally called “The Fairmont Float”). The winter months are very comfortable for families, with the hot springs ensuring everyone stays warm and the ski resort serving as the perfect training ground for family skiing. That said, more difficult trails are offered, as well as the options of Panorama to the north and Kimberly to the south (both an hour easy).
At a time when we rethink our level of comfort in crowded places and better value less traveled places, it is fortunate that the Canadian Rockies are still teeming with great destinations, patiently waiting to be discovered. And while it shouldn’t hurt the most well-known areas of the Rockies, it’s still worth exploring the adventures that can take place in the valleys beyond.
Nadine Robb is the owner and instructor at Hakuba Ski Concierge. Hakuba Ski Concierge is a boutique ski school in Hakuba, Japan.
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