For most, hearing “The Canadian Rockies” conjures up images of Lake Louise’s aquamarine waters and the “Rocky Mountaineer” steam train romantically weaving its way between one classically Canadian vista after another. And while the areas in and around Banff National Park are every bit as deserving of the international attention that they draw, they can get rather busy as tourists flock from far and wide to see for themselves. Fortunately, Canada’s Rocky Mountains cover an enormous area, reaching all the way across the province of British Columbia. And luckily for us – there are many lesser trafficked destinations to be explored. To be more specific, here are our top 5 Rocky Mountain destinations within 2 hours of Banff.
One hour’s drive through the spectacularly scenic and dramatic Kootenay National Park stands between Banff National Park and the Columbia Valley. As a part of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the Columbia Valley is flanked by vast 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 almost every mountain sport that you can think of, throughout the year.
The towering Bugaboo Spires to the north attract world class climbers throughout the summer months, while the Purcell Mountains have long since been known for their backcountry and heli-ski opportunities. High alpine hikes are aplenty in every direction, while paddle sports and boating dominate the lake, wetlands and river.
Come winter, Lake Windermere transforms into “The Whiteway” – Canada’s largest skating trail. The local ski resort of Panorama offers plenty of both groomed and off piste options, with a cosy and convenient village area built up around the base. Over the summer months, downhill biking is the main draw at Panorama, though everything from rafting, hiking, tennis, mini golf and bungie trampolining is on offer. It’s array of accommodations, shops and services allow it to function as a self contained destination resort within itself, and touches such as the hot pools and on site restaurants see that luxury is not missed.
The entire region is well established as a golfer’s paradise, with 10 golf courses within a 15 minute radius. Perhaps the best known is Grey Wolf – rated as Canada’s 3rd best golf course – also located at Panorama. The activity options available in and around Invermere are extensive, and exactly because it is not Banff or Whistler, you’ll find it far quieter, less expensive and perhaps more authentically Canadian.
The local ski resort of Kicking Horse is largely credited with the uptick of interest that the region has experienced in recent years, and in viewing Golden as a year round mountain destination. The avalanche controlled off piste terrain within the resort boundaries is significant, and has proved to be a big draw for both advanced and off piste skiers and snowboarders. Come summer season, its downhill mountain biking trails standout as long, thoughtfully designed trails with vast variation in their difficulty levels, allowing even first time riders to enjoy the resort. The summit can be accessed by gondola – making it a great option for non skiers and non bikers alike – and the 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains is nothing short of breathtaking. The village area of Golden is quaint and low key, offering a window into small town Canadian living. And while Golden does lack a lake, the Columbia River pumps all summer long, providing great white water rafting and paddle opportunities, with its closest mountain full of hiking trails and view points.
Just over an hour south to the of Invermere is the close knit community of Kimberly. Offering oodles of atmosphere and character, this small mountain town is not short of activities, with something for all ages and interests. It’s ski resort is just a few minutes drive from the townsite, and while it is best known as a family resort, there are more challenging slopes to entertain higher level skiers and snowboarders. Bike trails interweave the surrounding countryside, and it’s Aquatic Centre and Climbing Centre provide excellent indoor entertainment when the weather does not cooperate. A leisurely stroll down the lively “Platzl” walking street on a summer’s evening can leave you wondering what European country you may have stumbled in to, and the sense of community and identity is strong. As Kimberly is largely undiscovered by the bulk of international travellers, it is a piece of small town Canada – surrounded by big mountain activities.
4. Radium Hot Springs
With no shortage of tourism in it’s history, Radium Hot Springs is a small village located on the doorstep of the Kootenay National Park. As the name would indicate, the thermic activity in the region has long since drawn domestic visitors for a soak in its mineral rich waters, the popularity of which has seen a charming village evolve around it. Wearing a distinctly European feel to it, hanging baskets spill their flowers over the sidewalks, and many of the buildings themselves sport Austrian architecture; wooden window shutters included. There are several motels and B&Bs in the village, as well as a general store and all of the essential stores that you would hope to find on a destination holiday. There are some great family hikes right from Radium – such as the Old Coach Road and Sinclair Canyon – with Invermere’s hub of activities 15 minutes to the south and the vast Bugaboo range to the north west. All of the region’s offerings can be easily enjoyed from this quaint, historic hot spring 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 harnessed the geothermic activity in the area, a residential and tourist village has developed around it. The Hot Springs have been well developed in to a clean, easily accessed facility, while the warm natural waters still bubble from the ground and fun freely into the surrounding creeks. There is a good golf course, great short hikes – such as the “Hoodoo Hike” – Columbia Lake & river and even its very own ski resort (of the same name). Columbia Lake is typically warmer and less crowded than Lake Windermere to the north, and the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River provide a clean, scenic river paddle or float during the summer months (informally knows as “The Fairmont Float”). The winter months are extra cosy for families, with the hot springs ensuring that everybody stays warm, and the ski resort serving as the perfect training ground for family skiing. That said, there are more challenging runs on offer, as well as the options of Panorama to the north, and Kimberly to the south (both an easy hour).
In an age where we are rethinking our comfort levels in crowded places and better valuing the lesser trodden places, it is fortunate that the Canadian Rockies are still brimming with great destinations, patiently waiting to be discovered. And while this should not detract from the better know regions of the Rockies, it is always worth exploring what adventures may lie in the valleys beyond.