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We love the West Kootenays. Located in the southeast of British Columbia, this is one of the most uniquely relaxing and breathtaking areas in all the Canadian Rockies. The Kootenay River flows over 700 miles from its headwaters in these pristine, jaw-dropping mountains, which offer some of the most rugged and remote terrain in all the Southern Rockies. The area is also home to friendly, relaxed mountain towns, several crystal-clear lakes, and endless opportunities for everything from peak-bagging to mountain biking.
To get the full West Kootenays experience, you’ll need to slow down a bit and take your time as you travel the many backcountry roads and explore all the many lakes and rivers. There’s even a popular phrase you might hear bandied about – “Kootenay Time,” which lightheartedly refers to the idea that people and places in this laid-back region run on their own time and schedule.
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HOW TO GET TO THE WEST KOOTENAYS
Flying to West Kootenays
If you’re planning on flying to West Kootenays, there is only one option. Castlegar Airport serves the West Kootenays, and gets daily Air Canada Express flights from Vancouver, Calgary and Kelowna International Airport in the Okanagan.
Driving to West Kootenays
If you’re driving to West Kootenays from the West, you can take Highway 6 into Nakusp and down towards Castlegar and Nelson. From the East, take Highway 3 from Creston.
GETTING AROUND THE KOOTENAYS
As with most remote mountain regions, you will need a car to get around the Kootenays. BC Transit does run the West Kootenays Transit System between towns, but service is very limited. If you plan on hiking or biking, you will need a 4WD with good clearance; almost all trails are at the end of rugged, often steep Forest Service Roads. Most of the Kootenays are very remote; be adequately prepared when heading into the backcountry.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE WEST KOOTENAYS
We recommend basing your trip to the West Kootenays around the town of Nelson – one of the largest towns in the area. Here, you’ll find plenty of cozy accommodations and delicious eats for short weekend trips and longer excursions alike.
If you’re looking for classy but simple lodging, you can stay at the Cloudside Hotel – a 1900 boutique with cozy rooms, a sundeck and garden, and affordable price tag. And it’s a 2-minute walk from all the shops and restaurants along Downtown’s Baker Street.
If you’re up for getting a bit more luxury, you can stay at the Prestige Lakeside Resort, which sits right on Kootenay Lake and offers an indoor pool and spa to relax in during the chillier times of year.
Cheaper options to spend the night include the Dancing Bear Inn and Hostel, as well as the Mountain Hound Inn. Both are inexpensive, comfortable and within walking distance of all Nelson has to offer.
Another mountain town to base your West Kootenay adventures in is the charming, quaint Kaslo, which sits on the edge of Kootenay Lake and is surrounded by lush green forest and snowcapped peaks. Stay at the classic Kaslo Hotel right downtown, and enjoy the lakeside views and lively pub.
Another option is New Denver, on the shores of Locan Lake. This old mining town – once known as El Dorado City – is the definition of “quaint.” The Valhalla Inn provides unpretentious lodging in this town, just minutes from the lakeshore.
If you’re looking for a real backcountry experience, you can hike up to Kokanee Glacier and book a spot at the ACC Cabin there. Rates are $25 a night for ACC (Alpine Club of Canada) members during the summer, and it’s a perfect jump-off point for backcountry hiking. In the winter, it’s accessible via a short helicopter ride. You can book accommodations at a weekly rate, and you’re just steps away from some of the best ski touring on earth.
WHERE TO EAT IN WEST KOOTENAYS
If you’re looking where to eat in the West Kootenays, there are several good options depending on the region you’re in.
Eating In Nelson
The creatively-named Jackson’s Hole and Grill is a popular local establishment serving up everything from trusty burgers to falafel and calamari, with a host of beers on tap. Good stuff all around. Kootenay Tamil Kitchen dishes out helpings of authentic Indian food (with vegan and gluten-free options). The local favorite All Seasons Café has reasonably priced but finer options like tuna main and steak.
Eating in Kaslo
Kaslo doesn’t have quite the variety of fine dining that Nelson does, but you’ll still get your fill here. Buddy’s Street Front Pizzeria can’t be beat for good old pizza, good brews and a good time. Taqueria el Corazon makes some of the best Mexican food we’ve ever had and is a great place to relax with some happy hour drinks after a long day in the woods.
THINGS TO DO IN WEST KOOTENAYS
If you’re looking for things to do in West Kootenays, there are numerous great activities for those who love a great outdoor adventure. Here are some we recommend trying out.
Skiing: Come wintertime, the Kootenays are a prime skiing destination. Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson is one of the region’s best, dubbed “one of the best powder mountains on the continent.” It’s open early December through April and reaches 7867 ft (2398 m) at Ymir Peak, with 83 marked runs containing groomed, open bowls, glades, chutes, and tree skiing.
Red Mountain Resort, located in Rossland, offers 110 marked runs, 3850 total skiable acres (1560 ha), and 2919 feet of vertical drop (890 m). You can even go cat-skiing for $10 a ride.
Snowshoeing: Leisurely or strenuous, snowshoeing is a great way to spend a day. With thousands of square miles of untouched backcountry to explore, the Kootenays are a great place to try it. There are dozens of gentle hiking and cross-country trails to explore here, as well as a few strenuous ones. One easy snowshoe route is the Mount Lepsoe Cabin Loop, a 4.4 mi (7.3 km) roundtrip loop with some epic views of snowy peaks and forested valleys and a few cabins to stop and cook a hot lunch in.
Hiking in the West Kootenays: In summer and autumn, once the snowpack has diminished, you have some of the most pristine BC backcountry at your hiking disposal. Just remember that most of these trails are hard to get to, near impossible without a high-clearance vehicle.
If you’re in Nelson, head north to Kokanee Provincial Park, where you’ll be able to hike around 2 glaciers, 30 lakes, and over 52 miles (87 km) of hiking trails, with backcountry camping and ACC cabins both enticing options for spending the night.
Also nearby is Idaho Peak, a 7487 ft (2282m) high peak in the Selkirk Mountains. You’ll have stunning views of the surrounding mountains, Lake Kootenay, and endless wildflowers in summer. The hike to the top starts above the town of Sandon and is relatively moderate, and totally worth the effort. It can get crowded in peak season, however; come early to avoid the crowds. There’s also the Whitewater Canyon hike, 10 mi (16 km) through a deep canyon, alpine meadows and ending at some gorgeous lakes.
If you’re staying near Kaslo, climb up Silver Spray Cabin in Kokanee Glacier Park, if you’re up for the challenge. This 8.6 mi (14.4 km) roundtrip begins halfway between Kaslo and Nelson and gains over 3280 ft (1000 m) as you climb to the ACC-operated cabin, where you can spend the night in some comfy backcountry luxury before exploring the surrounding area the next day. Another epic hike is the scenic Mount Loki.
Mountain Biking: Love single-track? Head over to the Morning Mountain Bike Trails, located just 10 minutes from Nelson. These challenging but scenic rides take you through cedar forests before opening to wildflower meadows and sweeping Valhalla Mountain views.
In Nelson, hit up River Oceans And Mountain Shop (ROAM) to rent anything from skis and gear to kayaks and paddleboards for exploring Kootenay Lake. There’s also Valhalla Pure Outfitters and the Village Si Hut, among others. Whitewater Ski Resort also has its own rental shop to gear up for a day on the slopes.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT KOOTENAYS
The Kootenay Lake never freezes. Due to the flow of the water and possible thermal springs, Kootenay Lake never freezes, which makes it perfect for fishing year-round.
Where does the Kootenay name originate from? The Kootenay region name originates from the Kootenay River, which was named for the Kutenai First Nations people.