Exploring Columbia Valley, British Columbia
January 3, 2019
Exploring Columbia Valley in December
If you are going to hike in the mountains, there will be hills to climb.
That quip fit many scenarios during our five days exploring Columbia Valley in British Columbia, Canada.
From elevation changes during a hike to finding a location for dinner, there were both physical and logistical hills to climb.
Flexibility is key when exploring during a time that is not quite high tourist season and not yet full-on winter.
Columbia Valley offers up an outdoor paradise with front-country amenities. The valley is located in the British Columbia province of Canada and is surrounded by both the Purcell and Rocky Mountain ranges.
The central portion of the Columbia Valley is a scenic 3.5-hour drive from the Calgary airport. The drive includes sections of both Banff National Park and Kootenay National Park. If driving during daylight hours, plan for a longer drive as every curve presents a new photo opportunity.
The local tourist organization touts it as “all season recreation area”. We can vouch for the December fun after staying five days in the Invermere area. It would take several weeks to truly explore all the local gems in the area.
Here are our recommendations:
Things to Know
Here are a few tips we picked up during our adventure.
- Local personality
- Canadians are very helpful and willing to share tips and advice. If they don’t know themselves, they always know who to ask and think nothing of shouting across a room to get an answer.
- If the answer is a straight-up “I don’t know”, then you are likely talking to a non-Canadian who is just there on a work visa.
- December Weather
- Snow tires are required in British Columbia and north of Lake Louise in Alberta from October 1 to March 31. Be prepared to pay for an upgrade to snow tires when renting a car.
- Your weather experience may differ. Our week had “unusually warm weather” by Canadian standards. Translation: 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, not much in the way of snowstorms.
- Winter is avalanche season. Be aware and prepared.
- Columbia Valley itself gets limited snow (according to locals). Twelve inches a year is normal. However, the mountains surrounding the valley get significantly more snow.
- Driving descriptions by locals that include the words “Not a far drive” or “close by” tends to mean 1.5 to 3 hours of driving one-way. Double-check distances
alocation before you head out.
- The central Columbia Valley area has a small population of local residents (~3000) that more than triples (~17,000) during summer high tourist season. A summer visit will be a different tourist experience from a winter visit.
- Early December qualifies as the ‘before’ season. It is prior to the Christmas high-season for tourists. It is just on the cusp of when the ‘real snow’ starts and it is before the lakes are definitively frozen. Ski resorts might be open but not all runs are open. Many businesses have limited or no hours prior to the holiday high tourist season. Winter activities vary due to lack of snow or increased avalanche risk.
- Calgary International Airport is about a 3.5-hour scenic drive. If you can spare the time, plan on some playtime in Calgary. This is the airport we used.
- Fairmont Hot Springs airport is located in central Columbia Valley. Since this is a smaller airport, expect to pay more.
- Seattle Spokane International Airport is about a 4.5-hour drive.
Car rentals are available directly at the Calgary International Airport. Walk from the terminal to the car rental location – no need to take an offsite shuttle. Ask about snow tire requirements based on your travel plans.
We did not explore this option as we wanted the flexibility of exploring the valley and taking day trips using a rental car. This is likely only a valid option if you plan to spend most of your time at a specific resort.
There are many lodging options available in the area. We stayed at the Fairmont Mountain Village resort located just outside the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. These two resorts, even though they are named similarly, are completely separate and independent entities.
The Fairmont Mountain Village Resort has a recreation center on site. In addition to activities such as crafts for kids and water aerobics for adults, the recreation center has 3 hot tubs fed via the local hot springs. Each hot tub is a different temperature ranging from hot to super-hot although the temperature for each tub varies by day. There is a small indoor pool as well suitable for cooling off from the hot tub or for kids to play in. The steam room easily seats six adults.
The on-site coffee shop is open limited hours. For actual dining or adult beverages, plan on visiting the communities of Windermere or Invermere. You can also walk to the
For in-house cooking, groceries can be purchased at several food markets in Invermere or Windermere.
Flexibility was key to dining out during the ‘before’ season. Many restaurants were either closed completely for the winter season or had alternative hours prior to the Christmas holiday rush. Several places were hosting private events for the holidays and turned us away. In true Canadian fashion, the ‘go away’ order was done in the friendliest manner ever – we almost felt guilty for putting them in the position of refusing to serve us.
Valley Coffee Company is located in Fairmont. Local tip – go early on a Thursday morning for ‘Cinnamon Bun Thursday’. You won’t regret the sugar crash.
HuckleBerry’s Family Restaurant is located in Invermere. I recommend the huckleberry french toast. My companions recommend anything bacon.
Konig Meat and Sausage Company is located in downtown Invermere. They offer deli service as well as a butcher shop service. If you intend to cook at home, check them out for your butcher shop needs. Eating in is entertaining as you can watch the locals work with the owner on supplies for their catering events.
Birchwood Restaurant is located in downtown Invermere. Order the ‘Artisan Bread’ appetizer – bread served with creamy flavored butter. For meat eaters, try the steak. My companions swore this was the best steak they had the entire trip. I enjoyed the Thai green curry, light yet creamy. Leave room to share the ‘Dessert Trio’.
The Hot Spot is a hidden gem located off the Kootenay Highway in Windermere. Look for the restaurant in the back of the Hopkins Harvest market. Pizza is the name of their game. ‘NutnBut Produce’ was my favorite pizza. They allow you to do half-and-half so you can try more than one variety. If you are lucky, you will get there while they still have ‘smoker dinners’ available. What is in the smoker changes nightly and is limited in quantity. My companions snatched up some of the smoker plates of flank steak with pesto potatoes. Fortunately, that left more pizza for me.
Black Forest Restaurant Steak and Schnitzel Haus is located at the corner of highway 93 and 95 just outside downtown Invermere. Be sure to order some of homemade Spaetzle. Read the signage near the front door and then check out the hand-painted murals throughout the restaurant.
Outdoor winter adventure
Snowmobiling in the Purcell Mountains is a great way to experience high-altitude scenic views.
We used Toby Creek Adventures for our half-day guided tour. The tour included snowmobile machines and gear rentals, groomed trails with scenic views, and playtime in the powder bowl.
Panorama Ski Resort offers down-hill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snow-shoeing. On-site parking is available or there is a free shuttle that picks-up from various locations in Invermere.
We opted to rent snowshoes and explore a few trails on our own. The trails located on the resort are front-country routes. The paths vary – some parallel Toby Creek, some parallel the cross country tracks, and some climb the hills of the adjacent golf course. These routes are best for first-time snowshoers or anyone looking for an easy excursion.
The resort offers some dining and beer options on site.
December hiking tips:
- Bring ‘winter grippers’ (e.g. yaktrax or ice cleats) or plan to rent a pair
- Understand the avalanche risk of the trail
From the many hikes available in central Columbia Valley, we chose to explore these hikes:
- Dutch Creek Hoodoos. An hour-long out-and-back trail to the top of the hoodoos.
- Shoreline of Windermere Lake. We accessed a small portion of this route near the Kinsmen Beach area off of 18th street in Windermere. It is a flat trail along the frozen lake with views of nearby mountain ranges. Some locals were fat-tire biking and snowshoeing on the lake itself.
- Fairmont Hot Springs Owl Loop. This is accessible from the Fairmont Hot Springs resort property. The Owl Loop is a little less than a 2-mile round-trip hike. It is a pretty hike through a forest with occasional glimpses of lake and mountain views. If you are staying in one of the resorts in Fairmont it is a pleasant hike but I would not suggest driving out of your way to try it. The front desk at Fairmont Mountain Villas can provide you with a trail map. The trails are marked but the trail map and the markers don’t always seem to be aligned.
- Shoreline of Columbia Lake. From highway 95, we accessed a few pull-offs to read about the history of Columbia Lake. However, a winter storm blew in so we had to cancel our hiking plans along the eastern shoreline.
Windermere Lake is turned into a winter playground once it freezes solid. A 30-kilometer track is groomed on the ice. Skaters, cross-country skiers, and fat-tire bikes all use the lake for play.
The locals told us we were about three weeks too early and that the Whiteway had not been groomed yet. Every local who mentioned the Whiteway bragged that is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest skating trail.
Use Toby Creek Road to access Lillian Lake. Ice skating and hockey were options here.
One fellow was diligently clearing off the ice. He explained that once he finished clearing the hockey play area then he would bring his net down and leave it on the ice for the season.
I asked who he worked for – the park service, the city?
He looked at me in confusion, pointed to a nearby house and replied “No, I live right near here. I just clear it off so everyone can enjoy it. Usually, I have it done by now but I was away.”
That spirit of community and the love of the outdoors was demonstrated often in Columbia Valley.
In the central Columbia Valley area, there are three main hot spring areas.
- Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. They have 3 large public pools at different water temperatures. The hottest pool is a small, shallow pool that fits about 5 people. There are not any jets in the pools. Visit during the day to enjoy the mountain views.
- Radium Hot Springs. We did not visit these pools as they had limited hours (I am assuming due to the ongoing construction). I would visit them on a future trip as there is the possibility of spotting bighorn sheep from the pools.
- Lussier Hot Springs These were my favorite. They are natural hot springs with a view of the Kootenay Mountains located in the Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park.
Day trips from central Columbia Valley
From central Columbia Valley, you can take day trips into Kootenay National Park, Banff National Park and the town of Golden.
We were not avalanche prepared and we had time constraints. Thus our exploration of Kootenay National Park was limited to a few pull-offs with photos.
Several locals recommended the town of Golden located about 2-hours drive from Invermere. We did not have enough time to visit the Golden area but it is on the list for our next visit.
- Trip Date: early December 2018
- Name: Columbia Valley
- Location: British Columbia, Canada
- Cost: varies depending on choices