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The Columbia Valley - And Into The Forest I Go

I am pretty certain that one thing that has held our relationship together for many years is, ironically, that we have not spent all our time together. But two years have gone by since I left the work world; and what they say about having to learn to live with your significant other all over again, without employment providing some distance, is true. (I wonder how many relationships end prematurely simply because couples don’t, or are unable to, take some time apart?)

Sure enough, when I entered the rental condo in Fairmont, British Columbia, I was met with a sign: “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul”. I’m not going to get that dramatic, but the point stands - some time away to clear our head might be a good thing.

Fairmont is one of about 15 small towns or communities or settlements nestled in the Columbia Valley which extends roughly 150 miles in length in the southeast corner of British Columbia between the towns of Golden in the north and Cranbrook in the south. Banff and Canmore and Jasper have the dramatic scenery and world-class tourist draws, but I found that the Columbia Valley can hold it’s own for beauty and action. It just depends on what you like. Here, the Valley lies between the Rocky Mountains and the Purcell Mountains with a major highway (Highway 93/95) running through it. You might want to read up on the origins of the valley; apparently it was covered in ice some 20,000 years ago until a couple of glaciers collided. Suffice it to say, this topography means mountains, hills, forests, water, wild flowers, wildlife, farms, hot springs, wetlands, and hoodoos all within a short distance - and walking, golfing, hiking, canoeing, rafting, ATVing, soaking, playing, and cycling just outside your door – with nowhere near the commercialism or tourism of Banff, Canmore, and Jasper.

I had a full week all to myself, so into the forest I went.

I entered the Valley from the north east through Kootenay National Park, down the steep hill (mountain?) and through the beautiful natural archway into Radium, a stunning entrance. You’re greeted with a sign that says, ”The mountains shall bring peace to the people” – that, combined with the promise of finding my soul in the forest, was surely a good omen for my week. They’ve built a massive ram’s horn statue ("Bighorns", 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall) in the middle of the traffic circle since I was there last. Radium is probably the most well-known, although not the largest, town in the middle of the Valley due to the hot springs and dramatic entrance - and big horn sheep. The Town internet site ( says it was recently named the friendliest town in Canada.

Radium is proud of it's latest art installation:

The Columbia Valley has some great cycling opportunities, so much so that I packed two bikes (“TWO bikes?”, my neighbour asked.) One of my favourite paved rides is the Markin-MacPhail Westside Legacy Trail, a two-lane, 25km, cycling ‘highway’ that extends from the town of Invermere to Fairmont and winds through hills, valleys, wild flowers, meadows, and farm land. It has a great story worth researching. Much of the land was donated by local farmers, and it is an engineering marvel. It has lots of rollers and some steep climbs which make for a healthy 50 km work-out (especially when the wind is gusting to 21km per hour as it was on the day I rode). It's easier riding from north to south.

The other great ride on the road bike was the North Star Rails to Trails paved route between the towns of Cranbrook and Kimberley at the south end of the valley. This is also 25 km each way, much less hilly, and passes valleys and forest and farm land watched over by snow-capped mountains. The views and smells along these two rides are intense. If I could just bottle into perfume that aroma of wild flowers, mountains, coniferous trees, meadows, sage, willows . . . . I loved the large prey birds circling overhead as I cycled, checking me out to see if I was an easy target. (The Columbia Valley is known for ‘birding’, including the large herons, ospreys and eagles.)

Two views from the North Star Rails to Trails trail:

The 29’er bike came in handy for the gravel and clay Old Coach Trail which is short, 9km long, and extends north into Radium. This was the main route for Model T’s back in the 1920’s. Today, it is a rollicking and rolling fast ride, high above the Columbia River wetlands:

The 29’er was also great for the Spirit Trail Loop, a 20 km single or double track loop along Columbia Lake and through the forest with a delightful meadow and protected area in the middle, making for the best day, ever. You ride the loop and then play in the meadow. There are a couple of creeks and fences to cross. So much fun. Here are some pictures from the meadows:

There are many more mountain bike trails , some way too intense and hard core for me, at the Panorama Ski area, Lillian Lake, Nipika Mountain Resort, and Swansea Mountain – or in the neighbouring towns of Cranbrook, Kimberley and Golden.

A great way to escape into the forest is to hike, and there is lots of hiking of any length to be done in the Valley – just pick up any hiking guidebook for an extensive list with descriptions. I did several, keeping in mind I was by myself and thinking of safety (bears and injuries). The Hoodoos Trail is short and great for a family, leading to surprising hoodoo formations that seem out of place. But hold on to your kiddos here! It's a pretty steep drop-off.

I spent two days at Mount Swansea where there were plenty of other hikers and bikers. There is a 3km steep hike to a lookout and a longer, 12 km, also fairly steep, loop trail to the summit with criss-crossing trails in between - I love this place.

On a rainy day, I drove south on Highway 93/95, ending up in the old mining town, now ski resort town, of Kimberley. The drive itself is worth the trip, passing more green farmland and wetlands and little Canal Flats which is technically the headwaters of the Columbia River. The Town of Kimberley does a great job of playing up the alpine theme with a pedestrian-only Platzl in the centre of town lined with boutique shops and cafes, including a couple of good coffee houses. The Platzl was built in the 1970’s to revitalize the town and, clearly, that strategy worked. There are lots of nice parks, paths, and stairs in Kimberley for a good work out.

I’m not a golfer or a ‘soaker’, but many people come to the Valley (maybe to find their soul?) to golf (there are some 10 courses on the Columbia Valley Golf Trail in the compact central part of the Valley alone) and to soak in the hot springs (there are three well-established right in the central Valley, as well as some ‘rustic’ ones that are accessible by hiking) and to ski in winter, both downhill and cross-country. In winter, Windermere lake is transformed into a 35 km long 'White Way' for skating or cross country skiing, connecting the towns of Invermere and Windermere. I think that would be great fun – almost as much fun as a fat tire or studded 29’er bike over that ice trail. And if you are a certified hang glider and member of the local hang gliders association, there are launch pads off Mount Swansea. And given the lakes and wetlands, don’t forget paddle boarding, canoeing and kayaking - that’s on my ‘next time’ list.

Can't you just imagine skating or skiing or biking this loop surrounded by mountains and trees covered in snow?

You could spend a couple of days simply meandering through the small towns in the Valley. But if you like designer shopping, you’ll be disappointed. Small boutique shops are the fashion here. Invermere is the main centre between Golden and Cranbrook with a couple of large grocery stores, boutique shops, and restaurants. It’s the gateway to the Panorama Ski Resort which is great for hiking and biking in the summer. Here are some pictures from Invermere. The library looks most inviting.

But if you have kiddos that are whining in the back seat, there are, of course, some tourist attractions along Highway 93/95c including the usual mini golf, go-carts, an obstacle course, zip lines, and children’s play areas where they can blow off steam.

The Valley seems to attract ‘earthiness’ - maybe it’s the wild landscape or the distance from large centres. There is a growing emphasis on natural foods and drinks. There are several coffee roasters, organic farms, natural food markets, 'ethically raised' meat, bakeries, and breweries in the area.

This is a picture taken from the Columbia Valley Food and Farm Local Food Guide which shows not only the locally sourced food but also gives a good visual of the Columbia Valley:

It's a cliche, but I was impressed that there really is something for everyone in the Columbia Valley.

One lady expressed that she was concerned that the Valley would become “another Canmore”, full of development and overcrowded with locals and visitors. I think that’s a long way off, if it were ever to happen – there’s just a different vibe here, and it is off the beaten path - but there are certainly some nice housing developments being built. Another lady told me that accommodation for travellers is limited, and vacation rentals are more popular than hotels.

I can’t say I found my soul in the forests of the Columbia River Valley (really, I think we keep growing with each stage of life . . . . . but that is a philosophical topic for another post); however, I did leave a lot of hiking and biking for ‘next time’, so there's still hope. I can say that the Valley provided a perfect respite with lots of fresh air and exercise and quiet time to think, and that is all I wanted.

So, kudos to you if you and your significant other can spend all your time together. No judgement from me. I’ll keep taking mini-breaks. I can just imagine the fall colours on the

Spirit Loop or the winter smells and crispness of a bike ride on the White Way.


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