Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Winter Adventures in Kootenay National Park

Kootenay National Park is the forgotten park of the Rockies.  Every tourist heads for Banff or Jasper with a scattering making the trek a bit further to Yoho or even Waterton.  I never hear much about Kootenay though and what a pity that is!

First, where is Kootenay National Park if you've never heard of it?  It's just past the Banff National Park boundary on highway 93 South.  The turn-off for the park is at Castle Junction, where you have the option of heading towards Lake Louise or turning towards the town of Radium Hot Springs and crossing into the province of British Columbia.  Radium is located just outside the Kootenay park boundary with the actual hot springs inside the park.

We spent New Year's in Radium and had lots of fun touring the surrounding National Park along with the Columbia Valley.  Below are my top picks for where to stay and what to do if you want to take an adventure somewhere new this winter.    

Where to stay
Nipika Mountain Resort has to be my top choice for family accommodations.  Nipika is located just outside the Kootenay Park Boundary on Settler's Road off Highway 93.   The Settler's Road turn-off is about 30km before reaching Radium Hot Springs.

The Nipika website describes the resort in the following paragraph:
Nipika is an Eco Resort nestled in the Canadian Rockies, beside Kootenay National Park BC, offering guests a spectacular year-round mountain environment right out the front door of our luxurious rocky mountain log cabins. Cross-country ski, snowshoe, mountain bike, hike or run on endless trails
What I love most about Nipika for families is that you don't have to drive anywhere to find activities to do each day.  You can ski right out the door of your own cabin and spend a whole day exploring glorious trails that are professionally groomed and track-set.  There are warming huts scattered around the trails so children have a goal and destination when they set out on their skis.  Little ones being pulled can warm up in the huts making it very friendly for young families.  If you don't have xc ski gear you don't need to worry because the resort rents everything including sleds for pulling small children.

If cross country skiing isn't your sport, Nipika also has snowshoe trails with rentals, a pond for skating and a toboggan hill.  It's the perfect one-stop destination for an outdoor family seeking a couple days of playing in the snow.

The cabins are fully equipped with cooking facilities so although it might seem costly to stay at a deluxe eco-lodge, you will save a lot of money by doing your own cooking.  The activities at Nipika are also free for guests so you'll save hundreds of dollars that you'd otherwise spend at a downhill ski resort.   Many of the cabins are big enough to accommodate multiple families as well so you can save money by sharing a cabin with friends or extended family.

Skiing over the Natural Bridge last winter at Nipika
One of the warming huts on the trails of Nipika (by the time you visit, the grass should all be snow covered)
There wasn't as much snow yet this year as in previous visits so a few hills had to be walked.
Approaching the Canyon Bridge over the Cross River
The metal bridge always has to be crossed on foot with skis and sleds carried.
Posing for a photo beside the Cross River with my sleeping toddler
Another photo from last year showing a typical snow year at Nipika
Day tours from Nipika
Radium Hot Springs
The first day trip I recommend is visiting the town of Radium Hot Springs and taking a soak in the Hot Springs Pool.  It is Parks Canada's largest pool and I always find it to be hotter than the popular Banff Upper Hot Springs.  It's also located inside the very scenic Sinclair Canyon that is a great destination in and of itself.

We also like hiking the Sinclair Creek or Juniper Trail inside the town of  Radium.   We hiked the Sinclair Creek Trail this New Year's and were surprised by the amount of very curious deer that we met.  The scenic trail follows the Sinclair Creek and passes over many interesting bridges for kids.  The Juniper Trail requires cleats in winter as it can get a bit slippery in sections.  The views down over Sinclair Canyon are spectacular.

My son's first visit to Radium Hot Springs, photo taken in Sinclair Canyon
Soaking in a Hot Springs Pool is a highlight for many National Park tourists (photo taken in Banff)
Hiking along the Sinclair Creek trail
The second destination I recommend exploring is the town of Invermere, located further along the Columbia Valley from Radium.  My favorite winter activity to do in Invermere is skating on Lake Windermere.
With well groomed tracks for classic cross-country skiing, skate skiing and ice skating, Lake Windermere’s Whiteway offers family recreation adventures for all ages and abilities. (taken from the Columbia Valley Guide)
We've explored the Whiteway both this year and last year with different experiences both times.  Last year there was lots of snow and we actually got to drive across the lake from Invermere to Windermere; a true winter experience in and of itself!  This year there was no snow for cross-country skiing and driving across the lake wasn't permitted.  We were able to skate clear across the lake though if we had had the time and energy.  We did skate a good kilometre from shore and it was one of the top winter experiences I've ever had.  My son is just learning to skate and he enjoyed skating on the cleared section beside the beach with the other children.

The valley is currently trying to beat the record for having the largest outdoor skating area in Canada so if you visit Invermere later this winter, you might be able to skate on a cleared oval longer in length than the famed Rideau Canal in Ottawa. 

Skating on Lake Windermere in the town of Invermere

I had tears in my eyes at the beauty of skating across a lake of such magnificence
Panorama Mountain Resort
I'll leave you to your own research if you are interested in downhill skiing because our family is focusing on cross-country skiing for the moment.  If your family likes ski resorts though, Panorama Resort is the place to go while visiting the Columbia Valley.  It's located just outside Invermere and the drive along Toby Creek is a worthwhile activity just for the beautiful scenery.  

If you are staying at Nipika Resort, you'll likely get your fill of cross country skiing on their beautiful trails but if you are staying in Radium or Invermere, the Panorama Nordic Centre is another destination worth checking out.  We had never been to Panorama for cross country skiing before and had heard there was an interesting 4km ski to the Hale Warming Hut.  We paid $11/person in trail fees and set off on an intermediate trail to the hut.  Don't expect to have it to yourself as it is apparently a very popular destination.  By contrast, we had the warming huts at Nipika to ourselves.  

If you aren't interested in skiing, you can still visit Panorama for a day trip.  There is a snowshoe trail that also reaches the Hale Hut and the Nordic Centre rents both skis and snowshoes.   (note that the Nordic Centre does not rent ski sleds.)  We met many families on the trail using snowshoes so it's obviously becoming a very popular winter activity.  The resort also has a tube park and a toboggan hill though you'll want to check pricing and hours before you head out.  We found it to be expensive and geared more for families wanting to do a post-ski activity while staying on hill.

Skiing along the Panorama ski trails en route to the Hale Warming Hut

The Hale Warming Hut

It was cool up there but Noah was snug and warm in his pulk.
 Exploring the National Park
I can't really write a story about Kootenay National Park without at least mentioning a couple things to do inside the park itself. There are many trails along highway 93 South but there are a few that deserve special mention for winter users.

Both the Marble Canyon and Paint Pots trails are family friendly, easy, short, and make for lovely snowshoe trips.  Both trails are less than 3km in total distance round trip with minimal height gain.  They make for pleasant stops en route to Nipika or Radium for little feet to get out and stretch.

Marble Canyon in winter
Though I haven't done it in winter, the Stanley Glacier Trail would also be a great snowshoe trip in winter.  It is a 3 hour round trip hike though so better done by families with older children or families carrying small kids.  It is a popular ski trail with back-country skiers so watch out for them on their way down the trail.

Finally I have to recommend my personal favorite trail to do on the way to or from Radium; the Boom Lake trail in Banff National Park.  It's located at Vermillion Pass, just outside the Kootenay park boundary.  I actually thought it was in Kootenay because it's so close.  It's10km round trip to the lake but it's a magical place in winter and one of our favorite light touring destinations on cross country skis.  We pulled our son in last winter in his chariot.  In past years we've snowshoed into the lake as well.
Pulling our son into Boom Lake
Snowy trees along the trail into Boom Lake
The scenic bridge at the beginning of the trail

I'd love to hear your favorite things to do in Kootenay National Park, Radium Hot Springs and the Columbia Valley.


  1. Amazing adventures. PlanNing a trip, just need passports for the boys!

  2. WOW! What awesome stuff you are able to do with your little ones in the cold. I wish we skiied more often so that we needed a sled like that. My almost four year old is just about ready to be on her own skiis and we only get out about once or twice a year anyway.
    Such beauty around you, that is incredible!
    Thanks so much for sharing.