Thursday, September 12, 2013

Exploring the Columbia Valley Wetlands - By Boat, Bike, and Hike

It's always nice to plan an trip around a theme or central focal point, so for the September long weekend this year we set off to see how many different ways we could explore the Columbia Valley.  More specifically, we wanted to explore a section of our continent's longest continuous wetlands that stretch from the mouth of  Columbia Lake in Canal Flats to the small town of Donald on the Columbia River, some 194km away.

Paddling on the Columbia River

Located in our neighboring province of British Columbia, Radium Hotsprings is often our base camp for weekend adventures in the Columbia Valley.  We visit the valley a few times every year and find the 3 hour drive from Calgary to be very agreeable.  We usually stay in a friend's condo but decided we would camp at Redstreak Campground this year with a couple of other families. 

Camping at Redstreak Campground in Radium Hotsprings

We loved the campground and are already planning to return for a full week next summer. In a nutshell, we camped in the E loop with full power AND playground, we had free hot showers that were the best I've ever found in a campground (located right in our loop), and there were walking/biking paths everywhere.  The campground was close to the hot springs and trails took you into town for short hikes that we'll have to check out next summer when we have more time.  There was very little not to like about Redstreak.  (lengthy check in process aside!)

Scenery around the Town of Radium Hotsprings and Columbia River (Photo:  J. Sollid)
Swimming in the pool at the hotsprings (Photo:  G. Duncan)
Evening at the Hotsprings (Photo:  G. Duncan)

We didn't have time to explore the entire Columbia Valley Wetlands over the weekend but we managed to paddle a 16km stretch of the Columbia River, bike 9km on the Old Coach Trail, and climb Mt. Swansea for a bird's eye view of the valley.

Looking down on the Town of Invermere and Lake Windermere from Mt. Swansea


We paddled a very gentle section of the Columbia River between the towns of Invermere and Radium Hotsprings, at times wondering if we were really on a river.  It took us approximately 4 hours to paddle the 16km length of river using two stand up paddleboards, two canoes, and two kayaks.  Nobody can accuse our group of not being diverse in our assortment of vessels! 

Paddling through the Columbia Valley Wetlands
An awesome way to explore the wetlands!
Bald Eagle we saw on our paddle

This is a great paddling trip for novice paddlers with slow moving water and many sand bars to pull over at.  We had 4 children under the age of five with us and never once felt a minute of fear that our boats would tip or that our kids were in danger.  

Our son loves riding in the front of our kayak.
You know it's a gentle river when you can SUP it with a 4 year old!

Where to put in:  As you drive into the town of Invermere, you will cross the river as it flows out of Lake Windermere.  You'll be on Athalmer Road.  There is a gravel parking lot right beside the bridge and this is where you put in.  If you need to rent a canoe, kayak, or even a stand up paddleboard, try the Columbia River Outfitters located at the end of the lake.  Renting from them is super easy and there's no car shuttle required to get to the put in spot.  Paddle under the bridge and you are on your way!  They will shuttle you back as well for an additional fee.  Doesn't get any easier than that.  And if you have your heart set on SUPing the river make sure you reserve your board early.  Columbia River Outfitters has a very small supply.  Fortunately, Syndicate Board Shop down the road also rents SUPs and I'm told will shuttle you back as well.  

Classic Canoeing Experience through the Wetlands
Family paddling on the Columbia River
Love the clouds in this shot!

Where to take out:  In the town of Radium, you'll go through the traffic light on Foresters Landing Road (away from the town) and drive past the lumber mill.  Park beside the first bridge you come to over the Columbia River. There's a small gravel parking lot beside the bridge. 

Follow this link to a good tour map including sites along the way and notes on the river compiled by the folks at Columbia River Outfitters. 

The kids had a blast playing in mud at the take out spot in Radium
We created  a mud slide for the kids and they had so much fun!!


We couldn't go away for the weekend and not take our bikes.   Noah would have been incredibly disappointed to go three whole days without riding his bike.  (bordering on unlivable to be around)
And while we've spent a LOT of time in the Columbia Valley, we've never toured it by bike before.  One trail has always stuck out to me though and it was the Old Coach Trail.  I've long been intrigued by this 9km trail connecting the communities of Dry Gulch and Radium Hotsprings and wondered how hard it would  be for a child to bike.  Only one way to find out. 

Biking on the Old Coach Trail

We decided to start at the Dry Gulch side hoping that it would be more downhill, and ride to Radium.  My husband would run alongside Noah (he likes running) and would then ride my bike back for the truck at the end.  Meanwhile, Noah and I would head into Radium for coffee and cinnamon buns.  Sounded like a great plan to me, and honestly I fully expected the trail to be generally flat, level, and smooth.  

An easy section of the trail (if only it were all like this!)

We followed an old bumpy road high above the same wetlands that we'd paddled and while it was a beautiful bike ride, it wasn't exactly an easy ride.  There were a few hills that Noah and I both had to walk  and there was a ginormous hill that lead back up to the highway at the very end.  I'm not sure how long it went on for but it was a loooong walk pushing bikes.  And it was steep enough that we would have both been walking down the hill too in the reverse direction.  I'm not entirely sure if the trail was more down hill in our direction.  For every hill we went up, there was another that went down (good news if you plan to do the full 18km return trip.)

Looking down on the same wetlands we paddled earlier

We may wait a few years before doing a repeat ride of the Old Coach Trail but I'm glad we tried it.  As I said, it was very beautiful, and it was nice to see the wetlands from a different vantage point.


The final way we chose to view the Columbia Valley Wetlands was from the top of a mountain on nearby Mt. Swansea.  This is the most family-friendly summit you will find in the valley and mountain climbing does not get much easier than this!  The total distance to reach the summit is 500m.  And the height gain - a whopping 100m.  That's it.  Only in British Columbia can you drive to the top of a mountain!

Standing on top of Mt. Swansea with Lake Windermere below us

You start by turning left on the Windermere Loop Road (heading south from the town of Invermere towards Fairmont) and turn right onto the Westroc Mine Rd.  From there you have two options.  Park at the lower parking lot and hike to the top, gaining close to 800m of elevation gain, or drive to the upper parking lot for a short 15 minute hike.  I know which one I choose with kids.

Beautiful summit with incredible views over the whole Columbia Valley

Be warned that the road to the upper parking lot is very steep and rough and I advise taking a 4x4 vehicle with mid to high clearance.  While I have seen cars make their way up (and do fine), the road is pretty bumpy and does a good job at shaking you up.  

Easy Hiking to the Summit from the Upper Parking Lot

A glimpse at the hiking trail we took on our way down

For a good map of the trail and driving instructions, follow this link to the Mt. Swansea Biking and Hiking Trails.  And yes, there are a LOT of mountain bike trails on Mt. Swansea as well.  The fact that body armour is recommended on all trails means I will likely NOT be biking here anytime soon. 

Looking down over the Columbia Valley and the start of our paddle the day before

From the top of Mt. Swansea, we had fabulous views down over the entire Columbia Valley Wetlands, river, and town of Invermere.  You'll find picnic tables and benches on top and even a pit toilet.  Mountain tops don't get much more comfortable than this.

Lunch with a view on top of Mt. Swansea

It was a fabulous weekend and one of those - I can't believe it's over!  We hardly had time to do anything!
There were so many more hikes we wanted to do, other bike rides we wanted to try, and paths around the campground we didn't get time to check out.  We'd also like to try some different stretches of the river now that I've done this same section twice.  We may consider doing it earlier in the season though and see if the water moves a tad faster. (let me know if you've done it in June or July and what you suggest!)

Our kids all LOVED the Columbia Valley!

Have you visited the Columbia Valley as a family before?  What are your favourite things to do in the valley?

"Serengeti of the North" - The Columbia Valley Wetlands - See more at:


  1. Wow, what the amazing experience narrated beautifully with glorious pictures... Indeed, i love your tour...