Monday, June 26, 2023

Rafting the Kootenay River in Radium Hot Springs

We love camping in the Columbia Valley where options for summer fun are endless! Last summer we tried a brand new-to-us adventure with a full day rafting tour on the Kootenay River out of Radium Hot Springs. Our wilderness tour included a second breakfast mid morning, a riverside lunch, and a visit to the incredible Pedley Falls. We had a fantastic experience on our family-friendly full day expedition.

Rafting the Kootenay River is a fabulous wilderness experience

Thrilling Rafting Adventures in the Columbia Valley

Last summer we spent a day on the Kootenay River with Kootenay River Runners out of Radium Hot Springs. We chose the full day tour because it had been a longtime dream of mine to see the incredible Pedley Falls, a beautiful backcountry waterfall only accessible from the river, and so remote many people choose to do overnight trips to visit the site.

Kootenay River Runners runs half and full day adventures on the Kootenay River (near Radium Hot Springs,) Toby Creek (near Invermere,) and the Kicking Horse River (near Golden.) 

Toby Creek is the ideal choice for a "quick and wet" 2-hour rafting tour that won't take up the whole day. Kids must be 8+, and this is a white water trip with class 1-III rapids.

The Kicking Horse River is the ultimate "adventure river" for those wanting a more "extreme" white water experience. Youth must be 12+ for this one, and you'll enjoy prolonged sections of class III and IV rapids in a four hour trip. - Save this one for a warm day because you will be drenched!

The Kootenay River offers more of a "wilderness" adventure for those wanting to enjoy the scenery more than a wild whitewater experience. You'll still get thoroughly wet on this class II-III whitewater trip, but you likely won't have to worry about being tossed out of the raft at any time.

The Kootenay River tours are open to kids as young as 5+, and you can choose from the 5 hour half day trip all the way up to the full 8+ hour full day "expedition" that my family enjoyed.

Rafting tours are great for families and groups of friends traveling together

Classic Half Day Tours on the Kootenay River

Both half and full day tours begin at 9am in the Village of Radium Hot Springs. From the Kootenay River Runners office, you board a school bus and head out together to the boat launch site near Nipika Mountain Resort just outside Kootenay National Park. The bus ride to the boat launch took at least 45 minutes so bring a travel mug full of coffee for the ride if you're not a morning person! 

Both half and full day clients enjoy the morning together on the river for a relaxed sightseeing float and a mid-morning breakfast stop with fresh cinnamon buns, coffee, and snacks. The morning rapids are tame and you shouldn't get wet on this part of the trip (which is good if it's a cool morning!)

The half day tour is listed as a 5+ hour trip which includes the driving time to and from the river. Expect to be on the river for at least 2 hours.

We started out with a group of families who were only participating in the half day tour. At noon, we pulled over on the river next to a logging road to find the next group waiting to join us for the extended half day tour. The bus swapped out clients, our new friends jumped in the rafts, and off we continued for the rest of our tour.

The classic half day tour is ideal for groups who:

  • Want to enjoy a short rafting float trip rather than a wild full day expedition

  • Don't want to get wet or are scared of class III rapids

  • Have younger children with short attention spans

  • Are short on time and can't commit to a full day tour

  • Want a "taste" of rafting before signing up for a bigger trip that might prove to be too much for younger children

Our morning crew ready to hit the water

Extended Half Day Tours on the Kootenay River

Skip the morning "sightseeing gentle float" and jump straight into the action with the larger class III waves on this tour. Sleep in a bit longer, and enjoy a more relaxed start to your day.

This tour starts at 11am at the Radium Hot Springs office. You board the bus, and arrive at the river around noon to meet the rafts from the morning half day tour.

The extended half day tour includes a riverside lunch around 1:00pm, takes you through sections of class II and III rapids, and visits the gorgeous Pedley Falls.

This tour is 6+ hours in length depending on the season. Our trip didn't finish until 7:00pm in Radium because it was late summer and the river was flowing at a slower speed. For a faster float trip, book your rafting adventure earlier in the summer.

Group shot in front of Pedley Falls

Full Day "Expeditions" on the Kootenay River 

Combine the two tours above and you have the full day 45 km, 8+ hour river expedition. When we did our tour last August, our trip was 10 hours in length, beginning to end, and we were exhausted by the time we got back to Radium Hot Springs.

Book this tour if you're heading out in July to early August. I'm told that the river flows much faster for a total trip time that's 2 - 2.5 hours shorter! 

Otherwise, if you're not sure about spending a full day on this adventure, inquire about the extended half day tour.

Note the extended half day tour does not operate daily, so inquire directly with the company with lots of advance notice if you want to choose this option. You may have to be flexible with your choice of date as well.

The incredible backcountry Pedley Falls on the Kootenay River

What to Expect during your Rafting Adventure 

As already mentioned in previous paragraphs, you'll receive a second breakfast and a lunch break on the full day tour. The half day tour includes the breakfast/snack break and you should be back in Radium for a late lunch.

The extended half day tour includes lunch because you join the group beside the river at noon.

What happens to my personal gear on the river?

Bring a backpack or two with your personal family gear for the day (which will include items you want on the bus.) When you arrive at the river, your backpack(s) will be placed in a large bin, stored on the bus, and made available to you again when you board the bus at the end of your trip.

Items that should go in your backpack (not on the river) include your keys, phone, wallet, anything you don't want to lose in the river, snacks for the ride home, towels, water bottles for the ride home, books or entertainment items for the kids, and then anything you needed on the way to the river such as your coffee mug.

What do I do if I have to go to the bathroom?

Use the bathrooms before you get on the bus!! Then, take the opportunity to go to the bathroom again before getting into your raft. There is an outhouse beside the boat launch.

After that, your opportunities include the morning breakfast break, the lunch break, and the final take out spot where there are outhouses situated at each location.

Children should be able to go at least an hour without bathroom facilities available while in the boats. In an emergency I'm sure the guides could pull over to the side of the river, but it wouldn't be ideal.

If you have a small  bladder, be careful about how much liquid you consume before you get on the river or during each break!

Kootenay River Runners Transportation for the day

How to Dress for Your Rafting Day

When you reach the river, you'll be provided with a splash suit (rain pants and a rain jacket) on cooler weather days - Personally I'd say to never refuse these items (especially for the full day tour!) Even on a hot day, you can get pretty chilled when you're wet for hours.

Small children (typically those 8 & under depending on size) are also provided wetsuits.

The company also provides neoprene river booties to keep your feet warm.

The company suggests you come dressed according to the weather.  
"On hot days we recommend wearing a t-shirt or tank and shorts; quick-dry athletic material is best.  Avoid heavy cotton, such as denim.  Children wearing wetsuits are typically most comfortable in a swimsuit.  On cooler days we still recommend shorts (worn under our splash pants) and a T-shirt or long-sleeve shirt.  A fleece jacket is also great to keep you warm under the splash jacket."

I'd also add: imagine getting freezing cold buckets of water thrown at you all day. Dress for that! 

You'll be wet! Dress in comfortable quick drying clothing

Other personal suggestions: 

  • Bring your own rain jacket if you have a favourite that fits you well. I found my splash suit jacket to be a little large for me. 

  • For youth, you may want to bring their own rain pants and rain coats because the splash gear is adult sized. Older youth will fit the jackets but not the pants.

    Of course if you don't have high quality rain gear for your family, you'll definitely appreciate the clothing provided by the tour company. 

  • Everybody is different, but if you're one of those "always cold" people, you'll want to bring extra layers for sure. This could include a pair of light gloves, a warm fleece sweater to wear under your rain jacket, or even a pair of wool socks for extra warmth inside the booties.

  • You’ll be wearing a helmet all day but you can wear a hat underneath. I recommend a hat with a good brim or else sunglasses. Wear a bandana if you want something else under the helmet for comfort or warmth.
Splash suits and all gear are provided

What to Bring for your Rafting Adventure

Helmets and PFDs are provided for your tour. Both must be worn the entire time you are on the river.

With your tour you also get free photos! Leave your personal camera behind. Each guide is equipped with a waterproof camera and they take photos during the entire tour. They take individual photos of each family group as well as action photos during the trip. 

Other items I recommend bringing to make your day more comfortable:
  • Bring coffee in a travel mug for the morning bus ride. You could also bring breakfast items to eat on the bus if you suspect it'll be a struggle to get your family to the office in time. (9am is early when you're tent camping.)

  • There is an AM snack break and a lunch break. If you want extra water to drink, bring bottles that can be attached to the centre rope in the boat. 

  • Bring any extra snacks/drinks that your children would enjoy at the snack/lunch breaks. Hot water is provided along with coffee and hot chocolate. If you don't drink either, consider bringing packets of apple cider, tea, or decaf. coffee.

    If you require extra items to come along for the breaks, give them to your guide and he/she will put them in the raft's dry bag. - I should stress "need" though because honestly, there was plenty of food at each break. You won't go hungry. I just know some kids are "particular" about their snacks. And I have a child who doesn't drink hot chocolate.

  • Bring snacks for the bus rides. We didn't get back to town until almost 7:00pm and were definitely getting hungry. You may want to bring lunch items as well if you're joining on an extended half day tour because you'll be on the river for an hour before the riverside lunch break. 

    And if you're just doing a morning half day tour, you'll likely want snacks to eat on your way back to town because lunch will definitely be late!

  • Bring dry clothing for the bus ride back home. It took us an hour to get back from Radium and it was uncomfortable riding back wet.

    There are no change rooms at the end of the river so I also recommend bringing a large towel or two to help with removing at least one or two wet items. 

  • Bring books or entertainment for the bus ride to/from the river. Kids will likely get bored on the hour-long ride each way.

  • Bring a change of clothes in your vehicle if you want to eat out after the full day or extended half day tour. It’s a long day. You won’t want to cook!!

And don't forget to bring your sense of adventure and fun!

Other Suggestions for Enjoying your Rafting Day

  1. Thrill seekers will want to sit at the front of the boat. If you'd call yourself more "timid," you don't want to get as wet, or you're nervous in white water, sit in the middle or near the back. People in front get the most wet!

  2. Your bags will not go on the boat so whatever you think you’ll need has to be on you in the boat. Either wear it, or give it to your guide to put in the raft dry bag.

  3. If you have kids that suffer from a short attention span, consider a half day morning tour or request a high energy guide. We had an extremely energetic guide and that was the only reason my 13-year old survived our long 10 hour day.

    Alternately the extended half day tour could be a good option for families with school aged children.

  4. Prepare sensitive children in advance that sometimes there are intentional water fights between boats. Guides will often use this as a form of entertainment during calm stretches of water in the afternoon portion of the tour. If this will be a problem for your child, warn your guide in advance or choose an AM half day tour which is much calmer. 

  5. Pack swim suits for the hot springs and plan a dinner + soak after your tour. 

  6. Don't forget to tip your guides at the end of the day. It's easiest to bring cash for this (which you'd leave locked in your vehicle or in your bag that's stored on the bus all day.)

  7. You can purchase souvenirs at the beginning or end of your tour if you want. The office accepts credit cards for this.

Pedley Falls on the Kootenay River 

More Information...

Read more about tours provided by Kootenay River Runners on their website where you'll find information on pricing, how to book your tour, and answers to any other questions you might have.

And if you're camping or staying near Fairmont Hot Springs, the resort can book rafting tours for you. Visit the Fairmont hot Springs Resort website for more information.

Wilderness Rafting Tour on the Kootenay River

Only an aerial photo can truly capture how incredible Pedley Falls are!

Other Recommended Reading

Read: The Best of the Columbia Valley (Radium Hot Springs to Invermere - and beyond)

Disclaimer: Our hosted tour was booked in partnership between the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort and Kootenay River Runners.

All opinions are my own.

Most photos in this story were provided by the Kootenay River Runners office and by our guides on the river.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

First Summits - Opal Ridge South Summit, Kananaskis

Opal Ridge is a great spring hike in Kananaskis when the hillside is a vibrant shade of green and hopefully it's not too hot yet. Strong hikers will find no technical difficulties with this outing, and the ridge walk is very enjoyable as you traverse to the south summit.

The Opal Ridge hike is a spring favourite in Kananaskis

My route below assumes you will return the same way upon reaching the south summit. A loop can be made, but it requires a car shuttle unless you want to end your day walking back along the highway. It also requires more scrambling and route finding. In my opinion, it is much easier (and more pleasant) to return via the approach path.

You'll find gorgeous views on the Opal Ridge South Summit

Stats for the Hike 

Distance:  8 km return to the South Summit of Opal Ridge

Height gain: 1000 metres

You'll want to work up to this one, starting with other easier spring summits such as Prairie Mountain, Ha Ling Peak, Sulphur Mt, or Yates Mountain.

See the Resources at the end of this guide for suggestions.

Time it took us to complete the return hike: It took us 6.5 hours with three youth ages 12-14.

Note we got caught in a rain storm and had to take shelter for ~ 45 minutes so I expect we could have done the trip in 5.5 hours round trip.

Best time to do this hike: Wait until late May or early June to make sure the snow has melted from the trail. 

Easy hiking across Opal Ridge after a steep climb to reach the ridge

Rating: This is a difficult hike. There's a fairly decent trail the whole time and there is very minimal loose rock or scree other than in the gully where I found the rock to be relatively stable. There is no exposure on the route.

There is some easy scrambling where you'll have to use your hands for brief sections as you climb up short cliff bands and slabs  before reaching the ridge. There are lots of photos below if you want to determine whether this hike is a "fit" for your group or not.

You will be gaining 1000 metres in 4 km, so it's mostly just a very very steep hike! Expect sore legs the next day if you haven't trained for this one.

The optional loop descent via Grizzly Creek would upgrade to more of an actual scramble. And I do not recommend even thinking about the north summit of Opal Ridge as a family outing (which is an entirely different peak, and much more committing)

All Trails Link - Opal Ridge South on All Trails 

Note to download the map, you'll need to have a premium paid subscription. I find it to be worthwhile, even just so I can see how far I am from the summit every time somebody asks "how much further?" 

I also like to download the map so that I know where to park.

This is not an official trail, and so you will not find signs, route markers, or even an official trailhead. Having a downloaded map is therefore quite comforting.

Best Guide Book: Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 1, Gillean Daffern - Amazon affiliate link 

Note this is a brand NEW edition of Gillean's popular trail guide.

Opal Ridge is one of the prettiest spring hikes in Kananaskis 

Finding the Trailhead 

You'll be parking at the Fortress Gas Station on Highway 40. There is a large parking lot behind the service centre on the north side, and the trail starts behind the parking lot as you climb up the hillside towards a powerline access road.

Here's where I love having a downloaded map because I can follow my little blue dot up the trail, knowing I'm on route. It doesn't work so well when you get into technical scrambling terrain, but it's very effective when you want to make sure you leave the powerline access road at the correct place!

You'll start hiking up this easy-to-follow dirt trail through the trees

Trudging up the Lower Slopes of Opal Ridge

Head up the hillside behind the parking area to a powerline access road. Turn left on the access road. Hike for half a kilometre at most and watch carefully for a good trail heading off to the right. This is the trail up Opal Ridge.

It'll start climbing steeply so if you're not climbing, you've missed something.

Easy cliff bands and rock sections on the Opal Ridge hike

Once you're on the Opal Ridge Trail, you'll be on an easy-to-follow path that climbs very steeply up the hillside. There are a few short cliff bands to pick your way through where you'll find grippy rock and slabs. There is nothing exposed or technical, but you may have to use your hands a bit for these sections.

Leaving the trees behind, you cross beautiful meadows

Easy scrambling to reach the  ridge

The slabs are grippy and easy to climb up

You'll hike 0.5 km to reach the Opal Ridge Trail from the parking lot. After that, you'll hike another 2 km up the hillside to reach the ridge (which includes the section below climbing through the gates.)

Most youth will find the easy scrambling to be very fun!

The slabs were a lot of fun to climb up (and fairly easy to come down again later)

Through the "Gates" and up the Gully to the Ridge 

Leaving the cliff bands and scrambly bits behind, you'll look up, and get your first look at the final ascent to the ridge top.

From below, it looks like there is no easy way to reach the ridge, but I assure you it's quite easy to make your way up a gully through the "gates" that appear to block the ridge from easy access.

Looking up at the giant rock gates that appear to block the way to the ridge

Looking up at the short gully that takes you to the summit ridge

While it looks intimidating, you'll just be hiking up the steep grassy slopes, climbing up a short gully between large rock pillars, and then traversing across a stable scree path to the summit ridge.

The final traverse to the summit ridge

Easy Hiking along the Summit Ridge

Once you reach the ridge, it's another 1.5 km of easy ridge walking (with one final steep climb at the end) to reach the south summit.

Hiking along the top of Opal Ridge to the south summit

Take your time here, relax, and enjoy the views. The ridge is never narrow or exposed leading up to the south summit.

The south summit is in sight here

The final rocky ascent to the south summit

Reaching the South Summit of Opal Ridge

Enjoy the views, sign the pink summit register (if you open up the box there should be a notebook and pencil inside,) have a bite to eat, and then prepare yourself for the 1000-metre descent back down!

Lunch break at the south summit of Opal Ridge

Another family summit checked off

Back Down the Way You Came

Turn around and reverse your steps up. The gully is easy to hike down, and the rock steps/cliff bands are generally easy with the occasional hand placement.

You'll start hiking back along the ridge. Watch carefully for the spot you came up!

Hiking back down the ridge

Nearing the traverse to the gully

In the photo above, you can see the faint trail through the scree that traverses just below the ridge top. It then takes you to the top of the gully. 

The photos below give you a good luck at the gully that you'll descend between the large rocks. It looks worse than it is. In reality, the rock was quite firm, nothing was overly loose, and it's just a short very steep section until you reach the grassy plateau below.

Climbing down the rocky gully to the slopes below

It looks worse than it is

Reaching the bottom of the gully you cross a beautiful plateau as shown in the photos below. I was able to take more photos on the way down because it's easier to breathe when descending and I could actually keep up to the kids.

Hiking down the Opal Ridge trail

Gorgeous views on the Opal Ridge Hike

Below the grassy plateau you have to tackle the baby cliff bands again but they're generally easy to downclimb. Just used your hands and squat low as needed. 

There is also one steep section with moderately loose rock (See photos below.) Hiking poles helped a lot here! 

Downclimbing a steep section on the Opal Ridge hike

Looking back up at the summit (far right)

Baby cliff bands and rocky sections on the descent

Recommended Gear and Safety Tips 

This is not a beginner hike and children should have previous scrambling experience on steep terrain and loose rock. The youth we hiked with were very experienced and found the hike within their abilities. 

Check the weather report carefully before you go and watch the skies while hiking. I wouldn't want to be caught near the summit on this mountain in a storm. We had to hide out from a storm on our way up but were able to wait it out in the trees before climbing higher.

Bring light gloves for the descent. They'll protect your hands if you fall and you may appreciate them if you need to use your hands at all on the cliff bands. Bike gloves work well for this.

We didn't feel that helmets were necessary for this hike because there was no rock fall danger from above us, but they could be appreciated if somebody took a tumble! 

Long pants are always a good call when scrambling. If you slip on loose rock, you'll be happier if you have a layer of clothing between your skin and the rock.

If you're not sure your children are ready for this hike, try it solo without them first. We do a lot of hikes on our own before bringing our son. 

Finally, this hike would not be the best choice for a hot summer day. There is no shade on the upper slopes and you're far from any water source.

Pants will save your legs if you take a tumble on terrain like this

Additional Resources and Reading 

Read my full  "First Summits" Guide here:

This guide is updated annually with all new summits, scrambles, and difficult hikes that we complete.