My eyes seized on the distinctive hump and seesawing shoulders of a grizzly bear as it lumbered through the pine trees. I was entranced by the sheer size of the creature, the power in each razor-clawed stomp. Luckily, I spotted the bear from the safety of my gondola seat as I swung up the eastern slope of Canada’s Purcell Mountains. The animal in question is known as Boo, the solitary resident of a grizzly bear refuge at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, British Columbia. By Chloe Berge
This small town is the first stop on a road trip along a route known as Canada’s Golden Triangle, a mountainous area in the Kootenay Rockies. While most travellers make a beeline for neighbouring Banff National Park in Alberta, visitors here often have turquoise lakes and glacial rivers to themselves. In comparison to the approximately four million visitors that descended on Banff National Park pre-pandemic in 2019, Kootenay National Park only saw around 500,000.
At a time when over-tourism in national parks is an issue, and many people are still seeking experiences away from the crowds, this road trip offers an antidote to overrun outdoor destinations.
Getting a Bird’s-eye View
After exploring the trails along the top of the resort, cast against the blue Purcell Mountains on one side and the Rockies on the other — there’s a via Ferrata along the way, too — my husband and I quenched our thirst with a flight of craft beer at Whitetooth Brewing Co. We needed the bit of liquid courage for what was next: a wobbly walk across Canada’s highest suspension bridge.
The 426-foot-high Golden Skybridge is strung across a gaping canyon in the Columbia Valley over a churning river and 200-foot waterfall. The striking views of the surrounding mountains were a welcome distraction as I tried to keep my focus off the drop beneath me. On the other side, a leafy trail brought us down to a second, lower bridge. Then, we headed to our Cedar House Chalet cabin, where we shook off the adrenaline in an outdoor hot tub with soothing forest views. Boutique mountain lodge company Basecamp also just opened an outpost in Golden, on the banks of the Kicking Horse River, known for its whitewater rafting.
Paddling rivers and soaking in hot springs in Canada’s golden triangle
After a 1.5-hour drive south to the town of Radium Hot Springs, we got the chance to paddle some rapids. The town offered a warm welcome with natural hot springs. But be warned: The pools get busy, so arrive early or tackle the bumpy dirt road to the more remote rock pools at Lussier Hot Springs in a 4×4 vehicle. We drove another 30 minutes outside of town, down an old logging road where our cell service dropped. A digital detox is part of the experience at secluded Nipika Mountain Resort, a family-run eco-resort that operates on solar power. We settled in easily with a bottle of red wine and a game of Scrabble in front of the flickering wood-burning stove.
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There’s something undeniably special about this place that owner and river guide Lyle Wilson articulated well the next morning. “‘Nipika’ means spirit or soul in the Ktunaxa Nation language,” he bellowed from his inflatable canoe ahead of us.
My husband and I navigated the swirling eddies and frothing rapids of the glacial, milky-blue Kootenay River in our own canoe a short distance behind him. Wilson motioned across the shadowy spruce forest hugging the river, where grizzly bears and moose are often spotted. “When we arrived here, I understood why,” said Wilson. It felt like a wilderness paradise that only I knew about, and we remained the only ones on the river that day.
Trekking into the backcountry
Our trip only got more remote from here, as we packed up our cosy cabin on the edge of Kootenay National Park and ventured into the parkland to tackle the multiday Rockwall Trail. We left our car at the Floe Lake trailhead and hitched a ride to the Paint Pots Ttailhead with Playwest Mountain Experience, a tour company that offers guided hikes along the trail. “Be safe and have fun,” said Playwest owner Chris Skinner from his truck window as he peeled away. We were on our own this time.
Over four days, the 34-mile (54.7 km) trek took us across three alpine passes, under the shadow of sharp-toothed mountains and hanging glaciers, and through wildflower meadows. Unlike the bear refuge in Golden, the chance of encountering a grizzly here was very real. “There’s a mama with two cubs up ahead on the trail,” warned a couple we crossed paths with one morning. We kept our bear spray ready and sung our best acoustic version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” to alert the animals that we were nearby.
The slight trepidation was worth it. Some of the most beautiful alpine scenery I’ve ever witnessed unravelled before us each day. We met other hikers at the forested, riverside campgrounds in the evenings, but had the trail to ourselves most of the day — a rarity in the Rockies. On the third day, Floe Lake glittered like a sapphire in the distance and we plodded down the mountain for our final night. (Hikers can also make Floe Lake a day trip by hiking out and back from the Floe Lake trailhead.)
Kicking back and chasing waterfalls through Canada’s golden triangle
Our car was a comforting sight the next morning, and we gave our tired feet some rest on the 45-minute drive back up north to Yoho National Park. There, we checked into Cathedral Mountain Lodge, home to luxury log cabins nestled in the woods against the backdrop of Cathedral Mountain’s snow-veined peaks. A central lounge and dining room framed the Kicking Horse River, warmed by polished fir wood, handwoven carpets, and a river rock fireplace.
Myriad trails carved through Yoho National Park, including two easygoing paths that ended at impressive waterfalls. At Takakkaw Falls, one of Canada’s tallest waterfalls, we heard its roar before we laid eyes on the thundering bolt of water. The next day, a three-mile (4.8 km) stroll brought us under the cheek-prickling spray of Wapta Falls.
But after a week of adventure, it was the slow, peaceful moments that we savoured most on this last stop. We sunk into red Adirondack chairs on the lodge’s sandy riverbank at sunset and watched as the mountains turned to flame. The road could wait.
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