History and Beauty: The Heritage Tours of the Kootenays

History and Beauty: The Heritage Tours of the Kootenays

Jan Lee's Travellin' News
Photos courtesy of BC Archives

© BC Archives, 1998
Rossland's Gold Rush, 1891. (it is a "painting, drawing or print" according to BC Archives)
Photo by Robert John Banks.
The Kootenays

A couple of years ago my family and I took a trip to the Kootenays. I had just started my book on the history of a World War I historic landmark called Shaughnessy Hospital on the other side of the province, in Vancouver. I was convinced its story epitomized the grandeur of British Columbia's heritage. Yet I had read about places in the Kootenays that had worked in concert with Shaughnessy to provide rehabilitation for Canada's returning wounded. I was fascinated by these stories; I knew they exemplified real heroism. Transporting the materials necessary to construct a medical facility adequate to the needs of the returning veteran was one thing. Caring for the veterans in these remote areas took dedication.

What I did not realize until I had visited the Kootenays, was that these obstacles were a well known matter of history. Gold prospectors had populated the area less than 50 years before. Places like Kaslo and New Denver were forged out of adversity and the optimism of a dream. These communities knew a great deal about the price of sacrifice and recovery. Although I did not have a chance to view the old convalescent homes I had read about, I came away with an even better understanding of BC's history - and the spectacular beauty of the Kootenays.

Getting to the Kootenays

To reach the Kootenays, we took Highway 1 from Vancouver east to Hope, then Highway 3 east to Grand Forks. Vancouver to Hope is 150 km/94 miles and Hope to Grand Forks is 374 km/234 miles.

Continue on Highway 3 to Crescent Valley (120 km/75 miles). There you will begin your journey through the fascinating countryside of the Silvery Slocan Heritage Tour and the North Loop. The Silvery Slocan Tour is an easy excursion through the most popular sections of this region. The North Loop is fine for travellers who are comfortable driving narrow gravel roads. If you are interested in really seeing Kootenay's back country, the North Loop is a great way to begin. Come equipped with dependable transportation and be prepared for breathtaking vistas.

© BC Archives, 1998

SS Moyie on Kootenay Lake. 1920


Nelson (21 km/13 miles from Crescent Valley) is known for its dedication to history. It has some 350 heritage sites dating back to the 1800s. Visitors can tour Nelson by trolley car, or by self-guided walking tours. Located on southwest shores of Kootenay Lake at the base of the Selkirk Mountains, Nelson offers a multitude of recreational opportunities.

Northeast of Nelson on Highway 3a, is Balfour, one of my favourite little communities. Its arid mountain air on the banks of Kootenay Lake was one of the reasons that wounded WWI veterans were cared for there. I am sure the beauty of the area was rejuvenating to the spirit as well. The Kootenay Lake ferry affords a great view of the surrounding countryside.

© BC Archives, 1998
Kaslo Stage to Sandon. 1893

Highway 31 takes you north to Kaslo. (34 km/21 miles). Kaslo is known for the SS Moyie National Historic Site, where the world's oldest intact passenger sternwheeler stands as a testament to the booming communities of the gold rush era. Many of the towns that sprouted north and west of this town have since disappeared. Kaslo itself is a shadow of the thriving community that once filled the west banks of Kootenay Lake. A quiet, picturesque town, it offers a serene stop for travellers.

From Kaslo, you have a choice to either continue west on the Silvery Slocan Tour, or to follow the North Loop. If your choice is to head north, you are in for an adventure. It is 110 km/69 miles to Trout Lake, the crest of the loop. The last 41 km/26 miles from Meadow Lake is a good gravel road that is passable in warmer weather (not recommended in ice or snow). Paved road resumes at Beaton, just north of Trout Lake.

Take a Photo Tour of Kaslo, Photos courtesy of Pennywise Paper
Kootenay Lake Region | Buchanan Lookout | Alpine-fed Lake | Kootenay Lake

There are endless possibilities for hiking and wildlife viewing in this area. The Macbeth Icefields, Horseshoe and Toby Glaciers are popular with hiking enthusiasts. The Lake of the Hanging Glaciers and Glacier Dome are on the other side of Jumbo Pass, a wonderland of beauty and rugged wilderness. From ice and stone spires to the remaining remnant of the Singing Forest, the Purcell Mountains are one of BC's last vestiges of untouched wilderness. Bear, cougar and moose can be seen (as well as Sasquatch, according to some researchers).

An entire article could be written on the beauty of the North Loop and its glacier fed rivers and lakes. It is worth the excursion, especially if you are equipped for the remote wilderness.

© BC Archives, 1998
Prospector Hiking to Gold Fields "In a Tight Corner"
1899. Photo by Stanfield
Nakusp to New Denver

At Galena Bay, the road becomes Highway 31. Nakusp, 49 km/31 miles south, offers a dip in several refreshing hotsprings. The pools are a popular year-round attraction.

Take a Photo Tour of Nakusp, Photos courtesy of Nakusp & District Chamber of Commerce
Fostal Falls | Local Boys | Alpine Meadows | The City of Nakusp

At New Denver (47 km/29 miles), the south loop takes up again, at the junction of Highways 23 and 31a (the connector from Kaslo). The town is home to the Nikkei Internment Centre, a testament to the interned Japanese-Canadians during World War II. The Silvery Slocan Museum is worth visiting as well.

The stretch between New Denver (47 km/29 miles) and Kaslo has been called the Valley of the Ghosts, after the many small communities that thrived during the gold rush. It is a name that reflects determination as much as the history of this region. In the deserted town of Sandon, visitors can wander the streets and capture a sense of what it was like for BC's pioneers.

Slocan, (32 km/20 miles) "BC's Shangri-La", is a fitting place to wind up this tour of some of BC's most captivating hideaways. The Kootenay region still remains one of BC's more remote wonderlands, and one of its richest testaments to history and personal determination.

A note of thanks to Beth Weathers, Kaslo Information Centre and Rachel Walmsley, Nakusp District and Chamber of Commerce.

Special credit to Beth Weathers for assisting with the research on the North Loop.


Information Contacts
Tourism BC
(general information) 800-661-6603
Nelson Chamber of Commerce
Kaslo Information Centre
Nakusp District & Chamber of Commerce

Copyright Jan Lee

Jan Lee        jnlee@sfu.ca

Be sure to read other articles by Jan Lee in the BC Adventure Network

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History and Beauty: The Heritage Tours of the Kootenays