Thursday, November 26

What to Do in Kootenay National Park in Winter

Kootenay National Park, located in southeast British Columbia, is one of four national parks that make up the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. When you drive Highway 93 – the only major highway through the park you get the feeling that much of the park remains untrampled and unexplored. Steep mountains, waterfalls galore, canyons, beautiful rivers and even a hot spring are all here waiting to be discovered.

Kootenay National Park is a popular destination in summer with several world-class hiking trails including the challenging but beautiful multi-day Rockwall Trail. In winter, when driving can be treacherous, there are fewer things to do, largely because access to many trails is through avalanche-prone country, but what is available to the visitor is outstanding.

Getting into Kootenay National Park 

The one main highway running through this narrow park can be a gnarly drive in winter. I’ve done it by myself many times and save for the odd truck, I’ve felt like I’ve had the park to myself. Always go very prepared for winter driving conditions.

The northern end of the park starts at the British Columbia – Alberta border, a short distance south of Castle Junction, accessed from the Trans-Canada Highway. It travels for approximately 90 km to reach the southern entrance just beyond Radium Hot Springs.

There are no services on this stretch of highway so fill up your gas tank before you head out. You won’t find any places to stay in the park in winter either. (There is camping in the summer.) At the end of the post I offer a couple of ideas of where to stay to easily access the park.

The colourful southern entrance to Kootenay National Park
The colourful southern entrance to Kootenay National Park
Pretty southern entrance to Kootenay National Park
Pretty southern entrance to Kootenay National Park
The drive through Kootenay National Park in winter is beautiful but it can be treacherous
The drive through Kootenay National Park in winter is beautiful but it can be treacherous

This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

Visit Marble Canyon in winter

Marble Canyon is approximately 18 km south of the Trans-Canada Highway, on the northwest side of Highway 93 after the turnoff to the Stanley Glacier. It’s worth a stop at any time of the year though in winter, the 1.9 km return hike is especially beautiful because of all the snow formations in the canyon. 

There’s little elevation gain on the Marble Canyon hike – perhaps 30 metres in total, so it’s an easy and family-friendly outing. However, in winter when the snow is deep, you are often walking just below or above the level of the protective fencing. Use extreme caution and always hold your kid’s hands when you’re near any kind of drop-off.

Marble Canyon is located at the confluence of Tokumm Creek with the Vermilion River. As you hike up the canyon, peer down into Tokumm Creek, to marvel at what the water has carved over the millennia. There are a couple of bridges over the canyon to allow you to hike a few short loops. Do them and enjoy the dramatic views into the canyon.

A scenic stop near Marble Canton in Kootenay National Park
A scenic stop near Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park on a sunny day
The start of the short hike into Marble Canyon
Almost the same spot on a cloudy day
Kootenay National Park get a lot of snow in winter
Kootenay National Park get a lot of snow in winter
Marble Canyon, Kootenay National Park
Exercise extreme caution in winter as snow levels are higher than fences in places
Looking down into Marble Canyon
Looking down into Marble Canyon

Go cross-country skiing in Chickadee Valley

You only need a half day to explore Chickadee Valley on cross-country skis. If you hit a bluebird day, it will be a memorable outing with awe-inspiring mountain scenery for most of its length. Don’t go too early in the season as you need good snow cover over the creek bed. 

For a full description of the route – that starts across the road from the Continental Divide sign read Skiing Chickadee Valley in Kootenay National Park

Exceptionally pretty cross-country skiing on the Chickadee Valley tour
Exceptionally pretty cross-country skiing on the Chickadee Valley tour
Be prepared to break trail after a fresh snowfall
Be prepared to break trail after a fresh snowfall
Our turn around point was just up from here
Our turn around point was just up from here

Other ideas for cross-country skiing in Kootenay National Park

I haven’t done any other cross-country skiing in the park YET but offer a few more suggestions. A topographical map – Gem Trek’s Kootenay National Park – would be very useful to get your bearings.

  • Stanley Glacier Valley – 10 km, 4 hours return but there are some large avalanche chutes
  • Tokumm Creek – 28 km return to the Kaufmann Lake junction – but again avalanche danger
  • Dolly Varden – 22 km return with 100 m of elevation gain – easy
  • Hector Gorge – easy 22 km return – with the option to shorten it
  • West Kootenay Trail – 13 km one-way with only 40 m of elevation gain; takes you to the park boundary
  • Simpson River – an easy 8 km one-way trail with 120 m of elevation gain 
  • East Kootenay – an easy flat trail that you can take for 8.4 km one way

Hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski the Dog Lake Trail

The 6.9 km return trip to Dog Lake is particularly suited to snowshoeing. The trailhead can be found near the McLeod Meadows campground, 26.5 km north of the south entrance to Kootenay National Park.

The trail is well-signed. Follow it across two suspension bridges, up through a forest of white spruce and lodgepole pine and then down to the north shore of Dog Lake. All told the elevation gain is an easy 195 m.

We snowshoed along the shore for some distance and enjoyed lunch with a view over to the Mitchell Range. There is the option to lengthen your snowshoe outing with a visit to another small, marshy lake 1.2 km away to the north. That will put you on the East Kootenay Trail. To return, you can either retrace your steps to Dog Lake or snowshoe southeast on the East Kootenay Trail to the junction you previously passed that took you down to Dog Lake. (It sounds more confusing than it is.)

Heading towards the first suspension bridge over the Kootenay River
Heading towards the first suspension bridge over the Kootenay River
The Dog Lake Trail starts in the forest
The Dog Lake Trail after crossing the two suspension bridges 
The Kootenay River is a gorgeous colour
The Kootenay River is a gorgeous colour
We have the Dog Lake trail to ourselves on a weekday morning
We have the Dog Lake trail to ourselves on a weekday morning
Easy snowshoeing along the shore of Dog Lake
Easy snowshoeing along the shore of Dog Lake
Looking out to the Mitchell Range in Kootenay National Park
Looking out to the Mitchell Range from Dog Lake
Our dog is not a fan of suspension bridges
Our dog is not a fan of suspension bridges – way too scary underfoot

Snowshoe to the Paint Pots

In every season but winter the Paint Pots are a colourful sight. In winter all you’ll see is a depression in the snow. To reach the Paint Pots you can either hike from Marble Canyon on a well-signed trail or start from the large parking lot on the northwest side of the highway. Follow the tail signs, first through the woods, then across the Vermillion River on a well-constructed bridge and then up a short way into the forest. Once you hit the meadows start looking for large impressions in the snow – and then come back in another season so you can appreciate their vivid colours.

If you hike the Rockwall Trail in the summer, you’ll pass the Paint Pots. From the parking lot you can do and out and back snowshoe trip totaling 2 km in as little as 45 minutes.

Paint Pots
In winter all you see of the Paint Pots is their indentation in the snow

Visit Radium Hot Springs

The Radium Hot Springs, named for the trace but harmless amounts of radon in the water, are located just inside the Kootenay National Park boundary in a stunning setting, a few kilometres from the town of Radium Hot Springs.

The hot springs are open – but with COVID they are no longer renting towels or bathing suits and numbers of people that can be in the pool at any one time are reduced. You can’t make reservations, but after a day outside in winter, its worth the wait to enjoy a long soak.

Radium Hot Springs are the best place to be after skiing
Radium Hot Springs are the best place to be after a day outside
Soak in Radium Hot Springs - one of the fun things to do in Invermere
Radium Hot Springs

Where to stay close to Kootenay National Park

Nipika Mountain Resort 

Nipika Mountain Resort is accessed from Kootenay National Park via Settlers Road, about 35 minutes away from Radium Hot Springs. You do need to reserve their cabins ahead of time and bring all your own food, but cabins come well equipped.

Outside your front door are 50 km of groomed trails along with trails for snowshoeing and 30 km of fat bike trails. Dogs are allowed off leash so plan to take them cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. 

For more information visit their website. I stayed for a few nights last year and have booked a longer return visit for this winter.

Our cozy cabin at Nipika Lodge
Our cozy cabin at Nipika Lodge
An outside view of our cabin at Nipika Lodge
An outside view of our cabin at Nipika Lodge
Wonderful cross-country skiing with pretty views on their trail network
Wonderful cross-country skiing with pretty views on their trail network

Storm Mountain Lodge

Storm Mountain Lodge just off Highway 93 and a short distance away from the Alberta – BC border, is normally an excellent choice for a winter getaway. It’s closed this winter because of COVID but remember them for another year. They plan to reopen in May.

They offer cozy cabins and in-house dining. The lodge is particularly well-situated to access the Boom Lake and Chickadee Valley cross-country ski trails.

There's quite a view at the entrance to Storm Mountain Lodge
There’s quite a view at the entrance to Storm Mountain Lodge

Other choices to consider that are between Castle Junction and Lake Louise include Baker Creek Mountain Resort, the Mountaineer Lodge in Lake Louise, the Lake Louise Inn and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise if you feel like a splurge. There is also a hostel in Lake Louise.

In the town of Radium Hot Springs I’d recommend Bighorn Meadows Resort or the Prestige Radium Hot Springs Resort.

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