The Crowsnest Highway is a route that's as essential as it is beautiful. It's a main route between Alberta and British Columbia, right through the southern portion of Canadian Rockies. While that makes the drive winding, it also means that the views are gorgeous. As you take on the mountains, consider that this is a historic route that follows a mid-19th-century gold rush trail. And, if you're able, stop at Crowsnest Pass, which lends the highway its name; this is the site of the continental divide between Alberta and British Columbia!
Start off in Alberta at a paragon of roadside kitsch: the world's largest teepee! Also known as the Saamis Teepee, it was built to celebrate the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. The teepee itself is made of steel and is decorated with scenes from native culture and history. It resides in a lovely park and sits atop the Saamis Archaeological Site, which was once, long ago, a buffalo camp. Millions of artifacts are buried below it!
While today, roads like the Crowsnest Highway cross Canada's provinces, back in the day, trains were the preferred mode of transportation. The Galt Historic Railway Park pays tribute to this time in Canadian history. Learn about the Galt Railway, the steam and coal eras, and the historic railway station itself. The Train Station straddled the Canada – US border from 1890 to 1916 when it was moved to its present location. Explore the buildings and various restored train cars, including a railway baggage car that has been converted to a school car, the wooden caboose and a stock car.
The Crowsnest Highway also passes right by a super unique UNESCO World Heritage Site, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Step back in time to when the Plains Buffalo peoples roamed the hills. For thousands of years, the Blackfoot tribe used this site to run buffalo off the 36-foot-high cliff, injuring them to the point where the Blackfoot could swoop in to finish them off. The buffalo were processed at a camp at the foot of the cliff; the bones were used for tools, the meat for food, and the hides for clothing and shelter. Most importantly, though, a successful hunt meant that the tribe was afforded free time, which they used to further artistic or spiritual pursuits, deepening the culture. Onsite is a large museum. Learn the mechanics of hunting at the buffalo jump and all about the tribe that used it, as well as how archaeologists have used what is left at the site to learn about the culture, then walk the paved trails outside for views of the two buffalo jumps, Vision Quest Hill, and the Rocky Mountains.
Pull off the highway to check out Lundbreck Falls on the Crowsnest River. The falls are nearly 40 feet tall. View them from the observation platform, or take a hike down to the waterfall itself, where you can even go for a swim. You can plan to camp out overnight here as well. This site isn't too far off the highway, but it feels like a total hidden gem!
The Frank Slide of 1903 was Canada's deadliest rock slide in history. The tragedy, when Turtle Mountain virtually collapsed onto the mining town of Frank, is commemorated at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. Over 82 million tonnes of limestone slid down the mountain, burying the eastern edge of the town in 10 seconds flat. Between 70 and 90 residents were killed; many bodies were never recovered below the massive amount of rock. The Interpretive Centre uses engaging storytelling techniques to set the scene and educate visitors, and also covers the mining history of the region, even talking a bit about Crowsnest Pass.
As you plunge deeper into the Canadian Rockies, you'll start passing lots of provincial parks. Each is totally unique and worth a visit in their own right, whether for a hike or overnight camping. Moyie Lake Provincial Park features a sandy beach, camping, and boating opportunities. Swim, windsurf, sail, or fish here, or run off some energy on the playground.
Norbury Lake Provincial Park contains two lakes, Norbury and Peckham's Lake (although apparently, back in the day, they were both just called "Norbury Lake" which is so confusing, so good thing someone fixed that.) This is a prime spot for trout fishing and offers jaw-dropping views of The Steeples, a distinctive feature of the Hughes Range of the Rocky Mountains. Should you stay here, you're also just a short walk away from the Kootenay Fish Hatchery.
The Columbia Brewery is unique in that they brew beer for a handful of different brands, including Budweiser, Busch, Kokanee, Kootenay Ale, Labatt, and more. They offer tours of their facility that takes you into the brewhouse and the fermenting, ageing and packaging departments, and ends with a sampling of their wares (for anyone older than 19, of course.) And don't leave without posing for a picture with their statue of Mel the Sasquatch!
Take a moment to stop and enjoy Stagleap Provincial Park, because you're at the summit of the highest all-weather highway pass in BC! You know what that means: crazy awesome views. Take a walk around Bridal Lake, and if you're extra lucky, you might spy the park's herd of about 40 internationally endangered mountain caribou or maybe even a grizzly bear. If you're here in the summer, hike to the high alpine along Ripple Ridge and Cornice Ridge, and if you're here in the winter (and experienced), then you can go backcountry skiing or snowshoeing.
Sigh, oh look, yet another subalpine mountain lake surrounded by snowcapped peaks and fresh pine trees. Seriously though, stop at Nancy Greene Provincial Park if you're in the area. It's named for Olympic Skier Nancy Greene, who grew up nearby and trained on Red Mountain from an early age. Fish or boat on the lake, picnic or hike on its banks, or even feel free to camp out here overnight. It's a quiet gem of a park.
The Kettle River Museum is located in an early 20th-century train station and commemorates the Kettle Valley Railroad. Pore over displays about the steam railway era of Southern British Columbia, the British Columbia Provincial Police in the original station house, or stretch your legs with a lap around the artifacts yard. Be sure to poke your head into the caboose. There's also an additional museum building dedicated to interpretive exhibits on the Kettle River Valley's rich cultural rail, mining, forestry, and agriculture heritage. It also houses a little gift shop!
As you descend from the Monashee Mountains towards the foothills, the scenery may change. It remains beautiful, though, as you can see at Gladstone Provincial Park. Featuring a destination campground and warm, clear water and pocket beaches at Christina Lake, it's no surprise that it's a popular park. Hike around to find the three shoreline pictograph sites and other evidence (including trails, home sites and a semi-permanent village) of First Nations habitation, along with the historic cabin on Benninger Creek and the old gold mine. And if you're into spotting wildlife, this park will be a wonderland. It's a habitat for California bighorn sheep and Grizzly bear, wintering deer and elk, and serves as a spawning spot for various fish.
With all of these wildlife-packed parks, it should come as no surprise that the Alpine Taxidermy & Wildlife Museum is also just off the route. If you're lucky, it'll be open, and if you're extra lucky, the friendly owners will be around to tour you around the collection of furs, pelts, antlers, and, of course, taxidermy. It's a surprisingly huge collection, so prepared to be boggled. And say hello to the polar bear!
When first observing Canada's Spotted Lake, it can be hard to decide what to make of it. In the winter, it looks like a normal lake but come summer, the water evaporates, revealing multi-coloured spots of various sizes across the lake bed. It looks downright otherworldly...but it's just a rare natural phenomenon. Spotted Lake is a saline endorheic alkali lake-- which means it's got a high pH, it's salty, and it doesn't drain out anywhere-- hence the evaporation each summer. It also contains large amounts of a lot of different minerals, which form deposits when the water dries up, creating the weird spotted effect.
Minerals in the lake include magnesium sulphate (better known as Epsom salts), calcium, sodium sulphates (used to make detergents), silver, titanium and more. The magnesium sulphate is the main cause of the spots' colours as it crystallizes, and varying amounts of water and minerals accounts for the different shades at any given time. The lake is so mineral-rich that during WWI a lot of stuff from the lake was mined and used to make ammunition for the war effort.
The lake's uses go beyond weapons-- Native Americans knew the lake for its healing powers, and in the late 1970's people were trying to garner interest in building a spa on the lake's shores before the First Nations and the Department of Indian Affairs purchased the land. It's fenced off (walking through it, even when the water is evaporated isn't suggested since it's basically mud, plus it's sacred to the tribes), but there are signs describing the history and healing powers of the lake, they've built a viewing platform and are trying to set up a kiosk/visitor's center as well. In the meantime, you can still get a really good view of the lake, even from the highway, in all its weird, strange glory.
Along the Crowsnest, you'll find a plethora of wineries. Feel free to stop at any and all of them, as the grapes grown here really benefit from the fresh mountain air. Hugging Tree Winery is one of the many great options. From the whites (like the crisp but fruity Viognier) to the reds (the ripe merlot and the rich cabernet sauvignon) to the others (they make a bold rosé and the spicy, award-winning Telltale), you can taste the love put into tending the grapes and crafting the wine. They're a small operation with a cozy tasting room, but the atmosphere is super friendly. Ask if the trail to the actual hugging tree is open when you stop by!
The town of Hedley is an adorable can't-miss, so take some time to visit the Hedley Heritage Museum. Tour the 1904 cabin and barn and heritage park with mining artifacts, pop inside to view their old-school photo collection, peer through the telescope to see the Mascot Mine, enjoy the Tea Room and Gift Shop, and, of course, you can't leave without trying your hand at gold panning.
Hopefully, you remember to bring your inner tube because nothing beats a float from Bromley Rock Provincial Park downstream along the Similkameen River to Stemwinder Provincial Park. Or just go for a regular swim in the river! The striking rocky bluff provides a perfect setting for a day on the water (yes, you can jump off of it into the river as well), perhaps followed by a bit of hiking and a night under the stars at the campground.
E.C. Manning Provincial Park is another perennially popular destination for outdoors enthusiasts. There are loads of trails, including shorter loops that can be done in under three hours, to 6-day-long excursions. Developed and wilderness camping, a boat launch, cabins, playgrounds, and more mean that you can tailor your trip to your needs. Don't miss out on the excellent ranger-led activities in the summer, or on the stellar wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The highway ends around the town of Hope, which is also home to Emory Creek Provincial Park. Emory Creek was a tent-and-shack gold rush camp that, in 1879, experienced a boom when it was decided that it would be the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway's train route. At its peak, the town consisted of thirteen streets with its own newspaper, various shops, a brewery, nine saloons and a sawmill, and was mostly populated by men working to build the railroad. However, the C.P.R. wound up choosing another city, Yale, as the city where the railway would end, and Emory Creek was abandoned by 1885. The site where the city once stood is now a campground.
Banner Photo Credit: via Flickr/Rob