The West Kootenays, just north of the Idaho border in British Columbia, provide an enticing playground for visitors. The mountains, lakes, and rivers are the backdrop to outdoor recreation that draws skiers, hikers, paddlers, and mountain bikers. It also draws those who simply want to enjoy a beautiful drive through stunning mountain scenery, coniferous forests, gorgeous wildflowers, and a number of Provincial Parks.
And the area is dotted with pleasant towns worth a stop. Nelson, for example, sits in the midst of the scenery, overlooking the west arm of Kootenay Lake (spelled Kootenai in the U.S.). This small city is known for its large and fun arts and culture scene.
Nelson was incorporated in 1897, but it already had a good start by that time. In 1887, the Silver King Mine on Toad Mountain brought rapid growth, and the railway arrived in 1892. Nelson had a copper and lead smelter in 1896-1907, and following that boom, the economy thrived on the lumber industry. Today it’s a service center for the Kootenay region.
For visitors, this offbeat Victorian town comes to life through its historic buildings and art culture. In an organized effort, the town deliberately restored its old buildings instead of demolishing them. More than 350 structures in Nelson are heritage sites and a treasure to all who know handcrafted buildings like these will not be built again. Many of the old structures are stores, and open for individuals to explore. Others are restored private homes. The Chamber of Commerce provides walking/driving tour brochures.
Baker Street is the heart of downtown Nelson. As one can imagine in such an area that encourages an active life-style, boutiques sell gear for mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, and backcountry touring. These mix with arts and crafts stores and fashionable clothing venues. Visitors mingle with locals at sunny sidewalk cafés or at an upscale coffee shop. Nearly all of the restaurants double as art galleries. Festivals, street musicians, sidewalk artists, and other special events add to the fun.
In the winter people come to ski at Whitewater Ski Resort, half an hour from downtown. Whitewater includes cross country ski trails and and partners with local cat and heli companies to provide vacation packages.
Outdoor recreation is around every corner in the summer. Favorite summer spots include nearby Kokanee Creek, Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, and West Arm Provincial Park, where one can enjoy sandy beaches, hiking trails, water sports, wildlife, and bird watching. In town, there’s Lakeside Park and Gyro Park, from which one can walk up to a scenic lookout.
Travelers may drive north to Kaslo on Highway 31 to see the restored S.S. Moyie, a luxury craft that the Canadian Pacific Railway brought here in 1898 to ferry people across Kootenay Lake. Over the next decades, it was used and abused for various purposes and retired in 1957. The city of Kaslo lovingly restored it and today the S.S. Moyie is a National British Columbia Historic Landmark, open daily from May to October. The site includes a visitor center that is built to look like a Canadian Pacific Railway station, and a beach along Kootenay Lake. Nearby are good restaurants and other shops.
Nelson is on the International Selkirk Loop, a 280-mile scenic byway through southeastern British Columbia and adjoining parts of Washington and Idaho. Tourists who drive north from Nelson on 3-A will arrive at Balfour. Here motorists find a working ferry, one that’s part of Highway 3-A. It takes vehicles and walk-on passengers on a 35-minute ride across one of British Columbia’s largest natural lakes. The ride is free even though the mountain and lake scenery is priceless. The ferry takes traffic from Balfour to Kootenay Bay on the east. From here highway 3-A continues south along Kootenay lakeshore and right on into Idaho.