The Kootenay Valley, in the southern interior of British Columbia near the Alberta border, is a year-round destination for adventure travellers looking for adrenaline shots, and the City of Nelson serves as a home base for many on their way to the nearby slopes, trails, and rapids. In between snow (or sun) days, though, there are plenty of unique ways to soak in the local culture and natural abundance of the region. For an informative, family-friendly trip with a touch of recreation and relaxation, try this trip through British Columbia’s Valley of the Ghosts.
Located on the vast blue expanse of Kootenay Lake deep in the Selkirk Mountains, Nelson has long attracted a young and hip crowd to its heritage shores. Though it maintains a population of around 10,000 full-time residents, those numbers swell with seasonal visitors looking for world-class skiing, snowboard, camping, hiking, and watersports. The upshot of all this activity is that this little rural town has developed and supported a thriving culinary scene—with more restaurants per capita, according to the tourism board—than Manhattan.
You’ll want to get up and out early, and there’s no better place to fuel up than Empire Coffee, located inside the Adventure Hotel on Vernon Street. Sure, Empire’s opening hours (6:00am weekdays; 7:00am weekends and holidays) make it an obvious choice, but the direct trade coffee and menu of fresh and healthy deli items and desserts seal the deal. If the weather’s fine, sit in the solarium.
Nelson is 40-minute drive from Castlegar Airport, which is an hour’s flight from either Calgary, Alberta or Vancouver, B.C.
The Slocan Valley
Hit the road heading west. At the traffic lights at the junction, around 20 minutes from Nelson, take a right. Now you’re heading north down the Slocan Valley. This route will take you along a well-maintained two-lane highway that follows the rushing Slocan River through Vallican, Winlaw, Appledale, Lemon Creek, and a host of other tiny communities with similarly whimsical names. Stop anywhere. The scenery is magnificent and you can’t get lost.
Assuming you haven’t been waylaid by too many farmer’s markets, roadside produce stands, or community fairs, you’ll arrive in Silverton just a touch peckish (1.5 – 2 hours later). Stop at Camp Café for a bite, where the food is superb and they offer kids’ portions.
Valley of the Ghosts
Back in the late 1800s, after the discovery of galena ore, prospectors from across North America flooded into the Kootenay Valley to stake their claims and make their fortunes. In Canada, much like in the American West, frontier mining villages sprang up around this activity, bloomed, prospered, and declined.
The first ghost town on the agenda is for serious ghost hunters and hikers only. Alamo is reached on foot only from the Galena Trail, the head of which is at the site of the old town of Three Forks. Though the trail is well-maintained, it’s a three kilometre hike to the ruins of Alamo.
Sandon, B.C., which is approximately 10 kilometres east of New Denver on Highway 31A is a much easier jaunt and appropriate for people of all abilities. Though the population of Sandon peaked at around 5,000 residents, today just five people live there, including the gift shop proprietor, the museum curator, and the keeper of the Canada’s first hydroelectric station, still in operation.
Interestingly, Sandon is also the site of a dozen or so retired British Columbia public transit buses. Visitors can get an up-close-and-personal look at the old Brill buses, and even step inside one display vehicle. Don’t leave without a ‘Canadian Moose’ ice cream cone.
Although they’re both considered to be ghost towns, in comparison to nearby Cody, Sandon is a bustling metropolis. To get to Cody, cross back over the small bridge leading into Sandon and follow the parallel logging road north. It’s about a 40 minute walk. If you drive, take it slow. The road is rough and washed out in places.
Cody was never the pioneer town that Sandon was—at its peak it was home to about 150 residents—but now all that remains is the skeleton of the Noble Five Mine. The structures, all made of timber, were decimated by fire in the 1940s. Time and weather have also taken their toll.
If you’re still in a ghost-hunting mood after Cody, the Valley of the Ghosts offers one more opportunity. Retallack, also known as Whitewater, became a ghost town after the mine closed in the 1950s. Currently, there’s a sports lodge on the property offering biking in the summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter.
With a permanent population about 1,000 people, Kaslo is no ghost town. Instead, it’s a sleepy little village on the shore of Kootenay Lake, and the perfect place to bed down for the night.
Originally built in 1896 and reopened in 2009 after three years of renovations, the Kaslo Hotel offers a modern take on a pioneer aesthetic. The rooms are spacious, the beds are comfortable, and with the mountain and lake on one side and the painted fronts of Kaslo’s main street on the other, every room has a terrific view.
Ghost-hunting is tiring work. An evening stop at Ainsworth Hot Springs is just the thing to relax and rejuvenate. Used for centuries by the Ktunaxa First Nation, these natural nupika wu’u (spirit waters) were commercially developed just prior to the Great Depression and changes hands many times over the next 100 years. In 2015, the properties were purchased by the Lower Kootenay Band in Creston, returning stewardship to the original First Nations peoples.
After your soak, consider a bite at the Ktunaxa Grill, where Chef Aaron Day serves Indigenous-inspired plates like bannock bruschetta and smoked elk carpaccio. With notice, spa services are also available.