Wildlife Viewing 5-Day Tour

5-Day Guide to Wildlife in the Kootenays

The Kootenays are a Canadian wildlife hotspot, called the Serengeti of the North for the diversity and sheer numbers of wildlife of all sizes. Wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, but with equal parts planning, patience, and luck you should be able to meet some of the Kootenays wildest residents on a Wild Kootenays Road Trip. For millennia the local wildlife have had Ktunaxa names, and those are included here.

Day 1 - Fernie

Tourism Fernie’s Birding and Wildlife Brochure will give you a headstart on the local bird and wildlife list, as well as some ideas for local adventures and local guides. A program with guides who know the valley will always mean more chances of wildlife encounters. A great way to spot wildlife and have an adventure is a half-day float on the Elk River, and both Canyon Raft Company and Tunnel49 offer family-friendly, half-day river raft trips. 

For independent explorers, Fernie Alpine Resort is prime, critical summer habitat for kǂawǂa, grizzly bear. The large bowls and avalanche paths provide abundant food for these large animals, roots, leaves, flowers, and most importantly, huckleberries.  Fernie Alpine Resort is within sight of your unique stay at Snow Valley Lodge, Canada’s first tiny home hotel, and the resort’s Elk Chair provides an easy lift part way up the mountain. Moose, (ni¢napku) are also regular residents of the Lizard Creek Valley, and can also be found along the Island Lake Lodge Road or in the avalanche paths of the Lizard Range at the ski hill. The Himalayan Spice Bistro has something off-the-charts delicious for everyone after an extra wild day.

Day 2 - Fernie to Cranbrook

Fuel up for the day with baked delights and a brew at House of Gato Bakery and Patisserie before you head West for the day’s adventure. Highway 3 between Fernie and Cranbrook passes through spectacular scenery and wildlife habitat, so a keen eye will almost certainly glimpse deer (¢upqa), elk (kiǂq̓aǂǂi), coyotes (skinku¢) or even a bear (nupqu), along the way. Turn left at Jaffray onto the Jaffray-Baynes Lake Road for a side trip to Kikomun Creek Provincial Park. This park protects some of the region's last endangered grasslands along with tiny jewel lakes like Hidden, Engineers, and Surveyors. These lakes are home to threatened Western Painted Turtles (kaxas). Osprey, heron, and kingfishers also frequent these small lakes, and a well-marked trail system connects everything in the park. From Kikomun backtrack to Highway 3 to head West for another 45 minutes to Cranbrook’s Elizabeth Lake Lodge, your wildlife oasis on the outskirts of the region’s largest city. The Lodge also boasts the best minigolf course in the region. The Heid Out in downtown Cranbrook will fill you up with a mouth-watering pub gourmet menu and a selection of in-house Fisher Peak Brewery beer.

Day 3 - Cranbrook to Kimberley

Enjoy a Rocky Mountain sunrise with a morning bird walk on the easy trails around Elizabeth Lake, a Kootenay birding hotspot with nearly 220 different bird species documented to date. Thousands of grebes, coots, geese, ducks (kyaq̓ǂa), and red-winged blackbirds help fill the air with birdsong orchestra, and two birding blinds help birders stay hidden from view. Eagles (kyaq̓nukat), ospreys (¢̕u·¢̕u), and herons (wusaq̓) top out the food chain. If travelling with a dog, please keep it leashed to help protect ground-nesting birds (hak¢̕ǂaʔtik), including sandpipers and sparrows. After your wetland walk, head to Kimberley. Halfway between Cranbrook and Kimberley, a side trip not to miss is Pighin Road, a stunning nine kilometer dead-end road that winds through ranches and native grasslands in the heart of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Azure Rocky Mountain bluebirds (yaminqan) and swallows (kyatǂanana) can be seen around fencepost nest boxes maintained by the local Rocky Mountain Naturalists, and the unmistakable calls of the Western Meadowlark (yik̓¢na) underlay silhouettes of red-tailed hawks and eagles overhead. A small herd of resident elk also frequents this area, joined by thousands of their mountain cousins in the winter months. This area, known as the Wycliffe Wildlife Corridor, is home to everything from elk, grizzlies and wolves (ka·kin) to sandhill cranes (qaspiǂuk), coyotes and endangered badgers (naǂmit̕), so keep your binos handy and your eyes peeled, you never know what you might see!  Get ready for tomorrow with a mouth-watering woodfired pizza at Stonefire Pizzeria washed down with something local across the way at the Shed.

Photo credit: Mitch Winton/ KootenayRockies.com

Day 4 - Kimberley to Invermere

While not exactly wild, Kimberley’s urban ¢upqa, or mule deer population boasts some of the largest deer out there, and this is one of the few guaranteed wildlife sightings out there! Start your day with a good ol’ fashioned cafe-style breakfast at Our Place in Kimberley’s Platzl, grab a freshly roasted cappuccino to go from Kickturn Coffee Roasters, then head north on Highway 95 towards the Upper Columbia Valley. The Upper Columbia is a globally significant wetland hotspot, with all the birds, mammals, fish, and other wildlife healthy wetlands support. Book a half-day canoe, kayak, SUP or voyageur canoe tour in either Fairmont or Invermere to Radium with Columbia River Paddle. For a land-based adventure both wild and historic, Columbia Lake Provincial Park is a must for any wildlife enthusiast. A short stroll on the old Ktunaxa Spirit Trail on the east shore of Columbia Lake to Armstrong Bay takes you to one of the longest beaver dams in the Kootenays, at over 250 meters.For your final night of your wild road trip, savour downtown Invermere with some locally grown greens and veggies at Peppi’s Italian Fuel, and chase your wild dreams at Invermere Inn and Suites.

Photo credit: Kootenay Rockies Tourism/ Andrew Penner

Day 5 - Invermere to Radium

After a filling Mexi breakfast wrap and the brew of choice at Invermere’s Stolen Church Cafe, drive a short 20 minutes north to Radium, home of early November’s annual Headbanger Festival. Kwiǂqǂi, Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep numbers are in steep decline everywhere, and even Radium’s population has been cut in half in recent years, mainly due to road collisions. But you can still catch a glimpse of ewes and lambs, and if you are lucky, a large Ram either on the Radium Golf Course, in the valley just north of town, or right smack dab on the center line of Highway 93/95 in the middle of town. Just another day in the life of another wild Kootenay town.

Photo Credit: Tourism Radium/ Kara Cassidy