Heading south from Radium Hot Springs and Kootenay National Park, Hwy-93/95 travels through scenery that rivals the big Rockies parks to the north. The route follows the bottom of the broad Columbia River Valley, which becomes the Kootenay River Valley in the south and is bordered to the east by the soaring, craggy Rockies and to the west by the more rolling Purcell Mountains. At Cranbrook these highways meet Hwy-3, which heads east towards Fernie, Crowsnest Pass and Alberta, or west towards Vancouver along the US border – over which there are numerous crossings. Greyhound buses ply all these routes.
Straddling the ice-clear Elk River among knife-edged mountains, the hip ski-town of FERNIE is one place where first impressions should be ignored. Look beyond the lacklustre condo-, motel- and mall-lined highway and you’ll find pleasant, leafy streets lined with small, wooden houses that pave the way to an attractively low-slung brick downtown along 2nd Avenue. Here it’s immediately obvious that though Fernie has long depended on logging and open-pit coal mining, its outdoorsy appeal – primarily to skiers and mountain-bikers – has brought in a more liberal demographic. Art galleries, gift shops, coffee shops, outdoor-gear stores and health-food shops thrive in this upbeat little town.
If you’re in the Rockies to mountain bike, then Fernie’s where you should end up. It boasts the biggest trail network, the most lenient landowners and most active trail-builders. If you’re in town for any length of time, pick up the excellent Fernie Mountain Bike Guide ($20) from any downtown sports shop. Even with this in hand a few pointers are useful:
On April 29, 1903, a good portion of Turtle Mountain tumbled down onto the little mining town of Frank. The term “slide” doesn’t do it justice: nineteen million tonnes of limestone crashed down with enough ferocity to cause lightning and trap so much air that many of the rocks could effectively “surf” on it across the valley. This was Canada’s deadliest rockslide, with well over a hundred people buried under the rubble, but amazingly no miners were killed – they dug themselves out after fourteen hours of toil.
The legacy of the disaster lies in a vast, rocky wasteland on either side of the highway and railway line and below Turtle Mountain, whose contours were once riddled with the galleries of local mines.