Like a magnet, the pull to make our way back toward Alaska was too strong for us to resist. When spring work plans got derailed, we immediately decided it was time to start heading north. With plenty of time to explore Canada along the way, we left Bend, Oregon in early April and decided to take a more easterly approach toward Alaska this year.
Last year, we took the route from Bellingham through Vancouver, into Squamish and Pemberton and up the Cassiar Highway. Since we had not yet checked out the northern Idaho cities of Couer D’Alene or Sandpoint yet, this year we opted to start our journey from there. This would afford us the chance to check out Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper before the droves of tour buses & selfie sticks arrive in the summer (or so we thought), while also allowing us to make another stopover in Smithers to visit good friends made at Old Iron Farm & Apiary on our last trip.
Unfortunately, nasty wet and windy weather rushed our efforts to explore more in either Couer D’Alene or Sandpoint. But that’s not to say we wouldn’t be back: Great trail systems, beautiful surroundings and some good food to boot. In downtown Couer D’Alene don’t miss Fire Artisan Pizza. Sandpoint could use some revitalization in town, but the surrounding area is ripe for adventure. Apparently there was still some excellent skiing at nearby Schweizer, but the weather just didn’t motivate us to get after it, so we headed for the border crossing at Porthill, Idaho.
The route we chose included two ferry crossings with the BC ferry system. Rather than just heading straight up Canada Hwy 95 and over to Banff, we took a less direct path via Revelstoke which proved to be entirely worthwhile. Since a GPS isn’t likely to provide this as an option, here’s the route we took:
- Porthill to Kootenay Bay via Hwy 3A
- Kootenay Bay Ferry over to Balfour, BC
- Hwy 31 up to Kaslo
- Hwy 31A west to New Denver
- Hwy 6 north to Nakusp
- Hwy 23 north to the Galena Bay Ferry over Upper Arrow Lake to Shelter Bay where we continued north on Hwy 23 into Revelstoke.
It was a beautiful drive once we got into Canada, not unlike the drive up to Squamish, BC along the sound, only this mostly followed beautiful Kootenay Lake with snow covered mountains on the opposite side. Road conditions in early April were just fine – some avalanche warnings across Hwy 31A, but roads were all still open and perfectly drivable (for any vehicle, not just ours).
The BC ferry system was a highlight of the trip. Both the Kootenay Bay and Galena Bay ferries could easily accommodate our size & weight, were free, and afforded a spectacularly beautiful backdrop as we awaited our ride. (No need to call ahead for reservations; the ferries run from early morning till late in the evening, year round, like clockwork). The crew was awesomely Canadian – so friendly and warm as we chatted outside, waiting and learning more about the area. The Kootenay Bay ferry is a substantial 40-minute ride, offering epic views of the Kootenay Mountains, Kokanee Glacier National Park, and the other surrounding mountains. For us, it made for a fabulously scenic sunset cruise.
Upon arriving in Revelstoke, we made home near downtown and found ourselves in good company with other #vanlifers and the like. The little town was bursting with charm, great coffee, ski shops, and good people all seeking adventure of various forms.
Revelstoke has so many points of pride:
- The area boasts the only inland temperate rainforest in the world.
- For downhill skiers, it has North America’s longest skiing vertical and is the only place in the world to have backcountry, lift, heli, and CAT skiing all from the same mountain village.
- It’s the gateway to exploring several of Canada’s national parks, including Mt. Revelstoke, Glacier, Yoho, Banff, and Jasper.
- It’s also inconvenient enough to get to that it’s not as overrun as places like Banff and Lake Louise.
The ski area in Revelstoke was still open for another week yet, and there was still plenty of snow at the nearby Macpherson Nordic Trails for us to get some great spring classic skiing in. Macpherson has 26k of beautifully maintained, wooded groomed trails, some of which take you to lookouts over the city with views of Begbie and the other surrounding mountains. Surrounding days of rain, we picked a perfect day to take to the skis and enjoy it in all its beauty.
Sadly, too much pizza and treats in our previous travels has us on a bit of a grain-detox, so we didn’t get to explore the food scene of Revelstoke as much as we’d have liked. We’d have loved to check out a few places, such as the Quartermaster, but did gulp down our fair share of coffee…
- Café Modern has good wifi and an excellent cup of Americano.
- DOSE was trendy, comfortable, has great wifi and even better service.
- La Baguette was a perfect place to sit by a lovely indoor fire and enjoy delicious fare après-ski.
The trade-off to visiting cool destinations in their shoulder seasons is contending with less-than-stellar weather. On one of the rainiest days we spent in Revelstoke, we walked the centennial trail downtown, rummaged for old books at the Castle Joe used book store and Bethany took in a swim at the local aquatic center. For just $5.75 Canadian, their pool and facility was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. In addition to the lap lanes, there was a hot lazy river (how awesome is that?!) and other cool features to bring out your inner kiddo.
We didn’t want to leave Revelstoke until a weather window showed us a bit of sunshine so we could see the beautiful drive through Mt. Revelstoke National Park and Glacier National Park as we made our way to Lake Louise and Banff.
That proved to be successful because we were able to take in a beautiful hike on snow spikes (the snow was so hard-packed snowshoes were hardly necessary) on the Illecillewaet Valley Trails in Glacier National Park.
Hear more about that leg of the trip next!