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For five hours we climbed up an unrelenting pitch, picked our way through the rainforest, explored a giant cave, hiked beside waterfalls and strode below towering walls of craggy rock. Then, finally, totally exhausted, we camped near treeline on a wind-blasted ridge, made a fire, smoked cigars, and told stories. In the morning, we worked our way up to an alpine saddle with an otherworldly view, trekked through a couple of remote, wildflower-filled valleys, and, finally, descended through a thigh-burning boulder field to the cozy, fire-warmed confines of Island Lake Lodge. Without a doubt, the epic Heiko’s Trail near Fernie is a sure-fire way to get your Fernie fix!
But, know this: when you’re in Fernie – easily one of the most adventurous mountain towns in North America – there are many more ways that you can get that “fix.”
Located three hours southwest of Calgary in the B.C. Kootenay Rockies, Fernie boasts just about everything an outdoor lover can dream of. Whatever outdoor equipment you’ve got stashed in your garage – bikes, hiking poles, fishing rods, golf clubs, skis, you name it – you can put it to good use here.
Certainly, for me, the phenomenal hiking in the area is always top of mind. And while Heiko’s Trail – it’s an intense and extremely challenging 28-km wilderness route that requires plenty of planning, including shuttles on rough logging roads – might well be considered the ace in the area, there are many other trails to trek. A few other excellent (and much easier) choices include the Fairy Creek Waterfall Trail, Castle Mountain Trail, and the Montane Trail. Do a little research (I like asking locals and using the All Trails app) and find the right hike for your time allotment and fitness level.
As good as the hiking is in Fernie, the mountain biking is, arguably, even better. In fact, in a province that’s rich with mountain biking destinations, Fernie is definitely upper-tier. There are eight different areas to ride (the entire town is surrounded by trails) and trails range from death-wish double-blacks to easy-green flow jobs where all the little grommets (or you if you’re a beginner) can hone their skills.
The variety of terrain is also impressive. Plenty of rooty and rocky old-school, single-track is interspersed with machine-built, new-school trails with plenty of berms and wooden features generously thrown in. There is also a gnarly assortment of lift-accessed downhill trails at the Fernie Alpine Resort.
While I’m still discovering plenty of new rides every time I go for my Fernie “fix,” which is typically twice a year (once in summer, once in winter), a few of my favourite trails include Swine Flu (a Fernie classic with a big climb and a super-fast descent through the trees), Lazy Lizard (fun descent from Island Lake Lodge), and Space Unicorn (a short bermy blast in the popular Ridgemont area). The super-fun bike park in downtown Fernie might be the place to start. There are also several bike shops in town where obtaining valuable local trail knowledge could make (instead of break) your day.
If you’re looking for something more mellow, don’t worry, Fernie also has you covered. Bisecting the town is the Elk River, which is one of the best fly-fishing streams in North America. Not surprisingly, you’ll find a number of fly shops and guiding services here. Big and belligerent bull trout and Westslope cutthroat are two of the sought-after species in the river. (And, in my opinion, the nearby St. Mary’s River is equally as good.)
If you’d rather catch birdies, the Fernie Golf Club offers a solid parkland course that’s easily one of the nicest courses to walk (golf carts are overrated) in the Kootenay Rockies.
And if you really want mellow, the heritage walking tour downtown features some of the most impressive turn-of-the-century architecture in the province. A few of the highlights include the amazing chateau-style courthouse, the old city hall and the Fernie CPR Station, which is currently used as a performing and fine arts centre.
While fall is a gorgeous time to visit Fernie (it’s quiet and the colours in the Elk Valley are phenomenal), winter can be magical. Thanks to pillow-soft powder, the skiing at Fernie Alpine Resort is legendary (the resort features some of the best alpine bowl skiing in North America). Perhaps the best part? The slopes are just five minutes from town.
However, as good as the skiing is at the resort, some of the backcountry options – like cat-skiing at Island Lake Lodge – are bucket-list-worthy adventures. Personally, I count my Island Lake Lodge cat-skiing tour in January 2020 as one of the best skiing experiences of my life. For three nights, we woke up to 20-plus centimetres of fresh pow. I learned what living in the “white room” was all about. (FYI: Outside magazine defines the white room as “a descent through deep powder in which face shots become so frequent that a skier can become so disoriented as if standing in an all-white room with no defining edges.”)
And, yes, this is also a very good way to get your Fernie “fix.”
Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary. Follow him on Instagram @andrewpennerphotography