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Destination Cranbrook: A City for Nature and History Lovers

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The city of Cranbrook is a great destination if you love the outdoors. It’s also got a long and interesting history, dating back ten thousand years when the Ktunaxa walked the lands. I heard part of their story – the sad part dealing with residential schools, first hand from Dr. Christopher Horsethief, a brilliant man who is doing an amazing job bringing the Ktunaxa language back to his people, and those that are interested.

The entrance to the old part of Cranbrook

The entrance to the old part of Cranbrook

The abbreviated version of Cranbrook’s history goes something like this:

In 1807 the Ktunaxa people first met white men. It’s mostly been a torturous path for them since that time, especially during the period when Cranbrook was home to a residential school; it has since been turned into the native owned St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino.

St. Eugene Resort and Casino in Cranbrook

St. Eugene Resort and Casino

Where the Europeans are concerned, there are several men whose names still live on well over a hundred years later. John Galbraith who made his fortune running the Galbraith Ferry across the Kootenay River from what is now Fort SteeleColonel James Baker who formed the Crowsnest Pass Coal Company, served as an MLA and played a key role in getting the railroad routed through Cranbrook, and Sam Steele, an officer of the Northwest Mounted Police who played an important role in an 1887 uprising at Galbraith’s Ferry (now Fort Steele and named in his honour).

There are lots of stories about the town too – the best of which in my opinion is centered on a circus and a band of 14 escaped elephants. In 1926 this event made international news. The elephants  broke out of the train and disappeared down the track and into the woods around Cranbrook. All were quickly captured but two including Cranbrook Ed who lived to tell the tale (the other elephant had to be euthanized). He remained at large for over a month but was eventually recaptured – and celebrated with champagne, a big meal and photo opportunities.

Cranbrook Ed - the escaped elephant in Cranbrook made international news in 1922 -

Cranbrook Ed – the escaped elephant who made international news in 1922

The Kootenay River from the water tower at Fort Steele, near Cranbrook

The Kootenay River from the water tower at Fort Steele

Biking and Hiking Options in Cranbrook

As a small town in southeast British Columbia, Cranbrook offers the visitor a scenic backdrop for all manner of outdoor activities including hiking, biking, rafting, canoeing and birding. There are lots of little lakes so swimming in summer is also possible.

The beauty of Cranbrook is the ease with which you can access the nearby trails. Many run through the town itself and others are a short drive away. Here are some of the trails worth exploring – whether by bike or on foot. Horseback riding is permitted on some of the trails as well.

The NorthStar Rails to Trails System

Linking the cities of Cranbrook and Kimberley via a 28 kilometre paved path, the NorthStar Rails to Trails system is part of the Trans-Canada Trail. You can bike, hike or roller blade it and come winter you can ski it. Maintained by volunteers, it offers many access points so you can easily choose how much of it you want to do. It’s a great one for families as any hills are modest. Check with your hotel if you’re from out of town as many hotels will offer a drop-off service at one of the trailheads.

One of the trailheads for the North Star Rails to Trails - a 30 km multi-use trail between Cranbrook and Kimberly

One of the trailheads for the North Star Rails to Trails

Looking out over the St. Mary's River from one of the bridges on the North Star Rails to Trails system

Looking out over the St. Mary’s River from one of the bridges on the North Star Rails to Trails system

The South Star System

In the Gold Creek area south of Cranbrook, you’ll find 30 kilometres of trails running through forests of lodgepole pine and western larch. They are used year round – for hiking, biking and horseback riding as well as cross-country skiing in the winter.

The Cranbrook Community Forest

Adjacent to the northern and eastern border of Cranbrook lays the Cranbrook Community Forest. Within the forest are 40 kilometres of maintained trails – many of them easy and perfect for not just hiking but mountain biking and horseback riding. I spent a morning hiking up to Windy Ridge pictured below with Janice Strong – the author of Mountain Footsteps: Hikes in the East Kootenay of Southeastern British Columbia. She highly recommends “the nearby Eager Hills hike for its superlative views of Mount Fisher, The Steeples and the Rocky Mountain Trench.”

View of Cranbook from Windy Ridge in the Community Forest

View of Cranbook from Windy Ridge in the Community Forest

Rotary Trail, Elizabeth Lake Bird Sanctuary and Isadore Canyon

Pick up a map at the Visitor Centre in Cranbrook so you can get your bearings and a better route description. Then head off and walk or bike the nine kilometre Rotary Trail through town from Baker Park to Idlewild Park in the south and from Isadore Canyon in the North to Elizabeth Lake Wildlife Sanctuary in the west. It’s worth spending some time at Elizabeth Lake. It’s a migration corridor and alive with birdsong at this time of year.

The Isadore Canyon trail is in the process of being transformed from a 13.5 kilometre trail to a 40 kilometre trail. A 7.5 kilometre section was recently resurfaced. Ultimately the goal “is to make the trail a destination for mountain bikers” says Al Skacus, the Cranbrook Wardner Trail Project Coordinator.

Elizabeth Lake Nature Area in Cranbrook

Elizabeth Lake Nature Area

Canada Geese

They’re only Canada geese but they’re still cute when they’re little

Nearby Mountain Hikes

If you’re willing to drive a little bit out of town then a whole other world of hiking opens up. Though a difficult hike, Fisher Peak is the one that I’d like to hike as it’s the highest and most prominent peak on Cranbrook’s eastern skyline. With an elevation gain of 4,400 feet and some scrambling required, it’s definitely not for everyone. For other – and easier ideas, pick up a copy of Janice Strong’s book.

Fisher Peak can be seen from Cranbrook - Photo credit: Janice Strong

Fisher Peak can be seen from Cranbrook – Photo credit: Janice Strong

I loved my visit in Cranbrook – especially as I slept in a refurbished railway car at the Prestige Hotel.

My room inside a refurbished railway car - Prestige Hotel, Cranbrook

My room inside a refurbished railway car

Have you spent any time in the Cranbrook area?

Here's why you should visit Cranbrook, British Columbia

Thank you to Cranbrook Tourism for hosting my stay. 

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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