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Where to See Wildlife in the Kootenay Rockies

As I pull my exhausted body up the last stretch of trail before ridgeline, I am overcome with the sensation of being watched.  I glance around at the rugged, steep terrain above me, and there I see them. Not more than 30-metres (98 ft.) away, on a rocky outcropping just off the trail, a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep looks down at me.

They’re so close I can almost hear them ask themselves what a lonely human would be doing in their neck of the mountains.  I wait and watch as they contemplate their next move, will they move away and let me pass?  Or kick rocks down onto me and watch me flee?  Thankfully, the majestic creatures decide to back away. Once again, I’m left with another incredible wildlife encounter in the Kootenay Rockies.

Some of the Bighorn Sheep herd in Radium Hot Springs; photo by Field & Forest

The best part about the Kootenays is you don’t need to climb the steepest mountainsides or dive to the bottom of the deepest lakes to experience the wildlife in their natural habitat.  A short drive outside of Radium Hot Springs, you might catch a glimpse of those same bighorn sheep gracing the roadside hills. 

In November, Radium Hot Springs celebrates their annual Headbanger Festival (1st weekend in November) – features a series of events, including a keynote speaker, interactive workshops, unique presentations, guided walks and more.  The festival is timed to coincide with the bighorn sheep’s annual rut, in which the rams compete for the ewes by challenging each other to butting contests.

Travel between Kimberley and Cranbrook and you may meet the resident elk herd.  Spend enough time in the Elk Valley and you’ll likely catch a glimpse of a Grizzly foraging for berries.  And, with countless other species present, including rare birds, large ungulates and numerous species of fish, there’s more than enough in the Kootenays to keep wildlife watchers happy for a lifetime. 

Columbia Valley Bird Trail (Golden to Cranbrook)

Situated along the Upper Columbia River, the wetlands surrounding the cozy communities of the Columbia Valley are renowned for their birdlife. Visitors to the area get the opportunity to see some eastern and prairie birds that aren’t really found elsewhere in BC, and it’s a unique area for observing familiar coastal birds, but in their breeding plumage. The mountains themselves have many birds who use the Pacific Flyway, with alpine species gathering at the higher elevations.

Stretching from Golden in the north to Cranbrook in the south – the Columbia Valley Trail is full of outdoor adventure opportunities and plenty of birding.

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort Grizzly Bear Refuge (Golden)

If you’ve been wanting to see a grizzly bear but don’t want to risk an encounter in the wild, stop by the Grizzly Bear Refuge on Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden.  Boo, the resident orphaned grizzly bear, roams his 8-hectare (20-acres) of habitat, free to forage and play as he pleases.
(Boo just popped out of his winter hibernation on March 21, 2022 – view the video.)

Boo the resident Grizzly Bear, photo by Claire Dibble

Kokanee Creek Provincial Park/Salmon Run (Balfour/Nelson)

From mid-August to late September, thousands of bright red Kokanee salmon flood the Kokanee Creek Spawning Channel as they make their way back to their spawning grounds. Witnessing the return of this landlocked relative of Sockeye Salmon is a sight to behold.  Follow the self-guided interpretive tour along the boardwalk and learn more about the migration of the Kokanee.

Salmon Run at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park, photo by Kari Medig

Kootenay-Columbia Discovery Centre (Creston)

In the fertile Creston Valley, the Kootenay-Columbia Discovery Centre leads guided canoe trips through the wetlands of the Kootenay River.  Or take a self-guided tour of the boardwalk where you could catch a glimpse of one of the over 300 bird species, mammals, fish and reptiles that inhabit the area.

Touring the boardwalk; photo by Jeff Banman

Kootenay Trout Hatcher (Wardner)

The Kootenay Trout Hatchery rears up to 3 million baby trout each year to enhance recreational fishing opportunities. The species raised here are Rainbow, Cutthroat trout, Brook Char and Kokanee to enhance recreational fishing opportunities. In addition, the red-listed White Sturgeon are raised here for conservation purposes.  A tour guide is on hand daily from May through August. An extensive interpretive area with aquaria, educational models, displays and a turtle pond is open every day from 8am to 4pm for self-guided tours. 

Kootenay Trout Hatchery, photo by Kari Medig

Waldie Island Trail (Castlegar)

This 1.5-km Waldie Island Trail in Castlegar takes you through a protected Blue Heron bird Sanctuary.  Watch for this magnificent bird from the bird viewing platform along the shores of the Columbia River.

Wild Nature Tours (Fernie)

Take a 3-hour guided tour of your property or local area and learn about the plants, bugs and animals that call that space home.  You can even learn about the health of the soil and ecosystem with a Citizen Scientist Assessment of the land!

Wings Over the Rockies Festival (Columbia Valley)

The Wings Over the Rockies Festival takes place in the Columbia Valley (every year, the second week in May).  In 2021, attendees participated in the festival from the comfort of their own homes with streamed presentations. Alternatively, join interpretive guides on hikes and paddles at various locations across the Columbia Valley while you watch for local wildlife.  Please join them in 2022 when Wings celebrates 25 years, as one of the largest nature festivals in Canada.

Bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs, photo by Field & Forest

To assist you with other wildlife experiences that are available to you in the region – check out our community partners: Arrow Lakes/Slocan Valley, Castlegar, Cranbrook, Columbia Valley, Creston Valley, Elkford, Fernie, Golden, Invermere/Panorama, Kimberley, Nakusp, Nelson Kootenay Lake, Radium Hot Springs, Revelstoke, Rossland, Sparwood and Trail.

Know Before You Go – Plan ahead so you can travel safely and responsibly. Familiarize yourself with weather, road conditions, general alerts for travellers and provincial health orders & recommendations.

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Top/cover photo, courtesy of Wandering Wheels in Revelstoke, BC.

Words by Mark Locki. Mark is a photographer and writer based in Kimberley, BC. An avid traveller throughout the Kootenays and abroad, he enjoys exploring the natural world, camera in hand, seeking out compelling stories. He’s often found deep in the backcountry, running, climbing or on skis, challenging himself to discover new scenes and viewpoints. 

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