As we round the corner, the distant hum of 373-metre-high Takakkaw Falls fades behind a wall of grey rock, polished smooth over eons by shifting ice. All flora disappears drastically here, where remnants of ancient seabeds have been thrust skyward by continental plates, now sitting 2,000 metres above sea level. The Emerald Glacier presents itself in a moody haze, with small rivulets of melt water draining out of it. We’re on the Iceline Trail, a 14.2-kilometre, 6½-hour classic march through Yoho National Park that’s famed for tracing the bleeding edge of our planet’s last ice age, which ended 11,700 years ago. Below us, as though some titan carved a giant trench across the mountain with a mythical hoe, a lush forest of evergreen flows downslope from the glacier’s old moraine. It’s a landscape of stark contrasts, dividing the barren alpine from the thriving ecosystem it feeds lower down.
The area, on the western side of the Great Divide, is a living thesis on how some lines are natural and some are made in the mind, as the British Columbia-Alberta border also flows through it. While the Canadian Rockies are most often associated with Alberta, much of the mountain range also lies inside B.C.
“I don’t think people realize that Golden is so central to the national parks,” hiking guide Laura Crombeen tells me, referring to the town of 3,700 on the eastern edge of B.C., where she bases her business, Self Propelled Adventures. It is, in fact, where we accessed this world-renowned hike, taking only 45 minutes to hit the trailhead – less time than it would have from Banff.
“There’s really great hiking in Golden, too,” Crombeen continues, her wiry frame darting forward in practised bursts of fitness. “I’ve got lots of different hikes and options I can choose from depending on my clients’ ability levels and what they want to see for the day. It’s kind of a hiker’s paradise.”
It was the proximity to trails such as this one plus the raw quality of the town that won Crombeen over. Golden sits in the middle of five national parks: Yoho, Kootenay and Glacier, extending peripherally out to Banff and Mount Revelstoke. Over the past two decades, the former timber and rail town has slowly transitioned from a century-old resource extraction camp to a bona fide adventure destination. While most people know it mostly for the winter bonanza that Kicking Horse Mountain Resort offers, many are also discovering it as a down-to-earth summer alternative to the traditional access points of some of the most classic trails in North America. Not to mention the lesser-known gems outside the parks.
“You need to have a bit of a spirit of adventure if you come to Golden,” says Dave Perez, owner-operator of Explore Golden Tours, as he leads me into the backcountry west of the town on a nondescript and empty dirt road the next day. “We’re not developed yet. Our trailheads are not well marked, things are harder to find. But on the other hand, I think when people are coming to the mountains for an adventure, they’re not looking for the paved road to the top of the mountain.”
Putting technique into practice, my outing with Perez requires an hour-long quad ride to the trailhead. These machines are forbidden in the parks, and while this access is dubious, it also makes it practically exclusive. The scenery is on par with that of Banff and Yoho, without a soul in sight. Leaving the nimble four-wheel-drive machines behind, Perez leads me through scrubby sub-alpine forest, then over a boulder field with no marked trail, into an alpine meadow with a waterfall draining from its rim. The peaks above are crumbly, made of pink quartzite and shale. They stand like castle turrets guarding Gorman Lake, where a canoe waits lonesome for passersby to cut the water with. We’ve only been walking for an hour, and could basically keep going forever – south toward Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, or north toward Glacier National Park.
“You’re not going to run into the same numbers of people here,” Perez says, sober about the fact the town still has some strides to make to embrace the adventure industry in full.
He says it was about 10 years after Kicking Horse came into play, in 2000, before the town got on the map. “And then people started loving the fact we’re off the beaten path,” he says. “And the other thing that’s starting to happen is Lake Louise is filling up now. If you don’t get to there by nine in the morning, you have to go to overflow parking and take a bus. And the next place is us – 45 minutes down the road, it’s Golden.”
Perhaps serving as de facto filter for those softer sightseers, Golden is still surrounded by industry on all sides: trains, highways and a mill. But at the creamy centre of it all is a town redefining itself with its blue-collar charm, affordability and supreme access to some of the best mountain wilderness in the country. While the national parks are world-class, so too is the quiet draw of the Purcells, Selkirks and western Rockies – three massive ranges that converge on this town. They hold many of the marquee peaks North America’s founding mountaineers made their names in. If there’s a theme here, it’s finding a way, something Golden has been doing since the 1800s.
With staple businesses such as the mill and railroad still going strong, and the odd bit of rough pavement pervading, Golden is staying true to its roots. While restaurants such as Eleven22 have been offering contemporary menus tuned into metropolitan trends (that is, Asian-fusion) before the ski resort even opened, other businesses, including the Whitetooth Brewing Co., are finding a growing market that includes loggers, adventurers and tourists alike. Soon enough, a chic housing development is coming, too, with cafés and retail spaces, along with a distillery across the street.
The mountains and trails, of course, have been here since the start.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.