The areas on either side of the West Kootenay are in significant rain shadows and are thus much drier. The WK contain one of the few temperate rainforests in the world. This produces a varied forest with many species of trees and a lovely forest floor with mushrooms, ferns, and mosses. Logging cut blocks seem much less visible. The summer alpine wildflower display must be one of the best natural flower displays in the world. Because of its width and size, the mountain views from the shores of Kootenay Lake are the biggest low elevation views in the West Kootenay.
The WK has a wonderful climate. Winters are relatively mild and have heavy snowfall with some of the best powder skiing in the world. The freshet or spring melt starts in May and lake levels reach their highest generally in the first few weeks of July. Beaches are much smaller at high water. Summers are usually hot and dry, there is relatively little wind except on Kootenay Lake, and biting insects are uncommon. I would suggest that all the water in the lakes is safe to drink (especially if sourced away from the shorelines). The same goes for most creeks emptying into the lakes away from human habitation. I have drank it all my life with no problems but to be sure, one may want to purify it.
Probably the best part of the WK is its relative isolation and small population. Usually there is no one else on the water in self-propelled craft. Kootenay Lake though has an active fishing culture.
The most detailed maps are the 1:50,000 series topographical maps but it would be quite expensive to buy all to cover each lake. Less satisfactory are the 1:250,000 series maps – 82E, 82K, 82N, and 82F cover the entire area. Satisfactory and free is the 1:250,000 Arrow and Kootenay Lake Forest Districts Recreation Map produced by the BC Ministry of Forests.
Kootenay Lake is big, some 105 kms long and up to 5 kms wide. The Purcells are to the east and the Selkirks to the west of the lake. The West Arm of the lake flows west from near its centre, and just past the city of Nelson forms the Kootenay River again which enters the Columbia 50 km north of the US/Canada border at Castlegar. There are 6 hydroelectric dams between Nelson and Castlegar. The lake is world renowned for its lake trout fishery. A particular subspecies, the Gerrard trout is a gargantuan species of rainbow, averaging 7-9 kg with the record of 23.4 kg. Its size is at least partly due to the fact its main diet is the land locked kokanee salmon.
This huge lake can make for challenging kayaking as it develops significant wind waves usually by the afternoon. The water remains relatively cold throughout the season and thus swimming is not that pleasant. The valley is wide providing better views of the surrounding mountains with some of the best sunsets and sunrises in the WK. Four 1:50,000 maps cover the entire lake. From north to south they are 82K/2 – Lardeau, 82F/15 – Kaslo, 82F/10 – Crawford Bay, and 82F/7 – Boswell. 82K and 82N 1:250,000 maps provide much less detail (there are sixteen 1:50,000 maps in each 1:250,000 scale map).
Due to its large size with well over 200 km of shoreline, it would be difficult to do it all in one go. It took me many 3 day weekends over a few seasons to see the whole lake. The west side of the bottom half and east side of the top half are almost roadless. Camping can be more difficult on the sides of the lake with roads due to the many private properties.
NORTH END / WEST SIDE
Highway 31 runs along this entire shore but is rarely next to the water. The Duncan Riverenters the north end, adding silt and producing shallow water. It is easy to get high centreed here.
The tiny community of Lardeau (N50°08.58’ W116°56.8’) has 2 boat launches and Davis Creek Provincial Park (PP) on its south end. The Davis Creek Trail starts just north of the highway bridge and is a steep one hour climb to a small grove of very large old growth cedar trees. Gerrard trout can be seen spawning in the Lardeau river in late April/early May.
Lost Ledges PP (N50°06.19’ W116°56.15’) has a good boat launch on its north end and nice campsites many on the water. I once parked here for 4 days and brought home a pack rat that had taken up residence in my engine compartment. This is the last camping on this side of the lake until the small town of Kaslo, 22km south.
Kaslo (pop. 1029) is in a gorgeous setting on the shores of the lake with other worldly views of the Purcell mountains on the opposite shore. The striking peak to the SE is Loki, which only recently has had a trail built to the top. Kaslo has all services including a nicely restored hotel and the SS Moyie, a restored sternwheeler that is a worthwhile visit. The Kaslo Jazz Festival, with the stage on the lake, is held the first weekend of August every year. Camping may be possible in the park near the sternwheeler. This is a good place to launch, camp at Lost Ledges, continue over the north end of the lake and then down the east side where there is much more camping. Then return back to Kaslo to your vehicle for a nice 3-4 day trip.
Fletcher Falls Rec. Site (N50°0.22’ W116°53.89’), 8 km south of Kaslo has a day use area and a small semi-open campsite on the lake. Parking is on the highway so it is likely that you may be the only camper. Woodbury Resort and Jones Boys Marina, another 8 km south has a restaurant and store. Ainsworth Hot Springs (N49°44.06’ W116°54.42’) has a jetty and a resort with the most popular hot springs in the WK. There is a warm pool and a horseshoe shaped tunnel with hot water pouring off the roof, private “alcoves”, and a nice place to sit out of the water in a natural recess. Take a refreshing dip in the cold pool. This is a well worthwhile diversion from kayaking.
Coffee Creek PP (N49°41.76’ W116°54.30’) has a good forested campsite on the lake. The road access was washed out by a flood several years ago so again boaters are likely to be the only campers. There are two other potential campsites between here and the West Arm at Balfour. One is at N49°40.33’ W116°55.0’, the second at the top end of Queens Bay just west of McEwan Point at 49°39.30’ W116°55.84’. One of the best launch sites on this side of the lake is in the community of Balfour at N49°37.70’ (this can be somewhat difficult to find; simply wander around the roads to the most easterly part of this small town, there is ample free parking here). Just inside the West Arm, Balfour is the west terminus of the Kootenay Lake Ferry, the longest free ferry in the world at 9 km.
NORTH END / EAST SIDE
Argenta is a small town right at the north end and has a good boat launch again with good parking. It’s original settlers included many Quakers who came in the early 50’s. There are no businesses here. There is a nice beach at N50°07.95’ W116°54.50’. A road ends at the tiny community of Johnson’s Landing (pop. 35). A huge landslide came down Gar Creek engulfing 3 homes and killing four people in July, 2012.
Fry Point at N50°03.53’ W116°52.63’, has a large campground on its north side. It is owned by the NW Society of the Unitarian Church, which was formed solely to purchase the land and preserve it. There is a caretaker present throughout the summer and a fee is charged. Fry Creek has a dramatic canyon upstream from the point with a foot bridge. The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy comes down to the lake shore for 6 km here.
Campbell Bay PP N49°57.24’ is SE of Verandah Point and has nice beach campsites. The Clute Lake Trail departs from the back of the bay. Two km south at N49°56.23’ W116°51.51.66’ is the Leviathan Lake Trail. There are pictographs on the lake shore at N49°54.39’ W116°52.63’ (directly opposite Kaslo), and at N49°53.90 W116°52.00’.
Garland Bay Rec Site is a semi-open medium sized drive in site (albeit at the end of a long logging road) with 2 campsites on Bernard Creek at N49°52.23’ W116°51.55’ and a non drive in site on the south side of the same point. These are heavily used in the summer.
Pebble Beach Rec Site N49°48.40’ W116°51.12’ is a small walk-in or boat-in site with a pebble beach!
The small village of Riondel (pop. 400) has a community campground on the beach at the north end of town. There is a store, restaurant and a medical clinic. Avoid Galena Bay at the south end of town as it is rocky and further from the amenities. A famous Ashram with a large white dome is at Walkers Point and it is possible to camp under the large power line crossing the lake. The east side of the free ferry, part of Highway 3A from Balfour is at Kootenay Bay.
Pilot Bay PP occupies a small peninsula and the land across Pilot Bay where the campsite is near Sawmill Cove. It has many great hiking trails.
Tipi Camp, owned by a non-profit organization, is just NW of Cape Horn and boat accessed usually from Grey Creek where there is a store and boat launch. It hosts many groups through the summer including a great yoga retreat at the end of August.
SOUTH END /EAST SIDE.
Highway 3A runs down this entire side of the lake significantly limiting camping possibilities. This section of highway has been voted one of the premier motorcycling roads in Canada.
Lockhart Beach PP. N49°30.64’ W116°47.16’. Even though this is a “beach” park, there is no camping on the beach! The only camping is in the campground across the road, a long carry. The one time I have camped here, I actually set up my tent on the beach and eventually stayed when the host gave in to our request.
The Glass House. A pioneer in the area built a fantastic house out of embalming bottles. It is worth a visit. The only place to camp on this part of the lake is on a nice open, small sandy public beach at N49°23.13’ W116°42.57’. There is no table nor toilet. This is also a reasonable launch site.
Kuskanook. This marina is the only good launch site on this section of the lake. The parking requires a fee. This is 2 km north of Kuskanook PP.
Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area. Although this is not really kayak accessible and is best visited by car, it has great walks and blinds to observe birds.
SOUTH END / WEST SIDE
There is no road on this part of the lake but the CPR rail line follows close to the shore of the entire side. The water in all the creeks (except possibly Next Creed) should be very good. There is an interesting petroglyph panel at N49°17.04’ W116°44.14’. From south to north, the available sights and camping opportunities are as follows.
Next Creek Rec Site. N49°18.16’ W116°45.70’. This is a small boat accessible campsite that may be heavily used in the summer.
Tye Creek Rec Site. N49°19.65’ W116°47.10’. There are two boat accessible lakeside campsites. There are houses here and the south site is also road accessible but through private land (contact Darkwoods Forestry Ltd in Nelson for permission). The one time I stayed here, the mosquitos (generally uncommon) were terrible.
Midge Creek Marine PP. N49°22.70’ W116°48.30’. This is a large open campsite with a great sandy beach.
Drewry Point PP. N49°25.17’ W116°48.50’. This campsite in the trees has good beach access on either side of the point and is only 4 ½ km north of Midge Creek.
There is another small but very nice beach with possible camping at N49°29.03’ W116°50.38’ almost opposite Lockhart Beach PP. Another good spot to rustic camp is a rock beach at N49°36.45’ W116°53.68’ about 4 km SE of the West Arm of Kootenay Lake.
There is often considerable current at the entrance to the West Arm. It is 33 lake kms to Nelson. This makes for a nice but very long day trip where one has all kinds of opportunity to get a view of the highest priced real estate in the WK. Highway 3A follows the entire north side of this portion of lake. The south shore has the ferry accessible communities of Proctor and Harrop. In Nelson the best take out point is Lakeside Park right after the big orange bridge.
Kokanee Creek PP. This large lakeside campground is very busy in the summer and reservations would be recommended. It would make a good half way camp to split the West Arm into a two day trip.
Kootenay River. Immediately after Nelson the West Arm turns into a river and goes through Grohman Narrows with some turbulent water. Just after Highway 3A crosses the river is Taghum Beach on the south shore with a good launch and take out point and ample free parking. It is a nice kayak down to the first dam, about 9 km from Taghum Beach. There are four more dams and then the only other reasonable place to kayak is the 17 km stretch between South Slocan and the Brilliant Dam just before Castlegar. The only put in is just downstream from the Glade Ferry. Mostly lake, there are a few places with appreciable current especially in the upper end. The beauty of hydroelectric power is that it is simple to amp up power production for peak periods, when the current will be greatest.