Hugo raced up the dirt road driving like a mad man in the beat up truck that looked like it was held together with duct tape. Dirt flew as we rounded hairpin turns way faster than I was comfortable with. We screech to a halt at the top of the mountain when we could go no further where we all pile out of the car.
I took off running at full speed, the adrenaline racing through me as I looked ahead and saw the cliff. This was it. Do or die. My feet kept moving but the ground had disappeared I was airborne and my stomach was in knots.
No, this isn’t the beginning to a James Bond movie, it’s the beginning of my paragliding experience in the Adventure capital of the Canadian Rockies, Golden BC.
Golden British Columbia
Golden is in British Columbia Canada and historically was put on the map by the Canadian Pacific Railway. However it has survived through the years thanks to its strong community and ability to work together. Golden BC is surrounded by peaks and parks. Six national parks are closeby – Bannf, Glacier, Jasper, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, and Yoho. And it sits at the confluence of two historic rivers – Columbia and Kicking Horse Rivers. All of this grand nature to work with puts it at the epicenter of adventure travel and tourism in the Canadian Rockies. Yet somehow it has remained a very real, functioning, non-touristy town, which is quite different from its famous neighbor – Banff.
Banff is the town that most people have heard of when it comes to the Canadian Rockies – the popular kid, pristine, full of gift shops and tourism dollars. But Golden is definitely no Banff – and that’s just how I like it. Golden BC sort of plays 2nd fiddle to it’s bigger neighbor Banff in the winter, but in the summer – it’s king. If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, or simply some great outdoor experiences, or a new place to spend your summer adventure fever – Golden BC has it all.
The Birthplace of Adventure Travel in Canada
It all started with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and it’s desire to bring more tourism to the Canadian Rockies. CPR had a large operation in Golden BC – a small valley town in the perfect location for mountain exploration. At the end of the 19th century, CPR had built a few hotels around the area and was ready for tourists to show up and market the Canadian Rockies as the next frontier in mountaineering.
“Since we can’t export the scenery, we shall import the tourists.” –CPR General Manager Willian VanHorne
Swiss Mountain Guides in Canada
In order to assist those tourists, the CPR hired mountain guides from Switzerland to come out and guide in the mountains and help mentor them in growing this idea of adventure mountain tourism which was growing in Europe and Switzerland. In addition to guiding, they were also responsible for mountain rescue, and exploration. It started with a few guides who left their families to come out and guide in Canada for the climbing/hiking season (spring to fall). From there it grew and grew and Golden started to have a Swiss influence.
The little town of Golden even has a little museum with an exhibition dedicated to the story of these Swiss guides who were really responsible for bringing adventure tourism to Canada. The photos on display at the Golden BC Museum were astonishing looking at the old equipment the guides used to use. Many of these first guides were the first to summit many of the peaks in the area and subsequently had the peaks named after them – their legend lives on.
The Swiss-Canadian Village
In 1911, the program evolved further when the CPR decided to build 5 Swiss chalets for the men to bring their families with them and live in Golden BC full time. This innovative program had a few issues with it regarding the construction and location of the homes, but it was fascinating to learn about how the Swiss played such a big role in this part of Canada.
We drove up to the area where the Swiss Chalets were located. It was affectionately called the Swiss Village and 4 of the 5 homes had fallen into disrepair, but one remains perfectly intact as it was. Daughters of the families met us there and took us through the chalet – a fascinating step back in time and look into their lives. I can only hope that Golden continues to restore these structures as they have such a fascinating history and story to tell.
It was here where we met Rudi, an old Swiss Adventure Guide turned Heli Ski Founder. Rudi’s eyes crinkled when he warmly smiled making me immediately feel connected and comfortable with him. His silver hair peeked out from beneath his brown felt ranger-like hat. My gaze followed from his hat down to his silver lariat around his neck, his embroidered shirt, wool blazer, knickers (not the UK version) and rested on his socks. His crazy, hand knit, wool socks mesmerized me. When I asked him about them, he laughed and told me that his mother knit them years ago.
Rudi came from Switzerland to work as a Swiss Guide in Golden and Yoho Park. However even though Rudi came over to be a guide – he also decided that it was a very hard life where the guides would be away from their families for long periods. Rudi wanted to find a way to have a job that allowed him to be at home more so after working as a skiing guide, he started the Purcell Heli Skiiing. Helicopter skiing took off in the mid 60’s thanks to the Swiss Guides in Canada, and it was another major game changer for the Canadian Rockies and Golden.
5 Adventurous Things to Do in Golden BC
Since Golden BC is the adventure birthplace of Canada, it was fitting that I would concentrate on summer adventure activities while I was there for 3 days. The hiking, wetland touring, paragliding, and white water rafting left my heart pounding and provided amazing opportunities for photography
1. Paragliding Altitude Adventures
Golden is known to be a paragliding paradise. The mountain ranges and thermals from the river allows paragliders to do super long flights up to 165 km. And my Altitude Adventures instructor, Scott, was a pro at long term gliding – I was in pretty good hands.
Once we got through the hardest part, running at full speed off a cliff, the rest was pretty easy.
All I had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride down among beautiful mountain peaks. Scott would nimbly steer us towards the mountains so I could get pictures. He even let me steer once. It was a soothing ride and was a great way to get some pictures from an unusual vantage point. We had an easy landing and it all seemed to be over too quickly!
2. Mountain Biking
Kicking Horse Mountain is known for winter skiing, but in the summer it turns into a mountain bikers playground.
You can rent bikes and proper gear from the store at the bottom of the mountain and then take it all up on the gondola to Eagles Nest Lodge where all the trails start from. The trails range from advanced to beginner and it’s 10 km to get to the bottom. That’s 10km of pure adrenaline.
Looking at the difficulty of the trails – I decided to forgo 2 wheels, however my friend Matt from ExpertVagabond.com was ready to take a ride. I watched as he started down the narrow trail and disappear out of my site. Needless to say – mountain biking is the fastest way down Kicking Horse Mountain. Read about Matt’s experience here.
3. Hiking near Eagles Nest
Since Mountain Biking wasn’t my speed, I instead road the gondola up to the top of Kicking Horse Mountain and did some ridge hikes. The views were mind blowing – so many peaks surrounding you and you could see 5 national parks from the top.
After the hike I made my way to the Eagles Nest – the highest restaurant in Golden at 4,000 ft. Eagles Nest is a beautiful restaurant and bar that serves up exquisite food and a famous Caesar cocktail (similar to a Bloody Mary with Clamato juice). In fact – this was the best view in a bar that I’ve ever seen. If you want more hiking then try out Yoho National Park nearby for great trails too.
4. Wetlands Wildlife Experiences
“It’s a hotbed of exotic duck activity,” Wally said with a big excited grin on his face. Our wetlands tour guide was giddy with excitement taking us out on the Columbia River. Wetlands Adventures offer a variety of ways for you to see wildlife on the Columbia River – by canoe, stand up paddle board, or by electrical pontoon boat so you will remain super quiet. We took the pontoon on a foggy, cool morning.
“In weather like this everyone comes down to the river banks to eat,” said Wally – so we were hoping for some great animal activity. We saw some eagles and various birds – but I just sat back and enjoyed the somewhat eerie scenery and complete quiet.
5. White Water Rafting Kicking Horse River
Next we found ourselves on a river that wasn’t so calm – in fact it had class 4 rapids! Kicking Horse River was overflowing and the power of the current intimidated me at the beginning. After some instruction from our Wet and Wild guides though, we took off prepared to paddle our hearts out and get wet. Happy to report we all stayed in the raft thanks to good teamwork and no one went overboard!
After your Adventures, Enjoy the Small Town of Golden
I fell in love with was the town of Golden itself. It wasn’t pretentious or loaded with gift shops, it was a real functioning town full of locals walking their dogs and socializing at the downtown restaurants. In true small town form, the ‘downtown’ area consisted of one long street with cafes, bookstores, liquor stores, and an art gallery. A place where everyone knows everyone – even out of town visitors who are in town for 3 days.
Golden’s Timber Pedestrian Bridge
Sigi’s face lit up as he told us about the town’s masterpiece – the timber pedestrian bridge that crossed over the Kicking Horse River. Sigi Liebmannat, the bridge architect and Master Timberframer, was pointing out construction elements and telling us the story of how a little town like Golden, Canada came to have the longest freestanding timber bridge in Canada.
As Sigi pointed out details I happened to look up and see a familiar face walk by – Andy who I had met 2 days before on Kicking Horse Mountain was walking over the bridge – a major pedestrian route for the city. I smiled and said hi, we chatted briefly and he went on his way.
I refocused on Sigi again as he was telling the story of the community coming together to make this bridge happen. It was planned as a community project by the Timber Framers Guild, volunteers from Golden were joined by carpenters from other countries to create this 150 foot long and 210,000 pound work of art. It was a community effort full of dedication and sweat to put this bridge in place.
As we looked at the plaques placed on the bridge with pictures and descriptions of the effort, Sigi explained the bridge’s beams, trusses, arches and roofing were locally milled Douglass Firs. All of a sudden I heard another “Hello”, a woman whom I had met yesterday when we visited the Swiss Village was crossing the bridge with her dog. We once again chatted a bit exchanging niceties before she continued her walk.
It hit me then why I loved this little town – because it was a small town through an through. Only in a small town can you be there for 3 days and run into people you ‘know’ or met previously. I had never set foot in Golden before, but suddenly people knew me – a strange concept for a nomadic traveler like me to grasp. I’m used to being anonymous, mixed in with tourists just passing through – but in Golden I felt welcomed and at home.
Where to Eat in Golden
The restaurants in Golden were my biggest surprises – for a town of 4,000 people the quality and sophistication of food was phenomenal. The culinary scene was the only part of the town that didn’t operate like a small town. Dinners ranged from seafood to game meat such as bison. I enjoyed inventive cocktails like a classic Caesar with bacon infused vodka (yes bacon!). Golden’s Cedar House Restaurant was named one of the top 50 restaurants in Canada – complete with rustic ambiance, an amazing wine and cocktail selection, and palate cleansers.
Golden was…well…it was golden to me. I felt like I had hit the jackpot of the perfect balance of tourism and normal everyday life – a town with diversity that could exist even if it’s tourism disappeared. Residents who were proud of their home, their history, and loved to genuinely share it. It was a real town with real people. And it wasn’t Banff.
If you are looking for one stop for summer adventure travel, then consider all the things to do in Golden BC.
After all of these experiences – I did sort of feel like James Bond at the end of the weekend.
I’ll have the Caesar…shaken not stirred.
PIN IT FOR LATER!
I was a guest of Tourism Golden and Destination BC for this trip. However all of the opinions expressed here are my own. I had been wanting to see the Canadian Rockies for a long time and getting to the lesser known town of Golden was the perfect destination for my style of travel.