Discovering the South Canadian Rockies: Small Towns and Big Mountains

As the South Canadian Rockies notes, “history runs deep in our Rocky Mountain towns, and our towering mountains provide a four-season playground that lets you go beyond the ordinary.Carol Patterson visited to this region to get a pulse on how a rise in tourism has affected the region, and how you can visit, responsibly.

South Canadian Rockies
South Canadian Rockies has room to roam without crowds. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

My snowshoes punched through the crusty snow covering Beauvais Lake, a place cherished by fishermen, campers and birdwatchers, but relatively unknown to international tourists. Our group of adventurers was alone in the provincial park, save for a few ice fishermen, and some hardy chickadees, their tweets carrying across the warm winter air. 

Far from the crowds of Banff and Jasper, the South Canadian Rockies destination is winning over adventure and nature lovers. At the southern end of the Canadian Rocky Mountain range lies Crowsnest Pass and a string of communities between the British Columbia border and Pincher Creek.

The region squeezes four provincial parks, a scientifically-significant golden eagle migration, 26 restaurants, and a blossoming culinary and brewing scene into a compact area that guarantees visitors spend more time recreating than driving. 

Exploring Responsibly

Heather David from Uplift Adventures
Heather Davis of Uplift Adventures shares her perspective of the South Canadian Rockies. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

I followed Heather Davis, founder of Uplift Adventures, to a picnic shelter and lunch. I joked, “I think I’m more about charcuterie than snowshoeing,” as the door swung open to a fire crackling in the wood stove. Atop a wooden picnic table boxes of charcuterie meats and cheeses were open for sampling, and a chocolate fondue lured me closer. 

Davis came to the region as a provincial government employee to repair trail damage from the catastrophic 2013 floods and stayed to create her own guiding company in 2018. As I dipped a plump, red strawberry into melted chocolate, Davis articulated with a protectiveness I’d seen among other tourism operators, her desire for the region to grow organically and avoid the over tourism popular destinations have struggled with.

“My background helps me understand impacts and what balance looks like on the landscape,” Davis states, before stressing the need for planning. “What’s the land capacity? Where do we want people to go? Where do we want them to park? What infrastructure is required with the other users of the land?” she queried, leaving me with plenty to mull over. 

A Rich Natural Environment

South Canadian Rockies, Alberta
South Canadian Rockies includes mountain, grasslands and riparian habitats. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

The Pikanii Blackfoot have lived in this area for centuries and referred to Piitaistakis Ridge as the “Place of Eagles” because each spring and fall thousands of raptors including large numbers of Golden Eagles migrate along the mountain ridges. The indigenous knowledge was lost until area resident Peter Sherrington watched large numbers of raptors in March 1993 and realized he was observing a major migratory route. 

Residents are increasingly aware that they live in environment rich in natural and cultural resources and there is growing competition among users. For decades this region relied on mining, agriculture, and the railway for economic activity. Now that tourism is transforming the region into a playground for adventure seekers looking for something new or further from crowds, people are uncertain on their next steps. 

Spending Time in the Towns of the South Canadian Rockies

Blairmore, Alberta
In Blairmore, residents want sustainable tourism growth to preserve cultural and natural assets. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

Back in the van and winding along the quiet roads, the mountain peaks poking into clear blue skies, we headed to Blairmore, turning onto Highway 3 with views of the small towns dotting the land near the railway tracks, Highway 3 and the Crowsnest River. A friend commented on how it felt a bit like being inside a model train set. 

We stopped at the Burmis Tree, a local landmark. A limber pine, the tree lived for 650 years, dying in the 1970s, blowing over in 1998, and being propped back up shortly after, the community unwilling to let it go. Perhaps it is this commitment to leaving no one behind that makes me feel the South Canadian Rockies understands what’s worth saving.  

Seated at The Pass Beer Company with perhaps the best patio in the pass and a view of Crowsnest Mountain, Max Rude, head brewer, shared his journey after graduating from Alberta’s Old College Brewmaster Program to jobs in British Columbia before settling in the Crowsnest Pass. Rude explained how he was able to brew ale for a living, and own a house, something he credited to the area’s reasonable cost of living. But it’s changing. Rude explained that finding staff was a constant challenge, “We’re open Mondays and Tuesdays (when other places are closed), and closed Wednesdays, so there’s (always) a place people can go to eat.”

I could relate to his worries. We’d had to change our dining reservations twice over two days because restaurants were closed due to unexpected staff shortages. However, it led to delightful discoveries like Chris’ Restaurant in downtown Coleman. A timeless diner in a vintage brick building, a sticker on the door reminded us that the region was on National Geographic’s Crown of the Continent geotourism map. Wooden tables and chairs were tucked into tidy rows and servings were hearty. 

We enjoyed rapidly refilled cups of coffee and the chance after breakfast to visit Crowsnest Coffee Company across the street. Troy Misseghers, the “Roastmeister” at Crowsnest Coffee Company was grinding coffee in a heritage storefront but stopped to chat. Misseghers likes biking and with cheaper property values than other mountain communities, can balance work with outdoor adventure. Along with president Christine Misseghers, they sell the coffee in bike shops and other venues across South Canadian Rockies.   

Growth, but Not at All Costs

Later I talked to Sacha Anderson, General Manager, Community Futures Crowsnest Pass about how the region balances the desire to grow without becoming too big or too busy. “When the province created the Castle Provincial Park and Wilderness Areas back in 2018, it became apparent that there was no collective tourism voice in the area,” Anderson explained.

A tourism destination marketing organization, South Canadian Rockies, was created and now they’re working with Travel Alberta to create a destination development plan.   

With an aim to managing tourism’s direction, stakeholders are being asked for their input. “A lot of the South Canadian Rockies focus is on creating a sustainable tourism model,” Anderson elaborated, “Where can we handle more tourists? Where can’t we? Let’s try to get ahead of it before people arrive.”

Erin Fairhurst, South Canadian Rockies Coordinator, feels the key to sustainable growth is “is by being mindful of our own identity. A lot of our operators are really focused on quality rather than quantity experiences that will keep people in the region, spread out over a certain amount of time rather than a lot of visitors for one brief bit of time.”   

The South Canadian Rockies Await

And it’s a region with many experiences to explore. It includes several protected areas including Castle Provincial Park, Castle Wildland Provincial Park, West Castle Wetlands Ecological Reserve, Beauvais Lake Provincial Park, and Lundbreck Falls Provincial Recreation Area.

The small-town atmosphere may be harder to preserve but I hoped the people of South Canadian Rockies succeeded in welcoming tourism on their terms.

The author was hosted by the destination but all opinions are her own.

2 thoughts on “Discovering the South Canadian Rockies: Small Towns and Big Mountains

  1. Jason Cox says:

    I think you have made a major mistake in your mountains. The view of castle mountain from the Pass Beer Co. patio is not possible unless you are in a plane looking all the way to Banff

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