Situated at a bend in the valley where the West Arm of Kootenay Lake morphs into the Kootenay River, Nelson is 657km/408mi east of Vancouver and 237km/148mi north of Spokane, Washington.
The Selkirk Mountains dominate the landscape in every direction, with the edge of Kokanee Glacier just visible among the peaks to the north.
While the downtown core occupies a natural bench just up from the lakeshore, the residential areas are built on steep mountainside. Some streets are as steep as any in San Francisco, especially in the neighbourhood known as "Uphill."
Great Northern Trail and Pulpit Rock
Flanking the uppermost parts of the city, a linear park known as the Great Northern Trail is popular for walking and biking. The adjacent forests, which are crisscrossed by mountain bike trails, provide a spectacular show of fall colours right through to the end of October.
The best perspective on the topography of the city is from a rocky outcropping that overlooks the city. Getting up to Pulpit Rock involves a short and vigorous hike, but the views are well worth the effort. Check with the Nelson Visitor Centre for directions.
Bypassed by the Highway
The Crowsnest Highway, the main route through the southern part of the Kootenay Rockies region, bypasses Nelson in favour of a route that goes over the highest mountain pass in BC. Highway 3A, the alternative route, passes through Nelson, and is busiest when avalanches close the pass.
However, it wasn't always that way. Historically, the waterways of the Kootenay Rockies were the main transportation corridors, and Nelson was the hub of transportation for the entire lake. For decades, shallow draft sternwheelers ferried people, supplies and raw materials between towns, villages and railheads. The last of these vessels, the SS Moyie, which was decommissioned in the 1950s, has been completely restored in Kaslo at the north end of Kootenay Lake.
There are still a couple of large vessels on the lake. The MV Osprey creates the highway link across Kootenay Lake, carrying cars and passengers between Balfour and Kootenay Bay. This scenic, 35-minute ferry ride is considered to be the longest free ferry ride in the world.
Climate and Weather
Nelson enjoys four distinct seasons, although the proximity of Kootenay Lake creates a microclimate that mitigates extreme winter temperatures. Average lows and highs in the winter are -4.9°C/23°F and 1°C/33°F. Average lows and highs in summer are 11°C/51°F and 27°C/79°F. Annual precipitation totals 73cm/29in, while winter snow in the valley adds up to 225cm/88in.