BC’s Best Mountain Towns

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Mountains? That’s British Columbia. Straddling the Canadian Rockies, much of BC’s nearly 400,000 square miles is wilderness—including lush rainforest, mountain ranges, and glacial peaks. It’s also dotted with delightful, laid-back mountain towns. Some are ski villages or outdoor adventure basecamps; others are reinvented mining and logging towns. But all are big on charm, quirky characters, and local color. Get to know the very best.

Fernie: Best chill vibe/high-octane sports combo    

Population: 5,250

Claim to fame: The Rockies’ most epic powder

Try: Fernie Brewing Co.’s Trail to Ale challenge: Summit three peaks in 24 hours to win a pint

Why: Adventure by day, revel in town by night

Historic downtown Fernie in summer

The social hub of Fernie is its historic downtown. Credit: Raven Eye Photography-Tourism Fernie. For travel information, videos and photo galleries of Fernie visit tourismfernie.com.

Low-key Fernie feels a bit frozen in time. There’s downtown’s turn-of-the-century 2nd Avenue, lined with historic brick storefronts that resemble a Wild West outpost. Then there’s the setting: Towering mountains on four sides cut by the Elk River, accented with handsome log cabins and alpine chalets. No wonder movie producers like to use it as a film set. A former coal mining and logging camp, today Fernie is a youthful, unpolished, unpretentious ski town for adventurous powderhounds. Though it gets hammered with 29 feet of light, fluffy snow each year, the place somehow manages never to be too crowded, attracting avid downhillers, boarders, and cat skiiers to Fernie Alpine Resort just three miles away. There’s hiking, biking, rafting, and fly fishing, too, and autumn is nothing short of spectacular with the trees below the Lizard Range all ablaze. Don’t leave town without sampling a honeycomb milk chocolate bar at Beanpod.

Nelson: Best artsy all-around town

Population: 10,500

Claim to fame: Bona fide hippy culture

Try: Riding the restored 1920s vintage streetcar

Why: Great arts and eats in this outdoor adventure zone

Nelson, BC

Shopping is a favourite pastime in downtown Nelson. Credit: Dave Heath

Artsy Nelson is an appealing mix of hearty locals, salt of the earth characters, and urban escapees. Often called one of Canada’s prettiest, it’s set on the West Arm of sapphire-blue Kootenay Lake in southeastern BC’s Selkirk Mountains—an ex logging/mining town that’s culturally-minded and outdoorsy, friendly and bohemian. People-watch at a funky café, dine out in a restored Victorian, and peruse the eclectic collection of galleries, crystal, ceramics, and knife shops set in Gold Rush-era buildings lining the forested hillside. It’s gorgeous, green, and never really too hot here. Ski, snowshoe, and snowmobile in winter; fish, hike, climb, paddle, mountain bike, golf, and go boating in summer. Stay at the historic Hume Hotel & Spa and take a short hike up to Pulpit Rock for the best view of town and its 350 heritage buildings.

Whistler: Best nightlife après slopes

Population: 12,000

Claim to fame: North America’s largest ski resort

Try: Seeing coastal First Nations art at the new Audain Art Museum

Why: To live the good life—if only for a week

Whistler Village nightlife

Village Nightlife at Skiers Plaza. Credit: Tourism Whistler/Justa Jeskova

The world knows Whistler Blackcomb, just north of Vancouver, as a top global ski destination. It’s stylish, glam, and high-end with a youthful, high-energy vibe. It’s also a year-round playground, famed for its ski-in-the-morning-golf-in-the-afternoon proposition. The Euro-style pedestrian Village boasts critically acclaimed dining and designer shopping, and is party central once the sun goes down. Get your adrenaline pumping outside all day—skiing vertical, riding gravity-fed mountain bike trails, hiking among glaciers, and ziplining across canyons—then dine out and dance the night away.

Smithers: Best backcountry wilderness adventure

Population: 6,000

Claim to fame: The hugely popular mid-summer music festival

Try: Learning about railroad history at Bulkley Valley Museum

Why: To see wildlife and get into the local music scene

Dennis Lake in Smithers

Dennis Lake in Smithers – Credit: Destination BC/Grant Harder

Alpine-style Smithers is where you go to get away from it all, get into outdoor adventure, and see wildlife—namely, moose, mountain goats, and bears. In northwestern BC off the Yellowhead Highway, it’s tucked into a scenic valley next to towering Hudson Bay Mountain. This northern community, a former railway hub, is authentic, fun-loving, and rough around the edges. Enviro-minded “Smithereens” adore their festivals and fishing (steelhead), hiking and skiing. There’s a surprising amount of cultural activity, too: Jazz and folk music showcases, free outdoor concerts, yoga in the park, field-to-table feasts, theatre, and quality restaurants. Take up residence in a rustic cabin and plan your hike/ski/canoe/horseback ride. This is also a primo spot to see the Northern Lights, and hunt and fish in fall.

Rossland: Best old-school kickback mojo

Population: 3,500

Claim to fame: Mountain biking hot spot

Try: Watching ice carving at the lively Rossland Winter Carnival

Why: For cycling + R&R

Downtown Rossland BC

Downtown Rossland – Credit: Destination BC/Dave Heath

With its extensive network of old miner’s trails and reclaimed rail lines skirting around the volcanic valley, Rossland is mountain biking heaven. The southern BC town is high up in the Monashee Mountains at 3,400 feet, just over the U.S. border, an 1800s mining boomtown turned outdoor hub. Fans go to trail riding in summer and to downhill through powder at Red Mountain Ski Resort in winter, lured by the hardcore sports and low-key free time mix. Refreshingly old-style with no traffic lights or malls, the town has an impressive number of cute, idiosyncratic indie boutiques. Sample the local craft brew and catch a concert.

Be sure to check out the nature-themed arts scene rooted in First Nations culture.

Read more about other top towns in BC.

Featured image: An early winter morning in Historic Downtown Fernie. Photo: Will Barbour-Tourism Fernie