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From Gold Rush to Van Life: Discovering Fort Steele, British Columbia

Welcome back to another chapter of my 2023 Summer Van Life Road Trip. I hope you've been enjoying the ride so far because today, we're diving back into the picturesque Kootenays to unravel the secrets of Jimsmith Lake Provincial Park and the captivating Fort Steele. For those new to the blog, I'm a retired solo female traveller who is currently on a grand road trip in my beloved converted Sprinter cargo van, named Wanda, around the stunning Canadian province of British Columbia.

So far I've meandered from my home in the suburbs of Vancouver to the serene shores of Okanagan Lake Provincial Park and have embraced the rugged beauty of Christina Lake. I've sipped wines at Columbia Gardens Winery, and discovered lesser-known gems like Salmo and Lockhart Beach Provincial Park - it's been one epic journey through British Columbia's untamed wilderness

And that's not all! I've even soaked in the soothing Nakusp Hot Springs and roamed the grandeur of Yoho and Banff National Parks before making a pit stop at my sister's horse ranch near Calgary. Quite the adventure, wouldn't you say?

But today, I'm whisking you back to the Kootenays - a region that holds a special place in my heart. Wildfires have been a big problem this summer in Western Canada. A windshift caused the smoke from nearby fires to blanket most of western Alberta and eastern BC as I left the Calgary area. As an asthmatic, I have more difficulty with poor air quality than most, so I changed my plans to wander slowly south and drove until I found an area where the skies were more clear, which is how I found myself at Jimsmith Lake Provincial Park, close to the historic North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Fort Steele.

There are HUGE mountains behind that haze. The picture could have been spectacular!

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Ready to embark on this adventure with me? Well then, let's hit the road and dive headfirst into the wonders that await in the Kootenays!


Van Life: The Long Drive

As mentioned previously, I was driving in search of clear skies but it seemed to be a lost cause. Thunderstorms in the last few days had set off several new fires. The mountains were virtually hidden behind the haze of smoke. I could smell and taste the smoke. At several points along the road, fire fighting helicopters were seen doing their circuits.

I had been hoping to stay at several of the small towns and places of interest along the route but the smoke didn't lift. As I was driving, I was thinking of alternative routings that wouldn't take me too far away so I could circle back in a day or two when the winds shifted to give clear skies.


I did make one brief stop at the Continental Divide as I was leaving Banff National Park. This is the geographic point where the water basins split the direction of drainage. All water to the west of this point drains into the Pacific Ocean, while all water to the east drains into the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the dividing line between Alberta's Banff and BC's Kootenay National Parks.

By the time I had reached Cranbrook, the smoke was still in the air but wasn't filling the valleys and if I drove much further, it wouldn't have made any sense to circle back to my original route (not that circling back makes a lot of sense in the first place!). I checked my various apps and saw that Jimsmith Lake Provincial Park was a short distance away, so that's where I set the GPS to lead me.


Jimsmith Lake Provincial Park

Jimsmith Lake Provincial Park covers an area of approximately 64 hectares (158 acres), and it is dominated by the stunning Jimsmith Lake itself. The glacial-fed lake reflects the peaks and trees that surround it. The waters are calm which allows for swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding and fishing. There is also a good network of well-maintained trails.

Location 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The park is located approximately 35 kilometres (22 miles) northeast of Cranbrook and about 21 kilometres (13 miles) south of Fort Steele Historic Site. It is a seasonal campground that closes during the winter season.

Amenities 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ This is a typical basic provincial park with the cleanest pit toilets I have ever encountered. Potable water is available. There is adequate cell service. The day use area is currently under construction. There is a small jetty/dock in the swimming area perfect for lazing upon or for jumping off into the lake. The lake temperature is on the colder side.

Campsites 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕 🏕️

There are 35 sites, a few large enough to hold bigger rigs. The sites are generally flat and impeccably clean. Each site includes a picnic table and a fire pit, although a province-wide campfire ban is in place. There is plenty of privacy between sites. The sites are a reasonable size and Wanda and I had plenty of room. Most sites had a good balance of shade and sun.

Nearby Activities/Services 🏕️ 🏕️

There isn't a town or community within walking distance. Fort Steele is about 10 minutes drive from the campground.

Noise levels 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

This was a pretty quiet campground. Noise during the day was minimal and it was very quiet overnight.

Aesthetics 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The park is naturally attractive and the camp hosts keep it incredibly well-kept and clean.

Fort Steele: A Glimpse into the Past

Nearby Fort Steele played a pivotal role in the tumultuous history of the Canadian West, beginning during the Kootenay Gold Rush of the late 1880s.

First Nations Traditional Lands

Long before white settlers arrived in the Kootenays, the Ktunaxa people enjoyed this area without interference. This was one of the farming and vacation spots where the Ktunaxa people lived during different times of the year.

When settlers arrived and started to make land purchases and put up fencing, tensions in this area then known as Joseph's Prairie began to rise between the Ktunaxa and the settlers. In 1864, John Galbraith was one of the first gold prospectors to arrive but soon switched to more lucrative business opportunities, running a toll ferry across the Kootenay River. John also established a general store. John had an agreement with Chief Joseph that allowed the use of the land as needed. When Galbraith sold the property, the new owner refused to honour the agreement. The native village was burned three times and the Ktunaxa believed that the settlers were attempting to force them out.

In 1884 two miners were found dead at Deadman’s Creek and two local Ktunaxa men were arrested. Colonel Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police and his troupe were called in from Alberta to manage the growing discontent.

No actual fort existed when Steele arrived, but the police compound, erected that year, had the appearance of a fort, because of the few windows. In 1888, the community adopted the rename of Fort Steele.


Sam Steele

Sir Samuel Benfield Steele, born in Ontario in 1848, is a legend in Canadian history. Steele, a member of the North-West Mounted Police (later to become the Northwest Mounted Police, the precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) was ordered to establish a police presence to maintain law and order during the Gold Rush. He was recognized as a disciplined but fair and likeable leader and earned the respect of the prospectors, settlers, and Ktunaxa.

image courtesy of Canadian Dictionary of Biograhies


Two stories from Steele's time at Fort Steele stand out as testaments to his bravery and resourcefulness. In one instance, when the Ktunaxa threatened violence, Steele chose a diplomatic approach instead of military force. He engaged in talks with the leaders, diffusing tensions, and ultimately averting a potentially disastrous conflict.


In another notable event, a fugitive who had committed a heinous crime sought refuge in Fort Steele, claiming to be the victim of a misunderstanding. Steele, known for his sense of justice, thoroughly investigated the case and eventually discovered the truth. By demonstrating fairness and dedication to upholding the law, Steele earned the trust and respect of the local communities.


As the Gold Rush waned, so did Fort Steele's prominence, and by the early 1900s, the town's population declined significantly. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) played a crucial role in the decline, as it made the controversial decision to bypass Fort Steele in favour of establishing the nearby (and much less populated) town of Cranbrook as a railway hub. The CPR's decision sparked scandal and controversy, as some suspected political maneuvering and corruption played a part in the choice.

Despite the CPR's decision, Fort Steele managed to preserve some of its heritage and historic buildings. In the 1960s, the provincial government designated the site as a historic park, and it was subsequently restored to become the living museum we can visit today.


Touring Fort Steele: What You Need to Know

I love a living museum and heritage village and have visited many fur-trading forts, gold towns, and settler villages across this country. This was my first visit to a NWMP fort but the heritage village part was a fairly typical living museum experience.


For those who may be unfamiliar with living museums, these tend to be a mixture of original and reconstructed buildings and structures which have been restored and decorated with items from the times and then arranged along streets as it might have been. Employees and volunteers act as costumed interpreters who use in-character conversations demonstration to bring the story of the past to life in a way that just can't be understood from history books.

The Fort Steele Heritage Site includes the original NWMP buildings but those are now surrounded by over 60 other restored and reconstructed buildings and structures that represent a typical town of the 1890s era.

The town includes all the types of businesses and services as well as homes common to the era. There are shops for general goods, clothing, hardware items, mining supplies and food. Services included blacksmiths, assay and customs houses. There are numerous hotels, restaurants, churches and barbers. The village is organized in a big square with the Wasa Hotel Museum in the center of a large grassy field and the original NWMP buildings off to the side, closest to the Visitor Center.

I really enjoy looking at the homes. Fort Steele had a good assortment of homes that ranged from rustic miner's shacks to the homes of the wealthier residents. The information available in the homes made each an interesting peek into the lives of the residents.

I always enjoy the gardens behind the homes where residents would grow fruits, berries, vegetables and herbs. Fort Steele does a remarkable job keeping these gardens bountiful.

I was intrigued by the dilapidated structures around the town. Signs explained their original purpose but since the buildings were considered beyond restoration, they are being allowed to deteriorate naturally.

Make sure to check out the barn and Livery Stables. There are a lot of farm animals throughout the town.

The train station is located outside of the main area, next to the field where the Clydesdale horses are pastured. Even if you choose not to add the train fare to your ticket, make sure to walk over and see the horses and the station.

Hours of Operation: Fort Steele closes over winter but is open from late spring to early fall. The site is experiencing staff shortages this summer season 2023 and do not open all the exhibits on Mondays and Tuesdays. There is still plenty to see and do but be prepared to miss a few things on those days. Hours of operation are 10:00 - 16:00 every day.


Admission Costs: A basic adult entrance giving access to all the exhibits will cost $25 with additional costs for wagon and rides as well as some additional performances and activities. The costs can add up but the money goes to cover their expenses, animal care and maintenance.


Guided Tours and Interpretive Programs: For an even richer experience, I highly recommend taking advantage of the guided tours and interpretive programs offered at Fort Steele. Knowledgeable interpreters, dressed in period attire, lead visitors through the town, providing fascinating insights and engaging stories that bring history to life. These tours offer an intimate look at the daily life of the pioneers and the significant events that shaped the town.

There is excellent signage all over the town, so those who forego the walking tour will still learn much about Fort Steele and the people who lived there. I used to teach about Sam Steele and the NWMP and knew the facts and didn't feel the need to take a walking tour. I did listen in several times as we crossed paths and the story-telling was lively, entertaining and full of great information.

I do recommend starting your day by taking the wagon ride around town, if the additional fee is in your budget. It's a fun trip around the town. The guide and driver talk about the town, the horses and the stagecoach routes, providing a good overview before making your own explorations.

Hands-On Activities: Fort Steele offers visitors the chance to participate in hands-on activities, where you can try your hand at traditional crafts and skills from gold panning to candle making. The school teacher showed the children how to play a game with a stick and a hoop which they rolled along the boardwalk. There were always people at the gold-panning area.

Throughout the season, Fort Steele hosts various special events and festivals, from heritage celebrations to live performances, these events transport you further back in time and offer a truly immersive experience. Keep an eye on the events calendar to plan your visit around these happenings. This is also a popular wedding venue, as I discovered during my visit.

Food and Drink: There are several restaurants, cafés, bakeries and a sweets shop to find treats and refreshments. There are designated picnic areas where you can savour your meal while soaking in the breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. Additionally, the site is equipped with restroom facilities and drinking water stations for your convenience.


I enjoyed a gooey-sweet warm cinnamon bun and a mug of coffee at City Bakery.

Take a Ride on the Steam Train

A highlight for me was taking a circuit on the steam train that leaves from the station opposite the visitor center and circles the property. This summer (2023) marks the 100th anniversary of the #1077 steam locomotive used at the Fort.

This particular engine is one of the steam engines that were first used by logging companies to move products around. Since they were forestry companies, it made sense to the company to use wood as an inexpensive fuel. Unfortunately, the embers that were emitted were also responsible for starting forest fires (seems kind of silly that wasn't considered). It didn't take long for the companies to realize that they needed a fuel that did not produce sparks. At that point, the engines were converted to burn oil.

The train has 3 open carriages and one enclosed carriage. The conductor and drivers provided excellent narration about the fort and the train. The train stops at a viewpoint over the river and releases excess steam in a powerful display.

When the train is at the station, the drivers will encourage visitors to climb into the cab and are delighted to describe all the gauges and levers to the curious.


Fort Steele Accommodations

For those wanting to stay closer to Fort Steele, there are various accommodations available to suit different preferences and budgets. Whether you're looking for a cozy retreat, a rustic experience, or a luxurious stay, the area has something to offer. BnBs, motels, hotels, cabin rentals, guest ranches and resorts are all available. Some of the choices in the area include:

  1. Fort Steele Resort & RV Park: This resort is right across the street from the Fort. It has a variety of sites for RVs, tents, and cabin rentals. This would be my choice for a future visit.

  2. St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino: A former residential school, this golf resort has luxurious rooms, a casino, and various dining options. It's located about 15 minutes away from Fort Steele.

  3. Elizabeth Lake Lodge: Situated in nearby Cranbrook, Elizabeth Lake Lodge offers comfortable rooms and suites with beautiful lake views. It's a tranquil retreat not too far from Fort Steele.

  4. The Windsor Hotel: Right in the heritage village is the Windsor Hotel which has just opened up for guests for the first time in nearly 70 years. I think this would be great fun. I would really enjoy experiencing the town after hours.


Final Thoughts

As my Summer Van Life Road Trip through the breathtaking landscapes of British Columbia continues, I can't help but feel grateful for the incredible experiences I've had so far. From the tranquil shores of Okanagan Lake to the historic charm of Fort Steele, each destination has left an indelible mark on my heart.


Exploring the living museum of Fort Steele took me back in time, where the stories of Sam Steele and the pioneers came to life. I was very impressed with the quality of the exhibits and the dedication to preserving the site.

But the journey doesn't end here. There are still more hidden gems to discover, more trails to hike, and more stories to unravel. With Wanda as my companion, the open road continues to beckon me toward new adventures. So I hope you'll continue to join me on this exciting road trip. Your support and engagement have made this journey even more meaningful. Remember to subscribe and become a member of my blog to stay connected and receive updates on future adventures. You can also stay connected through my Facebook page, Facebook Group, Twitter, and Instagram, where I'll be sharing more snippets, photos, and stories from my ongoing road trip.

 

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15 Comments


Guest
Sep 02, 2023

Bugger you weren't so lucky this time with the weather, the nature pictures still look exquisite tho! It would be hard for me to venture back into civilisation when you have that level of natural beauty to explore. I can appreciate the history of the area but doubt it would engage me for long. I'm not so much into historic displays and role play but I can understand how well maintained the towns and sites are and it's reflective of the pride of the locals, too who cherish the traditions and customs of the Fort Steel heritage town.


Carolin | <a href="https://solotravelstory.com/">Solo Travel Story</a>

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Sep 03, 2023
Replying to

I enjoy alternating between the stunning nature and the charming towns. I am fascinated by the crazy history of BC, especially the Gold Rush years. I console myself every time I move on by knowing I will be travelling the same road in the future.

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Guest
Aug 20, 2023

What an intriguing post I love all of your personal experiences and tips! I'm sad that the wildfires are still burning and still an issue up there but I'm glad you're able to still explore and enjoy the area. Jimsmith Lake Provincial Park looks quite peaceful and serene - right up my alley for a great hike! A warm cinnamon bun is the perfect way to end/start/continue a day haha!

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Guest
Aug 12, 2023

Living museums are usually so interesting, and I'm often impressed with the people who work there. It's nice to see that some of these old wooden structures have been left to deteriorate naturally. Too bad there you had to camp under smokey skies, but I guess this is our summer reality now, sadly.


- Melanie

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Guest
Aug 11, 2023

Great post on another interesting adventure! Jimsmith Lake Provincial Park looks like a worthy place to dive into and explore. The map is a great way to visualise things and thanks also for pointing out accommodation options. I see that late spring to early fall is when Forte Steel is open and also the hours of peration is good to know. A guided tour here would be an enjoyable experience I think! And I certainly would love to get into a cab and see what it's like inside!

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Emma Gilbert
Emma Gilbert
Aug 11, 2023

Looks like you and Wanda found the perfect camping spot. And what a nice find after trying to keep away from the smoke filled air, which has been pretty bad this summer. I really enjoyed learning about Sam Steele, sounds like he was an ask questions first kind of person which isn't always the case in history. Fort Steele reminds me a lot of Fort Langley but looks quite a bit bigger. I always enjoy looking around a living museum so this would suit me well

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