Updated: Aug 28
Welcome back on my journey through the breathtaking landscapes and charming towns of British Columbia. As I continue my 2023 Summer Van Life Road Trip, today's chapter brings us to the captivating city of Nelson. Tucked amid the majestic Selkirk Mountains, Nelson is a charm sparkling with history, culture, and vibrant modern life.
After exploring serene lakes, hot springs, historical villages and charming towns, I was eager to dive into the heart of this enchanting city. For those readers just joining my journey, you might want to browse the British Columbia tag to catch up on my previous adventures on this epic road trip. As a solo female traveller experiencing van life, every turn of the road has brought me new stories, new friendships, and countless moments of awe.
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Join me as we step into the past and present of Nelson, enjoying treats that tantalize the taste buds, riding the historical streetcar, and delving into the offerings of this remarkable small city. From the indigenous heritage that reverberates through its streets to the bustling Baker Street lined with unique boutiques, Nelson promised to add even more memorable experiences to my journey.
Van Life BC: Where is Nelson?
Nelson is in the southeastern region of British Columbia, Canada, in the West Kootenay region. It is located along Kootenay Lake, surrounded by the stunning Selkirk Mountains. It is a perfect blend of natural beauty, cultural richness, and outdoor adventures.
Nelson is about 650 kilometres from Vancouver -- approximately 7 to 8 hours of driving time, along winding highways with incredible views. It is worth stopping and lingering along the way rather than the straight drive. From the nearby town of Castlegar, it is an easy 45-kilometre journey of about 45 minutes along a beautiful route that wanders through the mountains and along Kootenay Lake.
Discovering Nelson: A Historical Gem
The area around Nelson is part of the traditional lands of the Ktunaxa (k-too-nah-ha) Nation. These First Nations communities built their lives around the region's abundant resources and Kootenay Lake. They moved seasonally through the entire territory. It is important to note that most land in BC is unceded. Agreements were not made. Instead, indigenous communities were destroyed by diseases and were pushed out of their territory by settlement and colonial practices.
European settlers began to arrive in the mid-1800s, drawn to the mining industry. The rich deposits of silver, lead, and other minerals led to the building of many mining camps. The town of Nelson was founded during the silver rush to service those early camps.
In the early 1900s, as the mining boom ebbed, the economy became important as a transportation hub. Over the years, Nelson transformed, diversifying its economic base to include forestry, tourism, and arts.
During the last 60-70 years, Nelson has experienced a cultural renaissance as artists, musicians, and creative minds moved into the area, attracted by the stunning natural beauty. Nelson blossomed into a haven for cultural expression, with galleries, studios, and theatres. The reputation of its artistic revival continues to attract free spirits and thinkers.
Today, Nelson seamlessly blends its historical legacy with a progressive and vibrant present. The town's historic buildings, charming streets, and waterfront coexist harmoniously with a lively culinary scene, local festivals, and a commitment to sustainability. Its Indigenous heritage is honoured, and its modernity is rooted in community values.
Modern Charms of Nelson
Wandering through the heart of Nelson is like stepping into a world where creativity and community intertwine. Baker Street, the beating heart of the city, has eclectic shops, charming cafes, and local art galleries that breathe life into every corner. Boutiques showcase handmade crafts, vintage treasures, and uniquely curated items, beckoning you to explore and discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Amid the buzz of Baker Street, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the warm scent of baked goods guide you to delightful cafes that invite you to linger. Cake Betty on Vernon Street, became my favourite morning stop to pick up a cup of coffee and a pastry on my way into town.
When hunger struck for heartier fare, Main Street Diner and Jackson's Hole were fabulous choices for me. At the Main Street diner, I enjoyed a strawberry margarita sent over from a neighbouring table who were sampling all margarita flavours. They declared the strawberry the best and sent one over for me to enjoy. I'm not sure it would have been my choice to pair with the plate of spanikopita and tiropita pies, I ordered but I can't fault their judgement. It was a darned fine drink. At Jackson's Hole, I had a messy but delicious lettuce wrap that I would go out of my way to have again. Both have sidewalk patio seating that allows you to do some people-watching while enjoying your meal.
For cheese aficionados like me, a visit to Le Grand Fromage will be a highlight. I mean, really, how can cheese not be a highlight? Walking in is akin to entering a paradise of flavours and textures. There are multiple display cases full of artisan cheeses of all varieties and nationalities. I sampled creamy cheeses, bold cheeses, aged and fresh cheeses under the direction of the owner. We shared awful cheese jokes and fabulous stories of cheese discoveries. I bought a chunk of sheep-milk cheese that became the second-best cheese experience of my life. The first was also sheep-milk cheese but it was ravenously consumed on a bus in Croatia rather than on a plate with crackers at a campsite.
When in Nelson, take time to meander along the streets. Due to the town being built up a steep hill and expanding in a rather higgeldy-piggeldy manner, many homes are placed between the roads, requiring stairs either up or down to the main house.
It also means you'll be climbing during your walk. The hills are no joke in this city. It will be a good workout, if you are fairly fit. If you have mobility issues, plan on doing one road at a time going parallel to the water. You will likely want to get a taxi back,
I loved looking at the different architectural styles and the fun way residents decorated their homes.
A Scenic Ride on the Nelson Streetcar
The Nelson Tramway Society runs a seasonal streetcar from the Prestige Hotel along the lakefront to Rotary Lakeside Park. The #23 Streetcar has been servicing Nelson for almost 100 years (2024 is the centennial). The vintage car is beautifully restored with wooden interiors and brass details. The drivers are enthusiastic volunteers. Rides are by donation, with a suggested donation of $5 per adult.
The installation of an electric tram was the brainwave of wealthy resident, Captain Duncan, in the late 1800s. When the system was completely installed, it became the second Canadian city (after Vancouver) west of Winnipeg to have a streetcar system.
As the streetcar ambled along, it became not only a mode of transportation but we were also treated to lively storytelling from the driver. Narration provided fascinating insights into Nelson's past, sharing tales of its mining origins, the challenges it overcame, and the vibrant community that emerged from adversity. The streetcar itself played a role in the town's history, connecting its neighbourhoods and contributing to its growth
Reviewing Nelson City Campground
The Nelson City Campground is a city-run campground near the town. Typical of most municipal campgrounds, it had good amenities and sites with hookups at a reasonable price. The staff was very friendly and helpful with lots of great recommendations for things to do and places to see. Most sites were taken by people passing through but some sites seemed to be more permanent. The tenting area got a bit rowdy the nights I was there.
Location 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ The campground is on High Street, a couple of blocks up the hill from the highway. It is a narrow campground so all sites are close to the road. It is elevated, on a hill and has lovely views of the water. The main street of town is about 10 minutes away, passing by Cake Betty where you need to stop and pick up a treat.
Amenities 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
The large office area/washhouse was very well-equipped and kept very clean. Around the office area were maps, an events board, brochures, and a traveller's library. The large covered area included tables and counters along with a washing-up station. Many of the tenters were using this area for meal prep. Two coin-operated washers ($2) and two dryers ($1) were available. The area has lots of outlets and campers were not discouraged from leaving their power banks and devices charging. The toilets and coin-operated showers ($1) were clean. Showers were lukewarm in the morning but were better in the afternoon. Since it was close to town, the cell signal was strong and I could easily use my hotspot for internet.
Campsites 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
The RV campsites where I was were small and narrow but I hadn't booked ahead. There are larger sites available. The platform tent sites in the trees looked amazing. There was also a group tent area near the entrance.
Nearby Activities/Services 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
In addition to being close to all the services of a town, there are many activities available on Kootenay Lake from spendy fishing excursions to renting a paddleboard. Cycling enthusiasts will find many trails to explore and hikers will have more choices than time.
Noise levels 🏕️ 🏕️
The campground was noisy. Several loud groups were staying at the same time. One group seemed pretty permanent. They weren't obnoxiously loud but they were disruptive until they settled down for the night. They did sleep in, so that was a blessing. It is also alongside a road that gets a fair amount of traffic 24 hours a day. My home is on a main street so traffic noise doesn't bother me but I know that others would find the noise to be too much.
Aesthetics 🏕️ 🏕️
It's neither pretty nor ugly but it is functional. Some sites are more appealing but this is a campground you choose for convenience and location, not because you want to be within nature's embrace.
Final Thoughts: Embrace the Journey
As a solo female traveller navigating the open road, this Summer's BC Van Life Road Trip through British Columbia has been a journey of empowerment, discovery, and connection. Each stop along the way has added a new sound to the symphony of my life and my place in this beautiful province of British Columbia. I felt like the vibe of Nelson matched me and felt like a hug from a friend.
From the delightful treats at "Cake Betty" to the captivating history shared on the Nelson Streetcar, from the comfort of the Nelson City Campground to the cultural immersion that defines this town, every moment has been a gift. I've marvelled at the artistic expression that flows through its veins. I hope this blog has piqued your interest in visiting Nelson.
Thank you for joining me on this chapter of my Summer Van Life Road Trip. Your support, engagement, and curiosity mean the world to me. I invite you to follow the rest of my journey by subscribing to this blog. You'll receive notifications whenever new content is posted. 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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