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Kootenay River | British Columbia, Canada

Natural Area, Lake, River, or Waterfall
Highway 3 alongside the Kootenay River between British Columbia's Cranbrook and Fernie. – Kari Medig

Boat Access Locations

The river can be accessed by road from Highway 93/95 at the Canal Flats and Skookumchuck bridges. In both locations, take the road down to the river on the north side of the bridge. Canoes, kayaks or rafts may be launched at this point and vehicles left at these locations.

From its source high in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, the scenic Kootenay River rushes southward through forested valleys and narrow gorges, passing flower strewn meadows and towering hoodoos on its journey to the lowlands of the Rocky Mountain Trench.

At Canal Flats, it comes within one kilometre of the mighty Columbia River. From there, it meanders past stands of lodgepole pine and aspen, banks of sage brush and native bunch grasses, eventually winding its way south to Montana where its name changes to Kootenai. It flows into Idaho, crossing back into Canada near Creston, entering Kootenay Lake and then emerging as a river once again in the vicinity of Nelson. The Kootenay completes its 781 km (485 mi) journey at Castlegar, where it merges with the Columbia.

The Kootenay River figures largely in the history of this region. In 1808, David Thompson, a trader, surveyor and mapmaker for the North West Company, left his headquarters at Kootenai House near Invermere to explore the length of the river and initiate trade with the Flathead Indians. He used the river as a highway, following the well-trod path of Native Americans through British Columbia, Montana and Idaho. Thompson’s exploration of the Kootenay eventually lead to his discovery of the mouth of the Columbia River, fulfilling a life-long dream.

Navigation on the Kootenay River was very important in the 1890s before the completion of the Crowsnest Pass railway route. The river formed a natural route for travel south from British Columbia to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways built across the northern states in the 1880s and 1890s.

The early sternwheelers that operated on this route were primitive vessels with few luxuries but they were serviceable and generally reliable. These independently owned vessels carried ore south into Montana and brought supplies from the railroads back north to Fort Steele, which was then the most important town on the Canadian side of the border. Eventually the sternwheelers became obsolete, as they could not longer compete with faster and more efficient railway travel.

The Kootenay River offers a myriad of recreational activities, from paddling exhilarating white water rapids to fly-fishing its backwater eddies and serene tree hung pools teeming with rainbow, cutthroat and bull trout.

Spend a day wandering around historic Fort Steele panning for gold on the banks of the river or retrace David Thompson’s portage at Kootenai Falls in Montana. Spectacular scenery and adventure can be found around every bend of this beautiful river.

Driving Directions from Nearest Town or Landmark

Both Canal Flats and Skookumchuck provide easy access to the river and are located on Highway 93/95.

Canal Flats, situated 69 km (43 miles) north of Cranbrook is a place where Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and deer roam the streets. This thriving town offers a variety of amenities, such as a public beach, arena, curling rink, golf course and parks.

Skookumchuck is located where the Lussier and Skookumchuck Rivers enter the Kootenay River, 51 km (32 miles) north of Cranbrook. This tiny community has long been popular as a stopping ground for travelers moving between the Columbia Valley and Cranbrook, with a coffee shop, gas station and a scenic picnic area.

Fishing Access Highlights

The river offers two distinct sections.

North of Canal Flats, it is fast flowing and offers some excellent fly-fishing holes. Access is generally limited to logging road and/or bushwhacking except where Highway 93 parallels the river in Kootenay National Park. A national park permit and fishing license is required when fishing in the park.

South of Canal Flats, the river is a slower moving, warmer stream with easy access especially where the river parallels the highway. The river flows through a more populated area and there are closures to be wary of. Be sure to consult the BC Freshwater Fishing Synopsis for current fishing regulations and the Kootenays Backroad Mapbook for best access options.

Fishing Highlights

The Kootenay River is home to westslope cutthroat and bull trout. The best time to fish the Kootenay River is from April into late May then again in late August through October. It is at these times that the Kootenay River is low and clear.

Paddling Highlights

The Kootenay River, from Kootenay Crossing in Kootenay National Park to Canal Flats, is 138 km (84.2 miles) in length and offers three different paddling routes with lots of rapids, spectacular views and plenty of wilderness camping opportunities. Continuing south from Canal Flats to Wardner, the river slows as it flows through a more developed area. This easy route is 47 km (59.2 miles) in length and winds its way through a rural setting before the river forms Lake Koocanusa. Then it begins its journey through Montana and Idaho before reentering British Columbia.


Access to Lake or River

Maintained Gravel Road