Discover Nelson: The Cultural and Historical Hub of BC’s Kootenay-Rockies

There's nothing generic about this city. From its history to its attractions, Nelson is unique in every way

Credit: Flickr / Argon Design

If you’re heading toward the Rockies, be sure to stop in Nelson for a does of history and culture

All roads point to a stop in Nelson for a little culture, and a whole lot of BC history

Every summer when I was little my family would set out on a cross-province camping trip. Sometimes our path was the Yellow Head Highway, others it was the Crowsnest Highway. When we took the latter we would end up winding through the stunning forests of the Kootenay region, taking a sharp turn North onto Highway 6 and the Nelson-Nelway Highway.

An exterior shot of Nelson Daily News
Image by Flickr/waferboard
Nelson’s history goes as far back as the
ancient Egyptians

Whether we were camping at Syringa Provincial Park or West Arm Provincial Park, or coming over from the Arrow Lakes, we always stopped in Nelson before hopping the Kootenay Lake Ferry from Balfour.

From the other side of the lake, we would head due west to the mining town of Kimberley (featuring a quaint German town square along with with a hair-raising alpine slide ride down the side of a mountain) or head south to Creston, home of a famous BC brewery that boasts a Sasquatch as its mascot.

But if you’re heading toward the Rockies, before you wind your way over the hills and through the trees of the Selkirk Mountains, take time to stop and enjoy the art and history of Nelson, BC — a cultural and recreational hub in the Kootenay-Rockies region.

Nelson’s History

This historic city of Nelson (population 9,752) still has a remarkable number of heritage buildings that are complemented by modern tenants like coffee shops and galleries. The city dates back to the 1880s but the area has a much richer history:

“The history of man in this area dates back to when the great pyramids were being constructed in Egypt. The latest archeological carbon dating provides evidence that a race of men and women lived, hunted and fished along the shores of Kootenay Lake two thousand years before the time of the advanced cultures of the Aztecs and the Incas of Central and South America. These earliest inhabitants of the area were later to be called the Kootenay Indians, and their names were adopted to designate the land that they roamed. Kootenay is an Indian word meaning “water people”. In the original spelling “Co” means water and “Tinneh” means people.” – Michael Jesson — Discover Nelson

The main draw to Nelson was gold and silver. Thanks to railways nearby, the population grew and Nelson was incorporated in 1897. Forestry and mining were king, and along with the influx of residents, workers and visitors came the growth of the town. Several hotels were built along with a Hudson’s Bay Company store, and a streetcar system. Steamwheelers paddled up and down Kootenay Lake. Even famed architect Francis Rattenbury (who designed the BC Legislature, what is now the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Empress in Victoria and more) designed buildings in Nelson.

Settlers came from all over including Doukhobors from Russia and, later on, Vietnam War draft-dodgers from the US.

You can find a full history of the area on the History of Nelson website.

Some credit the 1987 Steve Martin film Roxanne with the revitalization of Nelson’s downtown core, which suffered after the closure of the Kootenay Forest Products sawmill in the 1980s. Along the main road, Baker Street, building owners began restoration projects and the heritage charm caught Martin’s attention. Since that time, the city transitioned away from resources and toward arts and tourism.

Nelson Attractions

The exterior of Hume Hotel in Nelson, BC
Take a self-guided walking tour around the city of Nelson and explore the local architecture (Image: Flickr/Kyle Monahan)

Shopping in Nelson’s walkable downtown core is fruitful and fun if you need anything from watercolour prints and pottery, to boutique clothing and outdoor gear.

While you’re at it, take a streetcar ride, have a picnic in one of the city’s many parks, and visit the Touchstone Nelson Museum of Art and History for lessons in fine craft and design, local architectural history, pop culture, contemporary art, and more.

The City of Nelson has a self-guided walking tour that focuses on building architecture (download a PDF copy here), as well as a self-guided cemetery tour.

For more adventurous activity, there is canoeing and kayaking on the lake, hiking at Kokanee Creek Provoncial Park, and mountain biking options in the summer months at Sproule Creek or the Kootenay Canal. That’s on top of fishing, golfing, and rock climbing too!

A picturesque view of Nelson's quaint streets
Image by Flickr/waferboard
Here in Nelson, you’ll find some of the best
craft beers in Canada

For something a little more spirited, there’s the Nelson Brewery — home to some of the province’s best craft beer (which is available in liquor stores across BC) and it’s also certified organic.

Where to Stay

If camping isn’t your thing, book a night at the legendary Hume Hotel. Established in 1898, the hotel offers accommodation in 43 private heritage rooms. It’s also the centre of activity for local nightlife and touring acts. Canadian artists playing the Hume’s Spirit Bar this summer include The Dudes, Five Alarm Funk, and K’Naan.

Farmer and artisan markets happen from May to October in two locations: the Cottonwood Market runs every Saturday from 9:30 am to 3:00 pm, and the Nelson Downtown Market (on Baker Street) happens every Wednesday from 9:30 am to 3:00 pm.

Upcoming Nelson Events

Annual events in Nelson include the Nelson Art Walk (opening July 6, 2012 and running until August), the 30th annual Cysowg’n’Fun Triathlon (August 5, 2012), and the Shambhala Music Festival (August 8 to 13, 2012).

Plan your trip to Nelson with these resources: