Aerial view of Fernie, British Columbia.

7 Of The Quirkiest Towns In British Columbia

Canada's westernmost province benefits from a temperate climate, four-season outdoor recreation, and tons of small towns that are rich in character. British Columbia continues the Washington vibe north of the border, with unbeatable natural surroundings and alternative lifestyles. British Columbia is one of those places where you can ski, surf, golf (disc, mini, or regular), trail run, cycle, and rock climb on the same day. As the sun dips below the mountains, the province's residents and the scores of seasonal tourists who flock west of the Rockies love to gather on patios or get cozy in a craft brewery taproom. All this organic beauty and social energy also fosters thriving creative scenes. Here, arts & crafts dealers and folk/rock bands are common encounters. So, if this sounds like your kind of place, check out these seven quirky small towns of British Columbia. 


Summer view of downtown Invermere, British Columbia
Summer view of downtown Invermere, British Columbia.

In the East Kootenay region, at the heart of the Columbia Valley, the lake/mountain town of Invermere is a fun-loving, year-round getaway. Perched on the north end of the long and slender Windermere Lake, Invermere attracts summer tourists seeking to sunbathe on Kinsmen Beach, paddle along the idyllic shoreline, and swim in the refreshing waters of this glacial lake. The surrounding Purcell Mountains and the stellar network of multi-use trails are also a big draw for mountain bikers, hikers, and trail runners. In the winter, the lake becomes a giant skating rink, the trails switch to cross-country ski mode, and the nearby Panorama Mountain Resort satisfies the downhill itch. At all times of the year, the Radium Hot Springs and Fairmont Hot Springs make for excellent side trips, as does Kootenay National Park, with its scenic drives and roadside moose/bear sightings. Personally, a trip to Invermere is never complete until I hike to the top of Mount Swansea to get a view of the entire valley (and maybe even see a paraglider launch into the sky). 


Shopping district in downtown Fernie, British Columbia.
Shopping district in downtown Fernie, British Columbia.

Another gem of East Kootenay, this time within the Rocky Mountains of Elk Valley, is the mining-town-turned-ski-hub of Fernie. Thanks to the Fernie Alpine Resort, this small town comes alive during the long, snowy winters. But summer is no slouch, either. The Elk and Bull Rivers open the door to whitewater rafting, fly fishing, and everything in between. And while Fernie has its share of paved paths, marked nature trails, and formal campgrounds, it is also a perfect place from which to explore the backcountry/crown land, thanks to the network of old logging roads – just make sure your vehicle has enough clearance (my mini-van couldn't quite hack it). In town, Fernie is a craft brewery, food truck, and pop-up patio kind of place. A stroll through the historic downtown will deliver on all your coffee, culinary, and mom n' pop shopping needs. 


Aerial view of Squamish, British Columbia.
Aerial view of Squamish, British Columbia.

Less than an hour's drive north of Vancouver, "The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada" gets people out of the big city but keeps them firmly in "Sea to Sky Country." Thanks to the Stawamus Chief, affectionately dubbed "The Chief" (the world's second-highest freestanding granite monolith), in the heart of the namesake provincial park, Squamish is a celebrated climbing, hiking, and mountain biking mecca. If you want to experience Squamish's breathtaking scenery without getting drenched in sweat, hop on the Sea to Sky Gondola – a 10-minute ride up to Summit Lodge, where restaurants, a dizzying suspension bridge, viewing platforms, light hikes, and more await. Squamish is also fond of year-round events. Visitors can expect to experience everything from hot chocolate and beer festivals to weekly markets to live music and a healthy dose of popular races that utilize the surrounding trails. 


Baker Street in the town center of Nelson, British Columbia.
Baker Street in the town center of Nelson, British Columbia. Image credit: Kirk Fisher -

The small city of Nelson brings us deeper into the Kootenays of southern BC. Plunked on the west wing of Kootenay Lake within the lush Selkirk Mountains, Nelson has the province's usual blend of breathtaking nature but also a solid dose of culture and entertainment. Fun fact: Nelson has more restaurants, per capita, than San Francisco. Cruise along historic Baker Street and its offshoots to discover the eclectic mix of cafes, grab-n-go goodies, and classy establishments. Nelson is also steeped in the hippie/artsy lifestyle. Enjoy the formal theaters and galleries, but also keep your eyes and ears open for buskers, street murals (refreshed each August at the Nelson International Mural Festival), coffee shop performances, and, if you're in the know, communal gatherings put on by artists for artists. The last time I was in Nelson, I was invited to a mini-festival at a decked-out barn. There were all kinds of musical, dance, and storytelling performances, as well as local craft and clothing dealers. You never know what you're going to get!


 Kaslo on Kootenay Lake
Kaslo on thr shores of Kootenay Lake.

Another community along the picturesque shore of Kootenay Lake (this time, its northern branch) is the quirky village of Kaslo. It can be hard to successfully venture off the beaten path when touring the Kootenays, especially in the summer, but with just over 1,000 residents, and a simple yet attractive town layout, Kaslo gets the job done. Here, visitors will find the world's oldest intact sternwheeler (the 126-year-old S.S. Moyie), personable watering holes with local craft selections, the enchanted, moss-covered Kaslo River Trail (and other waterfront parks), and a calendar of surprising events, such as the Kaslo Jazz Festival, Kaslo May Days (with logger sports, live music, and food/craft vendors), trail races, and the S.S. Moyie Pirate Day. 


Floatplane Dock in Tofino Canada.
Floatplane Dock in Tofino, Canada. 

Tofino is the kind of place where the Prime Minister vacations with his family, but van-lifers and amateur surfers also unite. Situated on the tip of the Esowista Peninsula, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, this is a part of Canada that defies international connotations. Multiple flat, sandy beaches break through the rainforest canopy, creating an idyllic setting for low-tide walks, sunrise yoga sessions, daily dependable surf, drive-in campground vacations, communal fire pits, dips in the Pacific Ocean, and overzealous games of frisbee. Tofino also excels at wildlife tours. Depending on the season, you can expect to spot gray whales, orcas, black bears, wolves, sea lions, eagles, and all other kinds of iconic North American animals from the safety of a shore-hugging boat. And while the focus tends to be on nature, there's just enough infrastructure in this coastal district to keep visitors from all walks comfortable (there are high-end lodgings to counterbalance the "roughin' it" approach), satiated and caffeinated. 

Prince Rupert

The marina at Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
The marina at Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Scooting up to northern British Columbia, just south of the southern tip of Alaska, the wild and beautiful port city of Prince Rupert is a must-see. A gateway to the Haida Gwaii archipelago, to the west, the Great Bear Rainforest (home of the rare albino "Spirit Bear"), to the south, and the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, to the east, this treasure of Kaien Island has a lot to entice adventurers with. Book a flightseeing tour for an unforgettable overview, or suit up for the backcountry excursion of a lifetime. At the same time, between the colorful harbor, an array of shops housed in unique heritage buildings throughout the historic downtown/Cow Bay district, and a welcomed supply of casual eateries, there's really no need to leave Prince Rupert proper.

From the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and all the lakes, forests, and wineries in between, British Columbia is a magical province. Not only is it a place to explore the great Canadian wilderness, but the good vibes and creative lifestyles flourish like the wildflowers and redwoods. If you are looking to get in touch with your quirky side, then go rub elbows with the hippies, ski-bums, trail warriors, and plaid-wearing musicians that inhabit these seven small British Columbia towns. 

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