Cranbrook has it all – right on its doorstep
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By BUZZ BISHOP
Cranbrook, B.C. – Millennial entrepreneurs are tearing a strip off Cranbrook, breathing fresh life into downtown and turning it into a four-season recreational hub. At just over four hours from Calgary down through the Crowsnest Pass, I had packed up my sons to see what Cranbrook has to offer for a family winter weekend escape.
After the afternoon drive, we dumped our gear in the newly renovated Days Inn Cranbrook, grabbed a splash in the outdoor pool (yes, even in the winter it’s open for fun) and then flipped over a few blocks into the resurrected downtown area for some dinner.
While familiar chains dot the Crowsnest highway running through Cranbrook, just a block over, the 90-year-old former Cranbrook fire hall has been re-imagined as a 200-seat family-friendly pub: Fire Hall Kitchen and Tap.
Business partners (and brothers-in-law), Fred and Jesse dreamed of a place where locals could go to “live the Kootenay lifestyle.” They looked longingly at the vibe in a town like Nelson and vowed to bring it to Cranbrook.
The next morning, with snowshoes and skates tossed in the trunk, we met our guide, Rocke Robertson, 10 minutes out of town at the South Star Trails Recreation Area. Here, cross-country trails have been set, fat bikers roam the forest and snow shoers, dog walkers and even quadders and snowmobilers get out for some winter activity.
There are many different loops through the forest and Rocke is a gracious guide for my sons, as they point out deer and what look like bobcat tracks in the snow.
After a good hike through the area, we headed back downtown for lunch at the bustling Soul Food Café, which is expanding to take over the ground floor lobby area of the old Mount Baker Hotel on Baker St. The sit-down menu goes from naan pizza to avocado toast to a very hearty morel mushroom soup, alongside a to-go counter and market filled with juices, teas and fresh baked goods.
Everything they serve is local and/or organic and they take their branding as “The beating heart of Baker Street” seriously, transferring the ownership of the enterprise to employees and the community through a co-operative. It’s truly a soul-fulfilling place to fuel up before the next adventure.
Back on the road, we head 15 minutes north east to Fort Steele, a heritage town that the railway forgot. Had Colonel James Baker not convinced the railway surveyors to put a line through his land in Cranbrook instead of near Fort Steele, this place could have been the hub of the region.
Back in the late 1800s, Fort Steele was the place where trade was headquartered for the East Kootenays. At its peak, 5,000 people called the east bank of the Kootenay River home; there are now just two people permanently living on site. Billy is one of them.
He took us on a tour giving my sons a history lesson and happily answering their random questions. Growing up with a father who was livestock manager at Fort Edmonton, Billy stumbled into a career in “living history,” working first in Fort Edmonton and then Calgary’s Heritage Park.
Life in Fort Steele is quieter in the winter, he says, but they still show classic movies in the Wildhorse Theatre and there’s an old-fashioned skating rink in front for people to have some outdoor fun.
Another 20 minutes back into town and we wrap up the day with some climbing at Arq Mountain Center where we meet Gordon McArthur, another of the entrepreneurs focused on building a new sense of community in Cranbrook.
He, literally, wrote the book on climbing in the East Kootenays and opened his urban gym two and a half years ago as a place where friends and family could come together. I chilled on the fluffy oversized couches with the other dads sipping coffee, while my kids ran up and down the walls until they collapsed on the mat.
Gord and Fred are proud to call Cranbrook their home, raising their kids in a community that has eight lakes, world-class paddling, climbing, hiking and skiing. Gord says he can’t think of another town that has everything right at its doorstep. Others might have one or two, he says, “but Cranbrook has them all.”
When You Go
The Days Inn makes for a convenient hub for families right on the strip in Cranbrook. It has a games room off the gorgeous front lobby (it won a Wyndham Best Renovation Award in 2016) and looks after kids at check-in with their own table to “sign in” and pick a toy.
Snowshoe and cross country ski rentals are available at the College of the Rockies Cranbrook campus. Learn more here.
At the Fire Hall Kitchen and Tap, try to see how many fire-related items are hidden around the room. A vintage ladder hangs above a table as a lighting fixture, the wood from old roof was refurbished into the bar and table, a monument to lost firefighters is at a back table and a hand-cranked siren signals last call each night.
If you want to really live the life Billy describes on tour, book a room in the Windsor Hotel, still standing where it was built in 1893 at Fort Steele.
Visit the Cranbrook Tourism Website for any pre-trip research and to connect with the businesses listed in this story or stop by the in-town visitor centre for more details on the region.