Nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains 50 miles north of Cranbrook and filling a nine-mile gash in the Rocky Mountain Trench, lies the often rippled waters of Columbia Lake, source of the mighty Columbia River that empties in the Pacific Ocean more than 1,200 miles downstream.
David Thompson, the great explorer of western North America, was so smitten with the beauty of the still largely pristine lake that he wrote in his journal “I could never pass this singular place without admiring its situation and romantic bold scenery.”
Lined by clay banks covered with mixed stands of Ponderosa Pine, dry-belt Douglas fir and Golden Western Larch, Columbia Lake remains a beauty spot as Thompson found it.
The small hamlet of Canal Flats lies at its south end. Recreational homes are beginning to spring up on the grassy benches of the west shore, but the largely unroaded east shore remains pristine and is a prime grazing area for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer.
Waterfowl are plentiful including Canada geese, several species of ducks and blue-listed species such as the Great Blue Heron. The lake is also an important stop on the Pacific Flyway, a key migratory route for waterfowl.
The rugged east shore has a long aboriginal history, stretching back 10,000 years or more and formed a key section of the “Spirit Trail,” which the Ktunaxa people used to hunt game and trade goods up and down the valley for millennia before the first European explorers arrived in the early 1800’s. Aboriginal petroglyphs and rock paintings still exist on the trail.
Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean de Smet, who founded St. Mary’s Mission in 1841 near present day Missoula, camped at the northern end of Columbia Lake near the famed sandstone “Hoodoos” in 1845 and wrote that the lake was in the “rugged and gigantic mountains where the Great River escapes.”
The Great River now unfortunately is tamed, a series of slack-water reservoirs almost the entire distance from the Big Bend almost 200 miles north of Columbia Lake to Astoria, Oregon, more than 1,000 miles to the southwest. And the prolific Pacific Ocean salmon runs, which made it all the way to Columbia Lake until the late 1940’s, are no more, victims of “progress” and the Grand Coulee Dam 400 miles downstream.
Despite its easy accessibility, Columbia Lake is not heavily used and the largely pristine east shore offers a near wilderness experience. Recreational information is easily obtained from the various tourism offices in Cranbrook, Kimberley, Invermere and the Tourism BC website. The lake always freezes in winter and with the steady winds and light snowfall is a popular spot for ice fishing and ice boat racing.
Motorized boats are allowed on the lake, but motorized use is fortunately sparse. Canoeing, kayaking and windsurfing are popular activities. Other recreational activities like hiking, mountain biking, bird watching and camping are available at the lake.
The BC Ministry of Environment manages two provincial parks at the north and south ends of the lake.
Columbia Lake Provincial Park at the north end provides protection from development and more unspoiled habitat for the myriad of animal species that frequent the lake shores and the forested slopes above. Approximately 3 km of undeveloped beach area allows for non-consumptive recreation opportunities (wildlife viewing, paddling, nature appreciation). The park, 257 hectares, is a user-maintained, primitive area with no facilities.
The wetland/marsh component of the park offers excellent opportunities for nature appreciation, viewing and photography. The upland areas are largely pristine and provide a panorama of exceptional scenic value, particularly east towards the Rocky Mountains. Hiking and mountain biking are also common in the upper grasslands on derelict logging roads and along the park access road.
On the south end is the 6 hectare Canal Flats Provincial Park, a small day-use area with picnic facilities and a public boat launch. An enclosed swimming area and adjacent tables make this a perfect beach setting for lakeside outings
It is a wonderful place for sunbathing, picnicking, water sports, and boating; it is also a popular destination for windsurfers.This park is cooperatively managed by the Canal Flats Beach Club. Services and facilities may differ from those offered in other BC Parks.