The historic Crowsnest Pass Area is made up of five small towns – Hillcrest, Bellevue, Frank, Blairmore and Coleman. The area is easily accessible via Highway 3 from Calgary and Lethbridge, and also from nearby Sparwood and Fernie, the closest towns in British Columbia, 41 and 70 kilometres respectively to the west.
If you stay on Highway 3 and never venture into the small towns or onto the backroads you’ll miss the best of the what the area offers – outstanding natural beauty, the pretty Crowsnest River, recreational diversions galore and a whole lot of history – much of it tragic. Granted you can’t help but see the devastation of the Frank Slide or wonder what the history is behind the name of The Rum Runner Restaurant in Coleman but to really appreciate the region, you need to do some exploring. Be sure to pick up a map offered at many business locations so you can make the most of your time.
These 5 great ideas of what you can do in the Crowsnest Pass area will whet your appetite for more.
Discover the history of the Crowsnest Pass Area
The best way to get an overview of the history of the Crowsnest Pass area is to head to the Crowsnest Museum in Coleman. With its ten themed galleries filled with 25,000 historical artifacts, it’s a great first stop. Inside you can learn about pioneers, coal mining, the police, the military and life as it was in the early 20th century. The museum, located in the 1936 era Coleman High School, is open every day from 9 AM until 5 PM and there’s free parking on the street.
After you’re through with the museum walk the few blocks that make up historic downtown Coleman and admire the character filled miner’s cottages and businesses.
Continue walking towards the railway tracks and you’ll spy the red brick beehive coke ovens. Built in 1903, they lit up the night sky for over 50 years. Historical plaques speak to the operation of the coke ovens. Now it’s hard to imagine how hot, dirty and dangerous this area would have been when you’re surrounded by grass and wildflowers.
At the eastern most end of the Crowsnest Pass area is the Leitch Colleries Provincial Historic Site. As the only completely Canadian owned coal mine and considered one of the most ambitious coal mines of its time, it only operated from 1907 until 1915. You’ll learn why when you do the pretty interpretive walk that includes stories, pictures and audio among the ruins of old mining buildings.
Back on June 19, 1914 a gigantic explosion ripped through the Hillcrest Mine – killing 189 of 235 people who had gone to work that day. It still remains Canada’s worst mining disaster. Today you can visit the Hillcrest Mine Disaster Cemetery where most of the dead are buried in two mass graves.
And in Blairmore you can do a self-guided historic walking tour. Pick up a brochure at almost any business in town. You’ll see boom town architecture – with false fronts to make the buildings seem larger – and the infamous Alberta Hotel where the bootlegger Emilio Picariello started his rum running operations.
Go underground at the Bellevue Mine
Don a mining helmet and a headlamp and head out on the guided Bellevue Underground Mine tour. The one hour tour is offered in the summer months only beginning at 10 AM. You’ll walk 1,000 feet into the mine so it’s important you bundle with temperatures a frosty 0°C year round; on my tour many families had crying kids because they were so cold.
The Bellevue coal mine operated from 1903 – 1961 and produced 13 million tons of ore. At its peak it employed 500 men and boys, some of them as young as 13 though legally they were supposed to be 16. With a guide, you’ll learn and see what conditions were like underground. You’ll hear loads of stories like this example.
Underground there is a flowing stream that was used as a urinal by the men so it definitely wasn’t something they wanted to wash their hands in come lunch time. Instead they would eat their sandwiches with hands covered in black coal dust and throw the dirty pieces to the waiting packrats. In turn, the packrats warned the miners of methane gas and cave-ins by heading for fresh air. The miners would then follow suit.
When you’re out and breathing fresh air again, I bet you’ll give thanks that you weren’t born in an era where you had to work underground to keep your family fed.
Visit the Frank Slide – Canada’s second largest landslide
You can’t miss the Frank Slide if you’re driving on Highway 3. But what I’d really recommend is a visit to the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre (located a short distance off the highway) followed by a self-guided hike through some of the boulders on the 1.5 kilometre Frank Slide Trail. The interpretive centre does an incredible job of bringing the horror and heroics to life of the 1903 landslide that unleashed 90 million tons of rock on the town of Frank as its inhabitants lay sleeping. It was all over in just 90 seconds. Displays, murals, audio recordings and a couple of excellent 25 minute documentaries bring the disaster and its aftermath to life.
The centre is open every day of the year (except Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday) from 9 AM to 6 PM in summer and 10 AM to 5 PM the rest of the year.
Take a cooking class at Country Encounters
Who would have guessed that you can take a cooking class in the Crowsnest Pass area? Offered by Dawn Rigby of Country Encounters in the town of Coleman, the classes are geared to your interests and likes and/or dislikes. Dawn, a 30 year cooking veteran and classic French trained chef from SAIT’s cooking school, keeps her classes small with no more than eight people around her table at a time. And she’s a busy lady so you’ll have to plan ahead. This will be the best $30 you’ve ever spent. You’ll leave the class full of inspiration, cooking short-cuts and a very full belly.
Admire the beauty of Lundbreck Falls near Crowsnest Pass – and stay awhile
On the way to or from the Crowsnest Pass area, take a short detour off of Highway 3 (there are signs) and visit Lundbreck Falls on the Crowsnest River. The falls themselves aren’t that high but the setting is pretty and the area, especially by the water, is a perfect place for a picnic.
Camp in Lundbreck Falls Campground on a first come-first served basis. The walk-in tenting sites adjacent to the river are quite lovely and cost $23 per night. The Crowsnest Pass area is just a 10 minute drive away.
If you like hiking, you’ll love the trails in this area. Read my blog on the 3 of the best hikes in the Crowsnest Pass area.
Thank you to Travel Alberta for sponsoring this trip and allowing me to take the time to see what the area offers.
Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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