6 min read

Overlooking the Columbia

Mountains and Rivers
upper Columbia River
The upper Columbia River carving a path between the Monashee and Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia, photo by David Lukas

There is a region in southeastern British Columbia where the Columbia River does something quite unexpected.

On its path from Rocky Mountain glaciers to the ocean, the Columbia River flows north for nearly 200 miles, then abruptly circles around the Selkirk Mountains and traces a parallel path the same distance south.

Upper Columbia River
Lush meadows and sloughs along the upper Columbia River, photo by David Lukas

This giant jag marks one of North America's mightiest rivers responding to an immense mountain region that is easily overlooked in favor of its far more famous neighbor, the Canadian Rockies.

We recently headed to Canada for some quality mountain time, but we didn't want to drive all the way to the Rocky Mountains, or hassle with crowds of tourists in Banff and Jasper National Parks. Instead, we stopped at a little mountain town called Revelstoke—partly because of its cool name, and partly because we'd heard whispers of its legendary outdoor recreation—and boy were we surprised!

downtown Revelstoke
Downtown Revelstoke, photo by David Lukas

Revelstoke turned out to be a delightful little town with amazing food and beer, farmer's markets, and summer music—so we stayed four nights at a perfect getaway and used this as a basecamp for exploring nearby Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

Glacier National Park
Hiking in Glacier National Park, photo by David Lukas

Being a naturalist, I found myself utterly enchanted by this unexpected region and I started asking bookstores, visitor centers, and museums if they had any local hiking books or natural history guides for the area.

It turned out there is little information available and the universal reply was that the region is overlooked because it's overshadowed by the Canadian Rockies to the east.

Selkirk Mountains
Loving these big wild mountains west of the Rockies, photo by David Lukas

This is understandable because most people would think these mountains are an extension of the Rocky Mountains. They are in fact geologically and ecologically distinct, not to mention physically separated from the Rockies by a deep cut known as the Rocky Mountain Trench which is so massive it can be seen from space.

Technically, the mountains immediately west of the Rocky Mountains are called the Columbia Mountains. They consist of four major mountain ranges (Cariboo, Selkirk, Monashee, and Purcell) that formed around 170 million years ago as the core of the North American continent slide westward, lifting up the seafloor and colliding with oceanic islands.

Columbia Mountains
A general outline of the Columbia Mountains region, image from Wikimedia Commons

The rocks here are mostly a mix of ancient granite and intensely metamorphosed rocks, 2 billion to 180 million years old, which are very different from the younger, lightly metamorphosed sedimentary rocks of the Rocky Mountains.

Glacier National Park
Rocks of an ancient seafloor towering over Glacier National Park, photo by David Lukas

But ecologically, the Columbia Mountains are important for another reason: they lie west of the Rockies so they intercept storms blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, resulting in heavy rains and deep lingering snows that sustains the world's only temperate inland rainforest (a fancy way of saying it's not coastal or tropical rainforest).

Glacier National Park
Half of Glacier National Park lies above treeline, while 12% of the park is covered in snow and ice, photo by David Lukas

This area is rightly famous for its old-growth forest, including stands of giant western red cedars; and I was astonished in Glacier National Park to hike for hours through endless western hemlocks, which is something I've never experienced before.

temperate rainforest
Mossy rocks and trees in the rainforests of Glacier National Park, photo by David Lukas

These patches of old trees and lush vegetation are also critical for wildlife, including vital populations of grizzly bear and woodland caribou.

Glacier National Park
At this time of year grizzly bears linger around high meadows and avalanche chutes in search of flowers and bulbs, photo by David Lukas

While grizzly bears are no longer found in 99% of their former habitat, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks are key pieces of a larger landscape where grizzlies still survive. In fact these two parks, and the area around them, have the highest density of grizzly bears in British Columbia.

bear warning sign
Some trails are closed or have special restrictions to protect bears and humans, photo by Jade Wolff

You may have never heard of woodland caribou, but these shy, mostly sedentary, forest-dwelling caribou are different than the caribou of the arctic that live in massive herds and migrate great distances.

woodland caribou
A rare sighting of woodland caribou from the North Columbia Mountain herd, photo by David Moskowitz, author of Caribou Rainforest

Woodland caribou rely on old growth cedar-hemlock forests because these old rainforest trees are densely covered in lichens that caribou eat while waiting to move upslope in the winter so they can stand on a firm snowpack and access lichen on the higher branches of trees.

However, due to extensive logging and habitat fragmentation, these caribou are now endangered and more people need to hear their story and take action before it's too late. Learn more here.

As one measure of how desperate the situation is for woodland caribou, in the winter of 2021-2022 it was determined that the Columbia South Caribou herd, which lived in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, was down to one remaining female. There was no chance of this female surviving or having calves on her own, so Parks Canada and their partners captured and moved her to a pen with other females. This effectively marked the extinction of the Columbia South Caribou herd, one of only 50-60 wild woodland caribou herds in existence.

A pika at home in Mount Revelstoke National Park, photo by David Lukas

As a naturalist who loves to learn everything I can about places, it is rare for me to discover a landscape as wild and off my radar as the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia.

Wildflower meadow
Animals and humans both need big, wild landscapes like the Columbia Mountains, photo by David Lukas

This place is vast—with more mountains than I've ever seen—and beyond the tangled web of logging roads lie hundreds of trailless peaks and sheer valleys that fill my heart with hope, joy, and possibility.

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