GOIN’ GOLDEN

National Geographic Traveler October 2006

Discover the soft side of Canada’s gutsiest town—a ski destination blessedly free of chic.

Forget quaint. The mountain town of Golden is more appropriately described as thrilling.

Tucked in the north end of the Columbia Valley, where the Columbia River meets the Kicking Horse River and between the Rocky Mountains and the Purcells, this southern British Columbia community blends a backyard of rugged wilderness with a taste for adventure. Known for its heli-skiing and white water rafting, the Golden area also attracts dedicated hikers, mountaineers and ice climbers. Dozens of fearless bikers make their way to Golden in July to compete in the Mount 7 Psychosis, which happens to be the longest downhill bike race in North America.

Whew!

You may be inclined to take a deep breath and drive on through, but if you like the outdoors, Golden is also a fine place to enjoy some rest and relaxation – as well as sports less extreme, including cross-country skiing and tobogganing in winter; fishing, horseback riding, golfing, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing in the warmer months.

Book a room—or a chalet—in a peaceful spot. The Glenogle Mountain Lodge & Spa, owned by a German couple that ran a popular Golden bakery before switching gears, is in a brook-runs-through-it valley five miles north of town. Homemade bread is served at all meals.

The Alpine Meadows Lodge, set on a 150-acre spread four miles west of town, overlooks the Columbia River Valley. Breakfasts are hearty, and the post-and-beam great room has the sort of fireplace that’s perfect for end-of-day unwinding—especially after a few deep-powder runs at nearby Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (previously known as Whitetooth Ski Area), which boasts the second highest vertical drop in Canada (4,133 feet).

In the warmer months, you can meander along spectacularly scenic trails at the summit, and you needn’t break a sweat to get there: You arrive via a scenic 12-minute trip on the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort’s eight-passenger Golden Eagle Express gondola.

“Golden isn’t a polished kind of place,” says Dave Rutherford, a resident who guides trips on the Kicking Horse River in summer and works as a ski guide in winter. “It’s a real town.”

Fueled by the railway business and the lumber industry, the Golden area remains the antithesis of mountain chic, refreshingly free of boutiques and dressed-to-the-nines vacationers.

A fine way to get your Golden bearings is on the Rotary Trail, a 5.5-mile pathway that runs along the riverbank and loops around town. You’ll cross a handsome pedestrian bridge that spans the Kicking Horse River near 8th Avenue North. The span is the product of more than 100 timber framers, from North America and Europe, who teamed up to build the covered structure in 2001.

Fed by ice fields in the Canadian Rockies, the Kicking Horse courses through the heart of Golden, dividing the downtown in half. On the south side of town, Jita’s Café—on 11th Avenue next door to the Summit Cycle bike shop—is the place to grab a latte or a chai. More good news: Jita’s has Internet access, breakfast is served all day, and—for lunch or dinner—the Indian cuisine offered up is the real thing.

The skies over Golden, incidentally, aren’t just for the birds. Hang glider and paraglider pilots flock here in summer to launch off Mount 7, a world -class flight site. To get a closer look at glider action, you can visit the landing zone in Nicholson, just minutes south of downtown.

For pilot Randy Parkin of Calgary, Alberta—who organizes the Willi Muller XC Challenge, which brings about 60 hang gliders and paragliders to Golden—the town’s rugged authenticity is as much fun as its notorious thermal currents.

“The flying in Golden is exceptional,” says Parkin. “And it’s a great place to just chill out.”