The Ancient Cottonwood Interpretive Trail winds through a grove of the world's oldest-known black cottonwood trees, with the most ancient dating back 400 years.
An easy one kilometre loop trail winds through the lush understory of the forest and over a few little bridges before reaching the largest trees. Along the way, interpretive signs explain the ecological role of cottonwood trees and highlight some of the resident plants and animals. The trail is best used during the summer but can be accessed during the winter season, weather conditions permitting.
Head west from Fernie on Highway 3. Approximately 10km past the turn-off for Fernie Alpine Resort, turn left onto Morrissey Road. Drive across the bridge going over the Elk River and park across railway tracks on the right. You will notice the sign on your left after you cross the bridge, before the railway tracks. The drive is about 10-15 minutes from Fernie and the walk through the ancient cottonwood forest is about 15-20 minutes along the Elk River. View Fernie Trail Map.
About the Ancient Cottonwood Trees:
The park protects some of the biggest, oldest black Cottonwoods in the world, interspersed in an old-growth western red cedar forest. Close to town, see 400-year-old Cottonwood trees along a short walking trail. Veloured in dense green moss, the Cottonwood trees congregate on the side of the Elk River at Morrissey Bridge. Towering as high as a 10-storey building, these trees provide homes for many species, including dens for black bears, nests for the endangered Western Screech-Owl, and habitat for many other songbirds and insects.
In 2003 this grove of Cottonwood trees was discovered that rival Canada's famed coastal cedars and firs in both age and girth. Scientists confirmed the ages of the trees, putting the oldest at more than 400 years old, and measuring up to 10 metres around. They are by far the oldest known Cottonwoods in the world.
"It's not unlike walking in a cathedral," says Stewart Rood, a tree specialist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. "You have the massive trunks of these big, big cottonwoods, with a canopy of bright brilliant green leaves about 30-50 metres above you. When you look up it's a bit dizzying. The trees have the most spectacular, deeply furrowed bark, and the tops of the old goliaths are all gnarled and natty from the four centuries of lightning strikes."
The Nature Conservancy of Canada protected the Cottonwood forest as part of a larger land acquisition in 2004. The Elk Valley Heritage Conservation area spans more than 25,000 acres and includes Mt Broadwood and the Ancient Cottonwood Trail. This conservation area creates an important corridor for wildlife, including bears, dear, elk and other large animals that traverse the valley.