British Columbia ski towns are about a lot more than skiing
Words :: Feet Banks
As human beings, we are hardwired to explore, to push a bit further, dream bigger, and drive that extra mile in search of something new. For at least the last couple hundred years, that meant heading west, into the wild. And in Canada, in the winter, that means British Columbia, home to the best skiing and snowboarding in North America, if not the world.
In the south east of the province, the legendary Powder Highway mixes a more rustic and wild BC vibe with big mountains and legendary snow. These are the spots where you can get fresh tracks all day and soak in some of the laid-back vibes that have had die-hard snow lovers whispering about “the Kootenays” for decades. But don’t let the uncrowded atmosphere lull you into thinking the Koots can’t get wild; these mountains have plenty of burly lines, killer chutes, and enough backcountry options to last a full season. (The tree skiing at Whitewater Ski Resort is legitimately the best kept secret in BC.)
Shifting west, the Thompson Okanagan region is all about light, dry, perfect powder that skis like a dream come true and sticks to the local trees to create beautiful rime-encrusted “snow ghosts.” While there’s no shortage of steeps, speed runs and alpine, these resorts are also among the most family friendly in the province. And your kids will progress quickly when there are no lift lines and perfect groomers.
And then there’s the Coast, the first point of contact for all those massive storms that roll in off the Pacific. On Vancouver Island, Mount Washington Alpine Resort can easily get a meter of fresh snow overnight. And Whistler Blackcomb… well Whistler is Whistler—legendary snow on two gigantic mountains connected to a snow globe-like village that’s always ready to celebrate the good life. You don’t have to be an adrenaline junkie hunting for the steep, deep, fast and furious to enjoy Whistler. But if you are, this is your place.
However, and this might be difficult to believe, there’s more to life than skiing and snowboarding.
There’s also après ski.
And while the towering, snow plastered mountains of British Columbia offer plenty of good snow and inspiring terrain, it’s the energy and adventure of après and other off-hill activities that elevate a ski trip into life-changing territory.
But let’s start with après, when the day tucks into the night. Those moments when the sun lights up the mountain peaks with glorious, colourful alpenglow before sliding into the Pacific for another night. Après is magic, a time of connection and reflection, an opportunity to time travel back to the best moments of a day, or week, in a warm locale with good food, loud music and, often, a strong drink.
With après, each BC ski area has its own unique traditions. Whistler has champagne guns and tables with fires built right into them (The Longhorn Saloon) while Big White Ski Resort has a flaming brandy/crème de cacao coffee poured down the edge of a rifle barrel right into your glass (Gunbarrel Grill). You can literally see your ski tracks from town during après at Fernie Alpine Resort and Kimberley Alpine Resort has “Happy Hans” a moustachioed wooden fellow who, on the hour, strolls out of the top of a giant, three-story cuckoo clock and hoists his beer stein in the air to celebrate the mountains, the people, and life in general.
In BC mountain towns, après is almost a religion, so get a table, order the large nachos, and don’t be afraid to hoist a glass or a cheer with the locals. Dancing in your ski boots is encouraged, still dancing in them at midnight at the nightclub means you’re an après legend (just be sure you can still make it up the hill the next morning).
Après is universal, but the real secret weapon of BC ski adventures are the Alternate Adventures (aka: stuff to do when your legs are too tired because BC mountains are massive compared to what you’re used to). Variety, they say, is the spice of life and when it comes to off-hill ideas, BC likes to get as spicy as it can.
Few things are as Canadian as outdoor ice skating and while a number of BC resorts offer outdoor rinks, Apex Mountain Resort has a one-kilometre ice trail leading through the snowy forest. Up the road, Big White has a massive rink (the highest in Canada) and SilverStar Mountain Resort has a nice one too, but they also have the province’s fastest tube park. Up in Golden, the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort tube park has undergone a full redesign this winter and the kids will love the new layout.
A winter ski trip needn’t be all action and high speeds, however. Even the Whistler hardcores know the value of a good afternoon at the spa. With its outdoor plunge pools The Scandinave Spa Whistler is the high-water mark but many locals buy memberships at the spas in the village and use the hot tubs, saunas and massages to ensure top performance over Whistler Blackcomb’s long, seven-month ski season. (In the Kootenays they do the same, but with natural hot springs.)
Out west, especially in some of the smaller mountain towns, it’s easy to feel tapped into the history of British Columbia. Sip a BC microbrew and listen to the legend of “Coal Oil Johnny” in the Whitewater pub named after him.
Originally built in the 1800s as a compressor building for the Black Bear Mine, Rafters Lounge— on the second floor of the base lodge at RED Mountain Resort in Rossland—harkens back to the pioneers of the area, as well the golden eras of ski racing and hotdogging.
Dipping even further into history, the Revelstoke Railway Museum is a nice slow-paced option offering a new perspective on mountain culture and how the west was built (pair it with the frontier’s favourite pastime and hit up Peak Axe Throwing around the corner; it’s even more fun than it sounds, and safer). Or learn about local First Nations culture at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, one of Canada’s most celebrated indigenous arts and culture facilities located near the base of Blackcomb Mountain.
Dog sledding is another link to the history of winter exploration, with teams ready to “mush” in Revelstoke, Big White, and Sun Peaks Resort. Slow things down a notch with a snowshoe and s’mores twilight tour at Panorama Mountain Resort or a wilderness snowshoe fondue at Mount Washington. Or keep the adventure self-powered with the fat-tired snow bikes at Kimberley Alpine Resort. Voyageurs looking for a bit more muscle might opt for a snowmobile tour (Whistler, Panorama, Big White, Fernie, Golden, SilverStar, and Revelstoke).
All that wild BC backcountry is equally enjoyable when explored under your own power via splitboarding or ski touring. But it’s absolutely imperative to never head out without the knowledge and equipment to travel safely. Whitewater Ski Resort has a robust backcountry education program in place (to go with their incredible backcountry) and Whistler Blackcomb offers daily guided backcountry tours. It’s a beautiful world out there, but safety is the name of the game.
And what’s a holiday without a souvenir? Sure, it’s easy to find all the latest and greatest ski and snowboard stuff in a mountain town but why not seek out some of that local BC flavour to remember the greatest ski trip ever? The Sun Peaks Holiday Artisan Market takes place for two weekends in December but every mountain town has local wares in galleries, gift stores and coffee shops. Look for something that speaks to you, often you can even meet (or share some turns) with the artist.
The most important thing to remember in British Columbia—whether you’re on the mountain, out in the backcountry, or simply walking around breathing in the views—is to enjoy it and come with adventure in your heart. This is the wild west and the mountains are in charge. So the best advice for anyone venturing out into this land of snowy peaks and towering forests is to tread softly and carry a big stoke.
BC Ski Regions
(Aka: places where powder dreams come true)
The Powder Highway
Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
Revelstoke Mountain Resort
Panorama Mountain Resort
Kimberley Alpine Resort
Whitewater Ski Resort
RED Mountain Resort
Fernie Alpine Resort
Sun Peaks Resort
SilverStar Mountain Resort
Big White Ski Resort
Apex Mountain Resort
Thanks for writing this guys. My wife doesn’t ski so she’ll be happy to know there’s all this other stuff to do!