Diablo Travel: Hidden Wonderland
Unspoiled and uncrowded, British Columbia’s Powder Highway offers prime opportunities for skiing through deep, dry snow.
Courtesy of Whitewater Ski Resort/Doug LePage
I knew I was in Canada when a moose ambled across the snowy highway in front of me. Deep in British Columbia’s Kootenay Rockies, I was traversing one of skiing’s best-kept secrets: a network of remote roadways known collectively as the Powder Highway, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of ski outfits in the world. You heard right, powder hounds: in the world.
A few hours drive north of Spokane, Washington, the Powder Highway offers world-class skiing without the crowds. The 680-mile web of rural roadways receives more than 60 feet of powdery snow annually, and the region’s eight resorts, dozens of heli-ski and snowcat ski outfits, and backcountry lodges make the most of the abundant snowfall and vast mountain terrain.
I hopped the border in an all-wheel-drive vehicle for a five-day excursion to two of the southernmost resorts. What I found was low-frills, high-thrill wilderness skiing at its finest, and a northwest winter kingdom that’s ready to be shredded and conquered.
So Good, It’s Bad
Red Mountain Resort: Expect 360-degree mountain access, snowcat skiing, and zero crowds.
First stop was Red Mountain Resort, 10 minutes north of the Canadian border. Red, whose cheeky motto is “So good, it’s bad,” offers two exhilarating skiers’ mountains as well as three mountains for side-country (out-of-bounds) skiing for a little more adventure. Trails provide 360-degree access to each of its mountain peaks and to some 4,200 acres of pristine skiing.
The resort receives an average 300 inches of snow each season, making it comparable to Tahoe’s top destinations, but Red Mountain’s biggest draw is the chance to take an undisturbed crack at deep, dry powder. Local skiers, most of whom ride fat powder skis, joke about getting upset when someone is on their run. This lack of crowds is no exaggeration. An average day sees about 1,000 skiers and snowboarders, which makes for a pretty fabulous skier-to-acreage ratio. I skied Red on a Saturday, and most runs had few or no skiers at all. It was like having my own private mountain.
Ample side-country terrain and tree skiing, especially in the backside glades, offer multiple occasions for admiring your surroundings, but the resort’s six lifts to its intermediate and advanced runs also allow time to take in the beauty of the Monashee Range. Ride the Motherlode triple to the top of Granite Mountain, Red’s highest, for views that stretch to the Columbia Valley and, on clear days, deeper into the United States. You’ll be rewarded with a 4.3-mile run, the resort’s longest, or a run through the trees to Paradise Basin and the Paradise chair. Everywhere you look, there are deep, steep, and mostly ungroomed runs.
Red Mountain Resort is also home to Big Red Cats, one of the largest snowcat skiing operations in the world. Big Red operates in nearby backcountry terrain and runs up to three snowcats each day, transporting skiers to eight mountains and more than 500 runs. The multiple trips create a superb opportunity to experience classic Canadian backcountry skiing and snowboarding while still maintaining proximity to the resort’s runs.
After a long day of floating through fresh powder or carving corduroy, you’ll find extremely comfortable base lodging at the resort’s Slalom Creek condos, built in 2008. Or head to the nearby historic mining town of Rossland, a friendly and laid-back community established in 1890 by Scandinavian miners, who introduced skiing to the region.
Each winter for the past 116 years, the town has held a lively Winter Carnival, Canada’s longest-running winter fest. It’s the highlight of winter in Rossland and small-town British Columbia at its finest. Favorite events include a hilarious homemade bobsled race, a relay race, and kids’ carnival, plus plenty of beer drinking and socializing among the locals and visitors. redresort.com.
Here’s what else you can look forward to on the Powder Highway.
Longest run: Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which also houses North America’s greatest vertical drop at 5,620 feet, offers the Last Spike, which is an astounding 9.5 miles long.
Longest night skiing ski run: Kimberley Alpine Resort. The main run off the North Star Express Quad is more than 1.5 miles long.
Best side-country terrain: Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is well-known for its “slack-country” terrain, as the locals call it.
Best heli-ski operation: Canadian Mountain Heli-Skiing. Founder Hans Gmoser invented the sport in 1965.
Best snowcat operations: Selkirk Wilderness Skiing. Founders Allan and Brenda Drury pioneered snowcat skiing in 1975.
Best après-ski drink: Fernie Brewing Company’s First Trax Brown Ale, brewed in Fernie, BC, home to Fernie Alpine Resort. Also hard to resist: Faceplant, the organic winter ale from Nelson Brewing Company.
Best natural spa treatment: The Kootenay Rockies are blessed with numerous hot springs, ranging from resorts to natural backcountry pools.
Best resort dining: Eagle’s Eye Restaurant at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, Canada’s most elevated dining experience at 7,700 feet.
Best fire pit: Panorama Mountain Resort. The views from its restaurant’s deck and outdoor fire pit are amazing.
Frozen Fun Times
Whitewater: Canada’s powder hound nirvana offers thrills for less than $100.
Continuing from Red Mountain, I drove to Whitewater Resort, less than an hour and a half northeast on the Powder Highway. Cradled in the heart of British Columbia’s legendary Selkirk Mountains, Whitewater is renowned for epic winters. It boasts a dependable snowfall that often totals roughly 40 feet, which makes the snow-hungry inhabitants of the nearby town of Nelson positively giddy when it’s time to strap on the skis.
Whitewater has been called “powder hound nirvana” and indeed touts an abundance of fresh powdery snow, terrific in-bounds and out-of-bounds terrain, and a wonderfully laid-back ambience. Think Utah’s Alta, before the advent of crowds and pricey lift tickets. (Both Red Mountain and Whitewater’s tickets go for about $65, less with multiday purchase.)
I started my two-day visit at the day lodge’s Fresh Tracks cafe, which serves up gourmet meals and rich coffee made with locally roasted Oso Negro (black bear) beans. Outside, the slopes beckoned with 1,184 acres of in-bounds terrain, including groomed runs, open bowls, chutes, steeps, and tree skiing.
The resort’s three chairlifts provide unlimited fun for skiers of all abilities. Beginners and intermediates should head to the Silver King chair for smoothly groomed trails and easy runs for wooded skiing, whereas the Summit chair offers access to more expert terrain, such as the double-black Diamond Glades.
If you are in search of groomed Nordic runs for skate and cross-country skiing, start at Whitewater Nordic Centre, which offers 13 trails of stellar skiing loops for all levels. For $5, you can also rent snowshoes and explore more than six miles of maintained wilderness. Off the groomed runs and patrolled trails, hard-core powder enthusiasts will find that Whitewater is a convenient gateway to huge expanses of backcountry terrain. (Properly equipped backcountry skiers can buy single-ride tickets to access the out-of-bounds territory.)
While there’s no on-mountain lodging, there are ample hotels in Nelson, a charming, somewhat counter-cultural town of roughly 10,000 people. I stayed at the historic Hume Hotel, a top spot for downtown lodging and dining, and an entertainment hub. With downtown Nelson’s enticing boutiques on historic Baker Street, including a disproportionate number of stores filled with gear for outdoor adventures, there are plenty of reasons to indulge in a little retail therapy in between ski excursions. skiwhitewater.com.
By the time my five days of epic skiing came to an end, I had enjoyed a small sampling of what the Powder Highway has to offer. But I am already making plans to go back, dreaming of snowcat and heli-skiing, and exploring the other ski mountains in this powder snow paradise.
For Bay Area travelers, Spokane International Airport offers the best access to southern British Columbia and the Powder Highway. It’s serviced by Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air, Delta, Skywest Airlines, United/United Express, and US Airways. Gravity Adventures charter service offers regular bus transport from Spokane Airport to Red Mountain and Whitewater resorts, with pickups on Thursdays and returns on Sunday evening, so you can get in three full days of skiing.
You can also rent a car for the scenic drive into the Kootenays. Red Mountain resort is about a two and a half hour drive from Spokane Airport (in good weather). You may need an all-wheel- or four-wheel-drive vehicle for mountain passes and roads, especially the eight-mile uphill on the last section to Red Mountain, and the ascent from Nelson to Whitewater.
More Snow Fun!