Where to Find the Best Winter Recreation in British Columbia

Where to Find the Best Winter Recreation in British Columbia

article by Jan Lee

If there is one thing that British Columbians know about, it is where to find the best opportunities for skiing. Resorts like Whistler/Blackcomb, Sun Peaks, and Apex have put British Columbia on the ski map and made it one of the top locations for winter vacations.

Those who are new to BC's slopes, will find that BC also has a number of small resorts and back road ski areas that offer exceptional winter activities. Resorts such as Kimberley, in the Kootenays, and Hemlock near Harrison Lake, offer a wide range of winter sports. Community cross-country ski areas throughout the province provide trails at a minimal cost to skiers of every level of experience.

One of BC's "unlimited" resources is the heli-skiing terrain that offers another challenging alternative for the more adventurous explorer. Just the same, visitors need to be aware of the inherent risks of back country travel, and the proper precautions that are necessary for any serious-minded ventures.

Our tour begins on Vancouver's North Shore. It is here, most Vancouverites will tell you, that they first learned to ski - overlooking the panoramic view of English Bay, a half hour from BC's largest city. Grouse Mountain, Mount Seymour and Cypress Bowl may not have the most dramatic runs, but they command a loyal following and are minutes from North Vancouver.

Cypress Bowl has the largest number of trails of the three, with 25 groomed runs and 537 m/1,750 feet of vertical climb. Snowboarding is a popular sport on the North Shore, and each of the mountains has its own snowboard park. Snowshoe tours are an added feature at Grouse.

Remember your all weather tires or chains when skiing on the North Shore. Don't let the proximity of these ski areas fool you: Even though the roads are well maintained, the staff of both Mt. Seymour and Cypress Bowl see their yearly share of drivers who get stranded without proper snow equipment.

Vancouver Island, BC's most famous summer paradise, can lay claim to its own ski resort. Those tall peaks you see in the distance while travelling by ferry to the Island include Mount Washington. Located approximately 31 km (19 miles) west of Courtenay, Mount Washington has deeper snowfall than any other resort in British Columbia, with an average depth of 8 metres/26 feet. Good skiing conditions often last past Easter. While Mount Washington is not the highest peak in BC (1590 metres/5,216 feet), it is second only to Whistler in popularity at this time of year.

Accommodations are available on Mount Washington or in Comox Valley, close by. Several of the hotels in Courtenay offer shuttle buses to the ski resort.

Close by, Forbidden Ski Area, is a smaller recreation area with 350 metres/1,150 feet of vertical rise and 21 runs of varying expertise.

Directly across from Courtenay on the Mainland is Powell River. 112 km/70 miles south of Powell River, is Tetrahedron Provincial Park and Mount Steele. There are 4 cabins on site that offer a base for cross country exploration of the nearby lake area. Consult the Forest Service office in Sechelt for a map and directions to the park.

Photo Courtesy of Tourism BC

Highway 101 south takes you towards Vancouver, and the connecting road to Whistler/Blackcomb, BC's most popular ski resort. Whistler (2182 m/7,160 ft) and Blackcomb (2284 m/7,494 ft) offer a full array of winter activities from snowboarding to dogsledding, and snow-cat skiing to heli-skiing. The resort also offers 3 gondolas, 17 chairlifts, 4 T-bars and a full complement of services and accommodations. Cross-country trails can also be accessed at the resort and wind peacefully throughout the surrounding countryside. Garibaldi Provincial Park, which surrounds Whistler, is another popular cross-country ski area. The Pemberton area (32 km/20 miles north of Whistler) is well known for its back country skiing.

The Pemberton Icefield is a remnant of the last ice age and extends from Lillooet River to the headwaters of Squamish River. Come equipped with a detailed map, or an experienced guide of the area. Pemberton Helicopters can fly you and your skis directly to the icefield where you can ski out via Ring Creek.

TLH Heliskiing offers back country skiing in the Chilcotin Mountains. TLH operates out of a lodge on the shores of Tyax Lake, 200 km/125 miles north of Vancouver and offers a variety of personalized skiing and snowboarding packages.

The Lillooet-Williams Lake areas are full of enticing landscapes and unusual activities for the more adventurous skier. There are a number of routes you can take to Lillooet, and the more direct from Pemberton is to continue north on Highway 99. Travellers should remember however: While the Sea-to Sky Highway is one of Western BC's most spectacular drives, the last 100 km/63 miles of the route involves several hairpin turns and steep grades. I am told that this area receives less snowfall than Highway 1 east, which runs northeast through the Fraser Canyon. Both routes are well maintained, but deserve caution during icy or rainy periods.

Experienced ice climbers will enjoy Joffre Lakes (approximately 20 km/13 miles northeast of Pemberton), which sits at the edge of a glacier. Climbers are warned not to walk on the glacier.

Marble Canyon Park, 35 km/22 miles northeast of Lillooet on Highway 97 sees a large number of ice climbers each year as well. During the summer, the park provides a scenic camping area under its towering limestone cliffs.

The area that stretches between 99 Mile House and 108 Mile Ranch could easily be called BC's cross-country capital. More than 200 km/120 miles of trails loop through the area, which is home to the Cariboo Cross-Country Ski Marathon in February. You can find out more information about skiing in this area by contacting the 100 Mile House Info Centre, or Gunner's Cycle and X-Country Ski Shop in 108 Mile Ranch. The Cariboo Forest Region publishes a brochure on cross country ski trails. Be sure to pick up a copy of the map for this region as well.

Mt. Timothy Ski Area, 50 minutes north of 100 Mile House, off Highway 97, offers a family skiing atmosphere, 25 runs and great prices.

Quesnel (120km/75 miles north of Williams Lake), Barkerville and Wells (both are directly east of Quesnel on Highway 26) are home to cross-country skiing as and the annual Wells Winter carnival in January. Making the ski circuit is easy in the Thompson Okanagan, which has more than 5 major ski areas to its credit. Southeast of Williams Lake on Highway 1, is Kamloops and a small, family- oriented facility called Harper Mountain. Located on Paul Road just north of Kamloops, it has one triple-chair and one T-bar. Night skiing is available Wednesday-Friday.

Photo courtesty of Don Weixl/Sun Peaks Resort

Sun Peaks Resort, located on Todd Mountain off of Highway 5, north of Kamloops, is known for its relaxed atmosphere - and for its skiing director, Olympic gold medalist Nancy Green Raine. Its 1000 m/3,000 feet of vertical gives it some of the longest runs around. A skating rink and an extensive, well groomed set of cross-country trails are also available. The resort regularly hosts snowboarding and skiing competitions and supports a local amateur ski club.

Wells Gray Park, approximately 150 km/94 miles north of Kamloops, is a favourite for back country skiers. Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing is based in Blue River and has a growing reputation for top-notch heli-skiing tours.

East of Kamloops on Highway 1 is Salmon Arm. The Larch Hills Cross-Country Area has 140 km/87 miles of cross country trails and a chalet that is maintained by the Larch Hills Ski Club. The Salmon Arm Info Centre can give you directions to the trailhead.

Snowboarding at Silver Star Mountain
Photo courtesty of Don Weixl/Silver Star Mountain

South of Salmon Arm is the Okanagan, the Interior's "playland", with 3 major ski resorts. Silver Star Mountain is located 22 km/14 miles north of Vernon, off of Highway 97. Set in 1890's architecture, the resort's 84 trails are spread over a vertical descent of 760 m/2,491 feet, with 50 per cent of them designed for intermediate use.

Apex Mountain Resort has a longstanding reputation for excellent downhill skiing. Located 32 km/20 miles southwest of Penticton off Highway 97, the resort is quickly becoming a year-round attraction. Beaconsfield Mountain commands a vertical rise of 605 m/2,000 feet, with 50 trails divided between 4 levels of expertise. There are a number of activities for the kids, and a Family Activity Centre that caters to young adults as well.

Big White is 54 km/34 miles southeast of Kelowna via Highway 33 and Big White Road. Located at an elevation of 1,661 m/5,450 feet, the village provides an enchanting if not unusual setting for a winter vacation, with a vista that is almost worth the trip alone. The "Kids Centre" is innovative as well, with an Alice- in-Wonderland like atmosphere that provides enjoyment for young skiers of all ages. There are over 60 ski runs at Big White, most of which are designed for intermediate skiers. Night skiing is also available.

Silver Star Resort
Photo courtesty of Don Weixl/Silver Star Resort

6 km/4 miles from Apex is the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre, in Nickel Plate Provincial Park. There are 30 km/19 miles of groomed and track-set trails, with similar snow conditions to those at Apex. Nickel Plate is accessed by a 30 km/19 mile gravel road off Highway 3a.

Mount Baldy Family Ski Area, 36 km/23 miles east of Oliver at the base of the Okanagan, has 11 runs and offers multiple winter activities. Accommodation includes 95 rental cabins and a condominium on site.

Northeast of the Okanagan and Salmon Arm, the Revelstoke area has a long history of winter sports. The back country trails in Mount Revelstoke National Park have been attracting skiing aficionados since the 1920's. Mount MacPherson, 6 km/4 miles south of Revelstoke on Highway 23 offer trails in a picture book setting. Mount Mackenzie Ski Area (6 km/4 miles) offers conventional skiing as well as heli- and sno-cat skiing.

The best of terrain!
Photo courtesty of Canadian Mountain Holidays

Revelstoke is well known for its heli-ski operations. Canadian Mountain Holidays provides a wide variety of tour packages, with 11 lodges throughout BC. Selkirk Mountain Experience is another back country tour that operates out of Revelstoke.

Panorama Mountain Village is located off Highway 95, approximately 36 km/23 miles southeast of Radium Hot Springs. It commands a vertical of 4,000 feet and a skiable terrain of more than 2,000 acres/800 hectares. Panorama utilizes snow machines for 40% of its runs and skiing is available until mid-April. There is a child care service on site.

Kimberley Ski Resort (207 km/129 miles south of Golden on Highway 95), and Fernie Alpine Resort (approximately 123 km/77 miles east of Kimberley) were recently purchased by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies and offer a challenging skiing in a friendly atmosphere. With 47 runs, and 2,300 vertical feet, Kimberley offers a variety of programs, including snowboarding lessons, a new park that is available for night snowboarding and a new gladed terrain. Fernie advertises glade skiing as well, and can put you in touch with sno-cat ski operators in the area.

Whitewater Ski Area 19km/12 miles south of Nelson on Highway 6 offers good terrain for the experienced skier. Because of its high base elevation of 1,640 m/5400 feet, it gets lots of snow. Proper precaution should be taken and avalanche equipment should be worn if you are skiing outside of the boundary markers, especially after storms.

Phoenix Ski Area
Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Alpine Ski Society

Phoenix Mountain is a small ski area operated by a dedicated group of skiers. Located in the Phoenix Interpretive Forest 30 km. west of Grand Forks, it has nine runs and north facing slopes that offer excellent skiing conditions. There is a day lodge, cafeteria and lounge on site, as well as ski rental and ski school facilities.

Skiers who are interested in frequenting more than one ski area in a season will be happy to know that there is a reciprocal program which allows season pass holders at Phoenix or Mount Baldy to ski at several larger resorts for a reduced price. Check with the ski area manager at either Phoenix or Mount Baldy for more information.

Hemlock Resort, above Harrison Lake bills itself as a family resort, with 250/100 hectares acres of skiable terrain. Located 100 km/60 miles east of Vancouver it has 34 trails. To reach Hemlock, take Highway 1 to Agassiz, then Highway 9 to the Lougheed Highway (Highway 7). Follow Morris Valley Road, and turn right. Accommodations are available on the mountain or in Agassiz.

Getting to Northern BC's ski areas is as much a part of the fun as skiing the slopes. You can drive to Smithers and Terrace via Highways 97 and 16, but you can also fly. I would be remiss not to mention that you can also take a ferry from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, but if your aim is to get in the most skiing time possible, the flights are direct and the trip is considerably shorter (and warmer).

Ski Smithers, which has been a favourite of skiers since the 1920's, has 525m/1,750 ft of vertical and 18 runs spread over 280 acres/112 hectares of skiable terrain. Located on Hudson Bay Mountain, 22 km/14 miles west of Smithers, it offers the added benefit of being in the Bulkley Valley, a favourite for Nordic skiing.

Shames Mountain, 34 km/21 miles west of Terrace, has a vertical of 520 m/1,705 ft, a double chairlift, T-bar and handle-tow services. It also offers multi-level ski lessons and snowboard lessons.

Northern BC has several heli-skiing and back country tour operators that can help you forge your own tracks. For cross- country skiers, the Babine Mountains Provincial Recreation Area maintains a trail along an old mining road in Silver King Basin. A cabin is located 14 km/8 miles from the trailhead. For more information about back country activities in the area, consult the Info Centre in Smithers.

Have a great season!

Copyright Jan Lee

Jan Lee        jnlee@sfu.ca

Be sure to read other articles by Jan Lee in the BC Adventure Network

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Where to Find the Best Winter Recreation in British Columbia