ROSSLAND, B.C. – For many in the skiing world, the resorts of Canada’s Powder Highway in British Columbia’s Kootenay region are secrets they’d rather not share with the public.
The circuit links eight mountain resorts and many times more Nordic, heli- and cat-ski operations across 677 kilometres (420 miles).
“There’s very little out there that can rival the quality and terrain in the Kootenays,” says Ian Johnston, a Vancouver transplant to Rossland where he skis at Red Mountain.
“If you want powder, you go to the Kootenays,” he says. “If you go to party, you go to Whistler,” referring to the better-known and massive ski resort that hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, a nine-hour drive from Rossland.
Like most locals, Johnston grudgingly agrees that those along the Powder Highway need to share their light, airy powder bonanza with the world.
The laid-back resorts offer miles of trails, massive quantities of vertical feet, heli-skiing and communities where skiing is a passion passed from generation to generation by friendly locals.
The gems along the highway through the pristine valleys of the western slope of the Rockies and the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges are, starting in the East Kootenay, Fernie Alpine Resort near the mining town of Fernie; Kicking Horse Mountain Resort west of the entrance to Yoho National Park; Kimberley Alpine Resort outside the picturesque city of Kimberley; Panorama Mountain Resort outside Invermere; and Revelstoke Mountain Resort west of Kicking Horse.
Moving into the West Kootenay region, Red Mountain Resort is minutes from the cities of Rossland and Trail, and Whitewater Ski sits above the trendy lakeside city of Nelson.
Fernie averages 37 feet (11 metres) of snow a year and boasts a season from December through April, as do most area mountains. With a vertical rise of 3,550 feet (1,082 metres), it offers 142 runs including five Alpine bowls and tree skiing.
At 4,133 feet (1,260 metres), Kicking Horse boasts the fourth-highest vertical drop in North America. It boasts 120 runs, 60 per cent of which are rated at advanced or expert. Right at the edge of the Rockies, the resort offers some of the most stunning mountains views in North America.
For hardcore powder aficionados looking for rides through hefty powder fields, Kicking Horse – aka “The Champagne Powder Capital of Canada” – and Revelstoke are the destinations of choice. Located outside the charming Alpine-themed former mining town from which it takes its name, Kimberley offers 2,465 vertical feet (751 metres) of skiing served by five lifts.
Panorama offers 2,847 acres (1,152 hectares) of terrain covering the spectrum from wide-open fall line cruisers to powder-filled tree lines. The area’s Taynton Bowl, once a heli-skiing operation, is avalanche-controlled and no backcountry gear is needed. Get your ski legs warmed up first, though, as the bowl is all black runs, but a great place to find powder stashes days after a dump.
Revelstoke proclaims itself to be the only resort worldwide to offer lift, cat, heli- and backcountry skiing from one village base with a vertical drop of 5,620 feet (1,712 metres). (Cat-skiing uses snowcats or snowmobiles to access off-trail areas.)
Powder Magazine calls Whitewater “one of the best powder mountains on the continent” though some would say it’s a toss-up between Whitewater and nearby Red Mountain. Whitewater offers 2,044 vertical feet (623 metres) of riding serviced by four lifts serving 81 Alpine runs and 13 Nordic trails.
Nearby Nelson is a year-round tourist destination in itself. Its downtown streets are lined with art and Alpine equipment stores and fantastic little eateries.
Red Mountain offers 2,919 feet (890 metres) of vertical drop on 110 runs serviced by seven lifts. For the powder-seekers, look no farther than the aptly named Paradise section of Granite Mountain where locals or the mountain’s Snow Hosts (look for their jackets) can direct skiers to the runs rich with the deep stuff.
“No crowds, good snow. Red Mountain has some of the best deep-tree skiing I have ever seen in my life,” Johnston said, who prefers the powder there to southwestern U.S. offerings at Snowbird, Alta and Sun Valley.
Also on the Powder Highway: Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, which offers, in addition to winter skiing, natural hot springs that make it a draw year-round.
And, for the truly powder-crazy looking to shred the deep, there’s heli-skiing or cat-skiing to be found throughout the province but mainly on the Rockies eastern slope around Revelstoke and Golden. Cat skiing is also run through a number of the mountains along the Powder Highway and is a great way to explore off-piste terrain.