BC’s Coolest Ski Towns

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The case for skiing north of the border, written by an American

I spent the first 30 years of my life believing a so-called “big mountain” ski trip was best found among the packed lift lines, traffic jams, and vast clouds of skiers crowding the slopes of my home country. The norm was chaos—long waits for just about everything, and total anonymity in the mass of people all vying for that last piece of post-run pizza.

The kicker? I grew up a half-hour drive from Canada, and if I’d made that short trip across the border, it would have offered up an entirely different experience.

Fernie Alpine Resort | Dave Heath

Two years ago I finally made that road-trip journey in British Columbia. In a car packed to the hilt, four of us drove into Fernie at dusk and headed directly to the Brickhouse, a local institution, where, within an hour, we were chatting with a local patroller, a city council member, and a pair of shop owners.

Fernie Alpine Resort is best known for its light, fluffy powder and vast terrain. It has entire runs through old-growth cedars, great views across the river valley of the Rockies, and a massive rock headwall that acts as a backdrop behind the five named bowls. But even that is selling it short. What hooked me was more than the world-class skiing—it was the laid-back culture of this mining town-turned ski mecca.

The ski resort was founded in 1961 and still maintains an old-school, dirtbag mentality: “keeping rippers ripped.” Everyone in Fernie is there to have a good time; nobody cares what you’re wearing or how fancy your skis are. And while you’ll find world-class amenities like high-speed lifts and great dining, it’s with a simple, friendly, relaxed feel.

That same attitude translates off-slope, whether you’re making tracks in the snow on a fat bike, throwing curling rocks, or skating at the outdoor rink. Post-activity, you can check out the Ice Bar at Cirque Restaurant, or keep the festive mood going during the popular Griz Days festival.

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort | Reuben Krabbe

Just up the road in Golden, you’ll find similar variety at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, a community atmosphere with some of the best terrain in the world. The mountain is surrounded by sharp peaks and national parks in nearly all directions, steep canyons with rushing rivers, and high-alpine chutes that host the Freeski World Tour. The culture in Golden is full-speed—everything in the small town feels like a rush and ends with shared high fives. Well-known events include the SnowBall Masquerade, while snow yoga and dog-sled tours are sure to get the blood pumping in a whole new way.

 

On-slope Fresh Tracks Cafe Whitewater Ski Resort | Kari Medig

A few hours west on the Powder Highway is Nelson, a ski town known for all-season adventure. Set on Kootenay Lake, Nelson is home to an eclectic mix of artists and artisans, funky shops and heritage buildings. And it’s just 20 minutes from Whitewater Ski Resort.

Here, skiing and riding is the sole focus—what the locals refer to as “master of one.” The resort works closely with a number of heli- and cat-skiing operations nearby, including Summit Mountain Guides, Kootenay Mountain Guides, Big Red Cats, and Stellar Heli.

As a bonus, Whitewater, nestled deep in the Selkirk Mountains, has no WiFi or cell reception, which means people often talk to total strangers in lift lines, on chairlifts, and over a meal at Fresh Tracks Cafe—homegrown fare that has spawned a series of popular cookbooks. These interactions, while seemingly banal, made a big difference during my visit, creating a sense of community on and off the slopes.

 

Downtown Rossland | Dave Heath

Southwest of Nelson, and just across the US-Canada border, is the small town of Rossland and RED Mountain Resort, which have become nearly synonymous. Like many of the small towns in southcentral BC, the history in Rossland runs deep and the ski resort is a big part of it. Founded as a mining town and converted in the early 1900s into one of the great and still-undiscovered ski destinations, RED is run by an avid group of skiers that work hard and play even harder.

Above all else, Rossland’s lifestyle is the biggest draw. Locals care deeply about the town and the ski resort, which is best demonstrated at the Rossland Winter Carnival. This is Canada’s oldest, consecutively running winter carnival, dating back to 1898. It’s also one of the greatest times of the year to find out why “you are a stranger but once.”

If Rosslanders are known for anything more than skiing from first to last chair, it’s après. When visiting RED our first (and last) stop was Rafters, the bar on the mountain. Sitting on the second storey of the base lodge, this is the hangout; walking in, I immediately felt like a local, thanks to a warm welcome and a few jokes from the barkeep.

Patrons freely shared their best-kept secrets, and I learned that RED offers advanced skiers and snowboarders an opportunity to test their skills on a full-day, “10 buck-a-run” in-bounds cat-skiing experience with Kirkup Cat Skiing. That’s all the incentive we needed to pile into the comfy interior of a Pisten Bully 200 snowcat for rides to the top of Mt. Kirkup, where we were dropped into fresh tracks all day long.

 

Whistler Blackcomb | Blake Jorgenson

My exploration ended further west in North America’s best-known resort, Whistler Blackcomb. Recognized for its staggering size—200+ runs and over 3,237 skiable hectares (8,000 acres) of terrain—you could ski at Whistler for weeks without riding the same line. All told, the resort has 16 bowls, three glaciers, and is open year round, other than a short break in the fall. With its sheer size rivaling the biggest resorts in the States and in Europe, the truly impressive part is that the town itself still feels small and friendly, unlike many of its counterparts.

A shared passion for skiing is the fabric that binds this community. Adventurists from around the world are drawn here to work and play, creating a tight-knit feel with a strong international vibe. And while Whistler may not seem like an obvious candidate for small-town life, it’s comfortable and relaxed. In the span of a day, I laughed with locals over a morning coffee before trading stories with an entirely new crew later that evening.

We found that the Village was the best place to mingle, whether at galleries and restaurants, or tucked into a cozy spot for a live-music performance. And there’s plenty more to entertain, from axe-throwing at Forged, to yoga and aerial gymnastics at Treeline aerial, bobsleigh and skeleton at the Whistler Sliding Centre, ATV and snowmobile tours with Canadian Wilderness Adventures, and guided backcountry and heli-skiing with Extremely Canadian.

Our welcome at Whistler was a feeling that had become familiar on what was one of the best road trips of my life. Soaring mountains and heart-thumping runs were the draw, but better than the deep snow and steep lines were the people we met along the way. I still stay in touch—these friends pull me back to BC time and again. Because when you stay in these mountain towns, you’re more than a pass holder. You’re part of the community.

Header image: Downtown Fernie at dusk | Dave Heath

 

POSTED BY: Andy Cochrane

Andy Cochrane is a freelance writer, producer, and photographer who lives nomadically in Tacoma with his dog, Bea. He spends most of his time in the Western US, searching for trails to run, mountains to ski, and good ramen.

Revelstoke Mountain Resort | Andrew Strain

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