For more than 30 years, ever since reading an article in Powder Magazine about the region, I’ve wanted to hit the fabled “Powder Highway” of southeastern British Columbia — land of great snows, huge mountains, massive rivers, and charming towns. I finally had the opportunity a few weeks ago to make the powder pilgrimage, visiting six ski areas. The results follow.
Note that due to distance and time constraints, my boarder buddy, Dr. Chris Spier, and I had to pass by numerous other major ski areas in the region, including Kimberley, Silver Star, Big White, Mt. Baldy, and Sun Peaks, not to mention dozens of heli-ski operations, cat-skiing options and lodges, snowmobile excursions, Nordic trail systems, and limitless backcountry possibilities. To call it one of the greatest centers of skiing on the planet is no exaggeration. And, with the U.S. dollar to the Canadian dollar now strongly in favor of U.S. currency, it’s an excellent time to visit!
But to hit all the resorts covered here, expect some occasional challenging driving, and high gas prices. Though with base elevations of 2,000 to 3,000 feet, and less snow the past few years, town streets are often dry or just wet. We covered 1,100 miles on our circular route, spread over 12 days, including several multi-day stays and a few days off to refresh our aching legs!
Powder Highway’s RED MOUNTAIN RESORT
Our first destination was the mighty RED Mountain Resort. It sprawls across four mountaintops — including 360-degree skiing off Granite Mountain — and its original developed slope, Red Mountain. The old two-seater with a center-post Red Chair is a throwback to modern skiing’s roots, and most people avoid it and head higher and into the popular Paradise sector. But days after the most recent storm, we found untracked lines in the beautifully sculpted forests flanking this chair. The pines here have all been trimmed of their lower branches, allowing lots of room to roam.
The leading characteristic of RED is its tree and glade skiing, with essentially all its wooded terrain skiable with fresh snow. But there are numerous small cliff bands and drops, and one very gnarly patch called The Chute Show that can test anyone’s skill level. Its vast acreage also shelters many, many fine groomers, intermediate runs, and beginner terrain; i.e., something for everyone.
That’s part of the attraction for Jon Marion, a volunteer Snow Host for RED originally from Fresno, California. He’s been in the region for just over 20 years, having married a Canadian, and a ski host for a decade. His two teenage boys grew up on its slopes.
Friendly and outgoing, ending many comments with a big laugh, he noted, “I’d say one of the distinguishing traits of RED are lack of crowds, with untracked powder days after storms. This is not a luxury resort with high-speed lift but if anything, it’s vast. People show up not knowing how massive it is. There are 118 runs on the map but those can be split into many specific lines, and it takes ages to get to really know the mountain.”
Aside from the fantastic skiing, Jon explained some of the other attractions to going Canadian. “It feels like the 1970s up here: everybody gets along, you feel safe walking around in town. Everyone says hi and take care of each other. We know our neighbors. We also share a love of outdoor adventure, and I’ve learned how to curl since coming here! It’s a fantastic place to live.”
With the adjoining town of Rossland hosting the oldest winter carnival in Western Canada, held annually in January, he notes, “The community here is set on really having fun in your life.”
In fact, locals erected the first chairlift at RED waaaay back in 1948, and even prior to that Norwegian miner Olaf Jeldness pioneered skiing in the area on 10-foot skis, organizing the first downhill race on the mountain in 1897. Today you can also catch a $10 per ride cat ski run on the non-lift served Mt. Kirkup, or sign up for a day with Big Red Cat Skiing on their 20,000-acre powder preserve. The fun factor lives on!
2,919 vertical feet; 3,850 skiable acres; 300 inches annual snowfall; summit elevation 6,807 feet; 17 percent beginner, 34 percent intermediate, 23 percent advanced, 26 percent expert. Details at RedResort.com.
There are numerous options for lodging right on the slopes at RED, with several attractive-looking new lodges and condos, and a few places to dine. Construction is ongoing in the base area, so more choices are forthcoming. A terrific option for low-budget travelers is the Nowhere Special Hostel. Its name is inaccurate: it’s really quite remarkable for a hostel. Opened in 2018, it is clean, attractive, and features a complete kitchen, common social areas, and comfortable, if Spartan, sleeping quarters ranging from dorms to four-person options in bunk beds and a shared bathroom, and even a few private quarters.
The resort also operates a handful of lovely new, private cabins called The Constella with a central Clubhouse on the area’s backside that offers a really romantic, secluded experience. And in the base is the The Josie, a luxurious new property steps from the lifts. The town of Rossland is just 10 minutes away and has many more choices, from rental homes to hotels and motels.
Apres & Dining
In the base is the really cool Rafters restaurant and bar. Built from beams taken from a historic mining building, it oozes character and heritage. They serve an excellent bison burger, sandwiches, soup specials, pizza, and other basic but good fare, and a local 16-oz beer for $7. In town, for some tasty craft beer and après-vibe check out the Rossland Beer Company. Or bump fists at The Flying Steamshovel Inn & Gastropub, a Gold Rush era establishment. For dinner, I strongly recommend Idgie’s with wonderful French onion soup, the best calamari I’ve ever enjoyed, creative entrees, and a very relaxed vibe with friendly staff.
The closest of the region’s ski areas to Spokane, we flew there, rented a winter-worthy vehicle, and drove 2.5 hours north to Rossland and the ski area to begin our circular route. There’s a shuttle that runs from downtown to the slopes.
Powder Highway’s WHITEWATER SKI RESORT
As we geared up in the Whitewater parking lot, a light snow fell. There was a good six inches of freshies already and it continued to drop all day. Of all the region’s resorts, Whitewater averages the most snowfall, some 480 inches a season, and it delivered the goods for us.
Like RED, Whitewater has a historic “hill,” theirs named Silver King with an ancient 2-seater center-post chair. It creaked up the slope, but the untouched slopes begged to be skied. On both days, we enjoyed quite a few laps here on Concentrator’s relatively easy-going terrain and well-spaced treed runs flanking it before heading over to the newer lifts and upper slopes. We noticed a corridor cleared in Silver King for a new chair opening next season that climbs above the current terminus, which will add some great-looking new terrain.
We hopped on the almost 3,000-foot-long Summit Chair, and on day one, entered the heart of the storm. With near whiteout conditions, we slipped silently through the woods where visual definition was better and the snow lay in deep pillows. But poking around in the woods below Diamond Drill, we overshot the unmarked return-to-base catwalk. We ended up in the staff parking lot and had to hike back to the Summit Chair. Whoooops! And while deep and fluffy, the snow was not quite as light as our New Mexico pow, so we were ready for a good lunch by noon, and a bier.
Then we headed to another sector served by the Glory Ridge Chair (4,120 feet in length!), where we found even more snow and loooooong runs. We stayed close to the chair line in order not to get lost, skiing Bound for Glory or the woods on either side.
We’d return here the next day, for a rare BC fresh snow AND bluebird skies combo, and ventured further afield into the double-black Backside Bowl and Brake Line. Boarders and skiers do not get down a mountain the same way, and Chris and I got separated several times. Here I thought I’d lost him for good in the never-ending glades, small rock drops, and steep trees. Amazingly, I pulled up and there he was, upside down at the foot of a drop. But he arose and all was good.
As with RED, we were amazed at the scope of the area, which would take one years to fully explore, the quality of its tree skiing, incredible backcountry options, and the hardcore ski community it engenders.
Vertical drop of 2,044 feet; lift accessible terrain of 1,184 acres and total skiable of 2,367 acres; 480 inches annual snowfall; lift-served summit elevation of 6,700 feet (7,000 feet if hiking in-bounds Ymir Peak); 10 percent beginner, 32 percent intermediate, 47 percent expert, 11 percent double black. Details at skiwhitewater.com
There is no lodging at the ski area, but the very cool town of Nelson, just 30 minutes away, has a plethora of choices — from entire homes and cabins to low budget motels.
A great mid-priced option, the Adventure Hotel, is located in the heart of the town’s historic district dotted with handsome brick and stone buildings overlooking the western branch of gigantic Lake Kootenay. With its super-friendly staff, contemporary styling and furnishings, vibrant color schemes, in-house bar, coffee shop (The Empire) and steak restaurant, a small guest kitchen and dining area, a smoking patio, and other amenities, the Adventure Hotel was a great place to return to each day after skiing. Other suggestions include the Stirling Suites and the historic Hume Hotel.
Après & Dining
Whitewater’s base dining room, Fresh Tracks, has produced not one, but two, cookbooks — a nod to the high quality of its fresh, healthy, and tasty fare. I had to try the classic Canadian dish poutine — French fries with gravy and cheese curds — but also on the menu are Asian bowls, excellent soups and salads, creative sandwiches, fat burgers, and much more.
Nelson has many fine restaurants, as well as specialty coffee shops, cafes, and such. Try the Broken Hill for BBQ and whiskey cocktails; Red Light Ramen for a cute spot down one of the mural-filled alleys; Pitchfork, a candlelit farm-to-table restaurant; or Marzano for amazing Italian sourdough pizza. For late night, check out the dive bar Beauties with New York pizza by the slice, and Easy Tiger (behind Broken Hill), a prohibition-style speak easy — look for the red light in the alleyway! For après suds, try the Nelson Brewing Company.
For refreshing those powder-weary legs, 45 minutes from Nelson is Ainsworth Hot Springs — natural thermal pools inside a cavern. Also on site is an excellent restaurant. Call days ahead to reserve a time slot for soaking and/or dining. The Nelson District Community Center, in the historic district, is a wonderful public facility with steam rooms, a sauna, hot tubs, and a lap pool; admission is a whopping $5 US. Nelson is also chock full of one-of-a-kind shops, art galleries, a history museum, and many more attractions. The local tourism motto is “Finding Awesome,” and it fits! For more on the lovely town and region, visit nelsonkootenaylake.com.
Nelson is about an hour’s drive northeast of Rossland, or about 3.5 hours north of Spokane. You can also fly into nearby Castlegar on Air Canada.
Top image: A skier samples the delights of RED Mountain’s famed tree skiing. Photo by Ryan Flett, courtesy RED.
Story by Daniel Gibson • Courtesy photos
Editor’s Note: This is the first of four articles focused on the “Powder Highway” of British Columbia. Part 1 explores RED Mountain Resort and Whitewater Ski Resort; Part 2 covers Revelstoke Mountain Resort; Part 3 zeros in on Kicking Horse Mountain Resort; and Part 4 profiles Panorama and Fernie Alpine Resort. A new article will be posted here every Wednesday over the next four weeks.
Daniel Gibson was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame in October 2022 for his snowsports writing. He is the co-author of Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico (Arcadia Publishing, 2021), with 183 historic photos; and author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, websites, and magazines, including Powder, Ski, and Wintersport Business. He can be reached at [email protected] or via DanielBGibson.com.