Discover 5 unique BC ski towns
BC's mountain culture is alive and well, on and off the slopes.
BC's mountain culture is alive and well, on and off the slopes.
Behind every great ski resort is a mountain town filled with people passionate about the sport. In British Columbia, Canada, that enthusiasm for the mountain lifestyle seeps into experiences off the slopes, whether you’re enjoying a pint of craft beer among locals in Fernie, or learning about the legacy of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Whistler.
This winter, BC’s resorts are welcoming travellers who are looking for that unique ski town experience, and who yearn to go deeper into the snowy outdoors. Indeed it's easy to heed BC's call and head to mountain communities with ample powder, challenging terrain that you'll have mostly to yourself, and ski-in/ski-out hotels and chalets.
Rest assured that once you return to town for après-ski, the hotels, lodges, bars, and bistros that refuel those ski legs with hospitality, libations, and celebrations.
Dive into fantastic fall lines and mountain culture in these five unique BC ski towns.
Fernie: where the 20-cm rule rules
When the west winds blow light powder snow into Fernie’s five alpine bowls, don’t be disappointed if the shops close their doors and hang up “Gone Skiing” signs. Such is life in a town whose residents live for skiing and snowboarding at the resort that’s just an eight-minute drive down the road.
That dedication to outdoor lifestyle is everywhere in Fernie, a mining town in BC’s Elk Valley that’s three hours by car from Calgary, Alberta. From the century-old historic brick buildings that line main street (a.k.a. 2nd Avenue), to the welcoming residents happy to share intel on where to find the best powder stashes on the mountain (Snake Ridge), there’s a cheerful, authentic vibe here that’s hard to replicate.
You’ll be smiling, too, when you experience those 20-plus centimetres of fresh-fall in person (the resort gets, on average, 10 metres or 30 feet of snow each winter). The aforementioned powdery bowls feature terrain that’s a mix of steep chutes and wide, forgiving hero runs that funnel into fun glades and fast cruisers. The valley is also a good place to ski outside your comfort zone by booking a guided cat-ski tour with a local outfitter, or trying a new sport like fat biking.
Fernie also has a growing food scene that includes sushi, curry, and farm-to-table fare, plus locally-owned businesses that have elevated “craft” to new levels. Stop in at Beanpod Chocolate, Gelato and Coffee, one of Canada’s few bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Or visit Fernie Distillers, whose Fernie Fog is a soon-to-be-iconic Earl Grey tea-infused liqueur.
There’s a saying in town that people come to Fernie for the winter, but stay for the summer. While that may be true, it’s also quite possible they stay for the community.
Getting there: Fernie is a three-hour drive from Calgary, AB. Alternatively, you could fly into Cranbrook, BC, and drive one hour to town.
Golden: the Swiss guide legacy lives on
Not long after the Canadian Pacific Railway completed its route across the Rocky Mountains, it began importing Swiss Mountain Guides to lead tourists into the Canadian wilderness. Golden, located an hour west of Banff in the Columbia River Valley, became the base camp for that endeavour. Between 1899 and 1954, some 35 Swiss guides and their families made Golden their home and brought hiking and mountaineering, plus skiing, heli-skiing, and backcountry touring, to a railway town ideally situated between six national parks.
Their legacy lives on in the town’s Swiss-style Kicking Horse Pedestrian Bridge, the longest freestanding timber frame bridge in Canada, and also in its active locals, many of whom feel like they’re living in one of BC’s last adventure frontiers. How else to explain local craft brewery Whitetooth Brewing Company’s line of beers that nod to rock climbing, mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, and paragliding, among other extreme pursuits?
The legacy also lives on at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, a 15-minute drive from town, where big-mountain skiing is lived and breathed by residents and visitors all season. In fact, those Swiss guides would marvel at the resort and its 1,315 vertical metres (4,314 vertical feet) of powder-filled bowls, radical alpine chutes, and long punishing steeps. (They’d also be thrilled by the fact that you can climb into a helicopter a short drive from the village to go heli-skiing!)
Getting there: Fly into Calgary and then drive three hours west to Golden through Banff National Park.
Nelson: apres-ski in your snow pants
In British Columbia's Kootenay Rockie's region, you'll find quirky Nelson, the ski town for Whitewater Ski Resort. This laidback city on the shore of Kootenay Lake boasts a greater percentage of heritage buildings—more than 350—than any other Canadian town west of The Great Lakes. Its dining scene is incredible, too. And it’s just a 45-minute drive to Ainsworth Hot Springs, a natural springs featuring a steamy cave that makes a unique spot for soakers to rejuvenate tired ski muscles.
All of this has earned Nelson top billing on numerous “Best Ski Town” lists for North America. But it’s the town’s dedication to Whitewater and the mountain lifestyle that makes Nelson so endearing. Small but mighty Whitewater has over 2,367 acres of skiable terrain and 623 vertical metres (2,044 feet of vertical). What it lacks in size it makes up for in terrain and snow, though—the mountain receives an average of 12 metres (40 feet) of feather-light powder each season. Once you slalom between snow-covered evergreen trees and float over the ski hill’s pillowy meringue drops you’ll be smitten. If you really want to go deeper, sign up for guided ski touring into the surrounding backcountry with a local company.
Though they may be caked with snow, at day’s end your ski pants and goggles will be in good company at any of the city’s three craft breweries and abundance of restaurants, where locals and visitors come direct from the hill with gear in tow. When everyone downtown is still clomping around in uncomfortable boots, there’s no doubt you’re in a bona fide ski town.
Getting there: Nelson is a three-hour drive from Calgray, AB, or a four-hour drive from Kelowna, BC.
Rossland: even teachers play hooky on the hill
Nothing says mountain culture like a town where students who ditch school on a powder day often run into their teachers on the slopes (oops!). But all is forgiven because Rossland is also a town whose public schools include ski days at nearby RED Mountain Resort, which boasts more acres of terrain than the community has permanent residents.
Skiing in Rossland started with the gold rush. A miner from Scandinavia, Olaus Jeldness, came west to find his fortune and coincidentally introduced the sport to the region in the late 1800s. In fact, Canada’s first ski competition took place at RED Mountain in 1897. During Rossland’s gold rush days, 42 saloons competed for prospectors’ business. Though that booming city is long gone, in its place you’ll find a welcoming hamlet: The downtown is postcard adorable with brick storefronts, zero stoplights, only one chain restaurant, and plenty of watering holes.
The ski experience has changed as much as the town. RED has grown to include four mountains with freeride terrain. You can glide straight to après-ski at timber-frame Rafters bar, or to your boutique room at stylish The Josie Hotel.
It’s fair to say people no longer come to Rossland to find their material fortune. They come seeking experiential riches, and the mountain, rising behind frost-dusted Rossland like a hooky beacon, delivers.
Getting there: Rossland is a seven-hour drive from Calgary, AB, or a 3.5-hour drive from Kelowna, BC.
Whistler: ski hard, play harder
Located at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains just a two-hour drive from Vancouver, Whistler Village is a pedestrian-only town built in the style of Switzerland’s Zermatt or Italy’s Cervinia. There are restaurants and bars, boutiques, and accommodations ranging from hotels to condos, all located within walking distance of the chairlifts.
After a day carving turns on the more than 8,000 acres of cruisers, tree runs, moguls, and chutes shared between the two behemoth peaks, ski or walk right to your condo and prepare to hit the town. Whistler has one of the best après-ski scenes in Canada and it’s a good idea to pre-book your table at favourites like Merlin’s and the Garibaldi Lift Co., and be sure to make a dinner reservation to avoid disappointment at hot spots such as the Bearfoot Bistro and Araxi Restaurant.
Whistler also boasts culture galore. Take a day off from skiing to soak at Scandinave Spa Whistler, browse the Audain Art Museum with Canadian and Indigenous art and artifacts, or visit the Whistler Museum to learn all about the town’s half-century of mountain culture, including its Olympic legacy.
Getting there: Whistler is a two-hour drive from Vancouver; you can also fly into Vancouver and take a shuttle from the Vancouver International Airport, or rent a car and drive the scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway.
For tips on how to plan your ski trip this year, click here. Note: BC’s winter road conditions can include snow and ice. Be sure to check DriveBC before heading out on any road trip and be aware of the winter tire and chain regulations across the province from October 1 to March 31.