The Columbia Valley, located in southeast British Columbia, is only a three hour drive from Calgary. It bills itself as the “warm side of the Rockies” as temperatures are often warmer than the eastern side of the Rockies. In the winter the Columbia Valley really is an outdoor adventure playground. Every time I visit I discover something new to do.
You can sure stay busy in the Columbia Valley with these nine ideas for outdoor winter fun.
DOWNHILL SKIING at PANORAMA MOUNTAIN RESORT or FAIRMONT HOT SPRINGS SKI AREA
Boasting one of the largest verticals in North America with 4,000 feet, there really is something for every type of skier at Panorama Mountain Resort. Approximately 75% of the runs are geared for beginner to intermediate skiers while expert skiers will love Taynton Bowl – previously a heli-skiing area. I think it’s one of the prettiest resorts I’ve ever skied.
I haven’t skied the Fairmont Hot Springs Ski Area but if I had kids that were just learning to ski, I’d take them here. It’s an affordable alternative to bigger resorts – and after you finish skiing you can immediately head for Fairmont Hot Springs.
CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING in the COLUMBIA VALLEY
There are many excellent choices for track-set cross-country skiing and even more options if you’re prepared to break trail. The Panorama Nordic Centre offers 20 kilometres of trails. Head for Hale Hut if you’re looking for a pretty destination and a place to warm up. Lake Lillian, accessed on the way up to Panorama Mountain Resort offers an easy 3 kilometre track as does Radium Resort – though it’s on a golf course. Fairmont Resort also offers 6 kilometres of groomed trails. The piece de resistance is the Whiteway on Lake Windermere. Once Lake Windermere freezes solidly enough to be walked upon the Toby Creek Nordic Ski Club gets to work. A 30 kilometre, 6 metre wide path is cleared around the lake for skating. The snow that is cleared is used for skiing; once there’s enough the club track-sets the whole loop. It’s a great way to spend a big chunk of a day.
SKATE the WHITEWAY
The Whiteway, a Guinness World Record holder with the title as the longest naturally frozen skating trail in the world with 29.8 kilometers of cleared ice is a great place to skate no matter what your age. There are shorter loops if you don’t want to skate the entire length. Near one of the entrances you’ll also find stand-alone rinks – though without any boards. I believe there are curling events here every winter.
FAT TIRE BIKING at PANORAMA SKI RESORT
Panorama Ski Resort has added fat tire biking to its options of non-skiing activities. Not only can you rent fat tire bikes right on the hill, but you can bike all 20 plus kilometres of the Nordic trails – just don’t ski in the tracks. The roads around the resort are also perfect in winter for biking – and may provide a welcome respite from some of the hillier sections.
The other main option is the Whiteway. If you decide to bike it, don’t forget to bring something to protect your face from the wind. It can be bitter – even on the warm side of the Rockies!
SNOWSHOEING in the Columbia Valley
Panorama Mountain Resort offers several kilometres of snowshoeing trails. But you can also check in with the Columbia Valley information centres and get their up to date opinions on where best to go. And if you can walk you can snowshoe so just about everybody can enjoy this activity.
SNOWMOBILING WITH TOBY CREEK ADVENTURES
I’m a wimp when it comes to anything recreational with an engine; motorboats and snowmobiles both fit in this category. So it was with some reluctance that I headed out on a half day trip with Toby Creek Adventures. I had been on a snowmobile many times but I’d never actually driven one. Child’s play many would say but not me. After a few practice loops my guide Mike “Tucker” pronounced that I was ready to roll. And roll we did – about 16 kilometres and 4,000 feet one way to a gloriously perched hut in the Purcell Mountains called Paradise Hut. It was a former blacksmith shop for the Atlas Silver Mine. Although I’m not about to go out and sink $15K into a snowmobile I do now understand the appeal of getting to places that would probably take a few days to access on cross-country skis.
The people running Toby Creek Adventures offer all sorts of tours from family friendly to adrenaline pumping backcountry jaunts. You’ll find them a kilometre before Panorama Mountain Resort.
WILD-ASS SNOW BIKING WITH RADIUM SNOWBIKE and SNOWMOBILE RENTAL
The new kid on the block – Radium Snowmobile Rental – will appeal to the adrenaline junkies. They will take you up to Forster Creek – famous for its massive dumps of snow (40-60 feet in a winter) where you can play on either snowmobiles or snowbikes – a particularly agile beast that is quickly catching on. I declined to try it as it’s akin to riding a motorbike – but on snow and at very fast speed. I figured I’d be wrapped around a tree in short order and opted to watch from my snowy position in the middle of a meadow, far removed from any avalanche danger.
To get to Forster Creek you must first dodge logging trucks for 28 kilometres (via radios). And then to get to the play area you must snowmobile or snowbike in via 16 kilometres of mostly well-packed trails, some of which cut through avalanche terrain. Don’t forget your avalanche transceivers and a shovel.
This is beautiful country and judging by all the guys I met, an absolute thrill to explore whether on a snowbike or snowmobile.
PARAGLIDING over the Columbia Valley
I was supposed to try paragliding on a recent trip to the Columbia Valley but between poor weather and “Flying Max” out of town on business I missed my chance. Max offers tandem experiences over the Columbia Valley and Windermere Lake. Most flights are 10 – 25 minutes in length depending on thermals and air currents. For a bird’s eye view of the area and a chance to get your heart rate up, sign on for one of his rides. Most are done in the morning when valley winds are more predictable.
WARM UP IN RADIUM or FAIRMONT HOT SPRINGS
I think the best way to warm up after you’ve been outside in winter is to soak in the hot springs. The Columbia Valley is blessed with two developed hot springs. (There are more undeveloped ones that probably aren’t very accessible in winter). I visited both on a recent trip and would have a hard time choosing a favourite. Fairmont Hot Springs has a big pool adjacent to the real “hot springs” which is great if you want to swim lengths outdoors in the depths of winter. Their hot springs pool isn’t as deep but it offers lovely views.
Radium Hot Springs is in Kootenay National Park so you do need a park pass to visit. It can get busy but it too is in a magical setting. You’ll have to be the judge and try them both.
If you need gear – like skates or skis – check out Inside Edge Boutique and Sports in Invermere.