The Powder Highway: The ultimate road trip for snow seekers

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This route is special for more than the skiing as locals share insights and communities welcome visitors to their winter wonderland

Nick Nault

Nick Nault

It’s more than the skiing that makes a B.C. ski road trip unforgettable.

In the 1996-97 ski season, Angie Abdou’s boyfriend took a year off from university in Ontario to spend a winter at Fernie Alpine Resort in eastern British Columbia. In the spring, Ms. Abdou came out to visit. She planned to stay for a week, but never left.

“Twenty years later, we have two kids and a mortgage,” she says. “I fell in love with the town.”
It’s a classic story of arrival for a local in any ski town along B.C.’s famed Powder Highway. And it hints at the other allure of the southeast corner of the province known as the Kootenays. Along with the amazing skiing, it’s the people and communities that make this snowy and mountainous area the ultimate road trip destination.

Even though I know the hill inside out and backwards, when I ski with a local who’s been skiing here since they were a kid, they always lead me to some gully or glade I’ve never been to before.
— Angie Abdou lives in Fernie and is the author of five novels

“People choose to live here,” says Ms. Abdou, PhD, who is the author of five novels. “The lifestyle immigrants include a wide range of professionals and people with interesting backgrounds. It gives Fernie, and all the towns in the Kootenays, a different feel than a small town elsewhere.”

The Powder Highway is not one strict route. Rather, it’s a suggestion to explore a 3-million-acre playground of snowy mountains and world-class skiing. Along the highways linking towns like Fernie, Nelson, Revelstoke, Golden, Invermere and Kimberley are eight ski resorts, 27 backcountry touring lodges, 14 cat skiing operations, 18 heli-ski companies and 14 cross-country ski clubs.
When Ms. Abdou first moved to Fernie, the Powder Highway idea was in its infancy. The roads existed, but the ski industry was just starting to sprout, and so were the towns.

“Fernie was the jock little brother to Nelson, the artistic sister,” she says.

The geographic and business centre of the Kootenay region, Nelson is the biggest town along the Powder Highway and represents what the highway has come to mean.

Nearby Whitewater Ski Resort is a powder skiing mecca. It’s known for its perfect tree skiing, playful terrain with lots of rocks to jump off, a charming atmosphere that eschews the bustle and lift lines of modern resorts and one of the best on-hill restaurants in the industry. “It’s worth going there just for the food,” says Ms. Abdou.

The locals consider Nelson as the Number One Small Arts Town in Canada. Historic buildings in the downtown house art galleries, excellent restaurants, live theatre and many music venues. The annual Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Festival brings it all together over a weekend of ski hill demos, clinics and races, and photo, video, music and art events in town.

Slowly, the same mix of art and sport began emerging in Fernie, says Ms. Abdou. “People moved here for the resort and the lifestyle. They’d find something missing, and instead of complaining about it, they would build it.”

For instance, she used her connections in the literary world to help bring a steady stream of authors to town. Today, the number of people attending readings and talks routinely tops 100, in a town with a population of 5,000. Similarly, film buffs helped create weekly independent film screenings, the Fernie Mountain Film Festival and the annual Reel Canadian Film Festival, a national gathering of the film community in late January. The music scene is vibrant and varied.

“There’s something going on just about every night,” says Ms. Abdou.

“When friends come to town, they’re always impressed with our restaurants, coffee shops and stores,” she says. “Visitors say Fernie doesn’t feel like a tourist town. It feels authentic.”

Head north on the Powder Highway, and people say the same thing about Invermere. Only 3,000 people live in the gateway town to Panorama Mountain Resort, 20 minutes away. But there’s an abundance of art galleries, boutique shops and cozy cafes. With the Purcell Mountains rising on one side and the Rockies on the other, wandering the little town’s scenic main street is a popular pastime after a day at Panorama.

A similar inclusive and friendly atmosphere permeates Kimberley, the namesake for Kimberley Alpine Resort, the ski hill right above town. The community seems focused entirely on quality of life. Inside the village’s boundary is the 800-hectare Kimberley Nature Park, where the trails are popular with groups of cross-country skiers, showshoers and fat bike enthusiasts.

That sharing attitude carries over to the ski hill, creating a safe feeling on the slopes in Fernie and Kimberley. Both are easy-to-navigate resorts. With many other parents on the slopes, Ms. Abdou never worries about her skiing pre-teen kids being on their own.

As for herself, she says Fernie has so many hidden pockets of terrain there’s always something new to find.

“Even though I know the hill inside out and backwards, when I ski with a local who’s been skiing here since they were a kid, they always lead me to some gully or glade I’ve never been to before,” she says.

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is another Kootenay destination where knowing a local helps. Like at Fernie, alpine bowls dominate its terrain, but the rugged geography in between hides plenty of secret stashes. Dividing the bowls are long ridge lines, dripping with couloirs, tree chutes and ramps. The complex terrain rewards skiers willing to explore.

While each is unique, one thing all the resorts along the Powder Highway share is, well, powder. The snow throughout the Kootenay region is legendary for its depth and low water content.

“It’s deep, deep, fluffy, fluffy snow,” says Ms. Abdou. “It’s so fun and so rare.”
Some of the deepest snow on the route falls on Revelstoke Mountain Resort. It’s the newest resort along the road trip, and the town of Revelstoke is still developing its arts and culture scene. Cool shops and cafés, with delicious food on their menus, occupy buildings restored from the town’s earlier boom times. New shops and ideas pop up all the time. Up on the hill, development continues to make the resort bigger and better.

Strictly speaking, from Revelstoke the Powder Highway heads either south or east, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination, or time looking at a map, to realize looping in the Okanagan Valley makes a lot of sense.

From Revelstoke, the closest Okanagan resort is SilverStar Mountain Resort, near Vernon. Here, two cultures stand out. One is an active, athletic community that brags plenty of world-class athletes. Several top professional freeskiers graduated from SilverStar’s freestyle ski club. The other is agriculture. In the heart of B.C.’s fruit-growing region, there’s a strong artisan and small-scale farmer community.

The foodie culture continues at Big White Ski Resort. Quickly becoming a destination for its seasonal wine tasting – Big Reds at Big White features the best red wines from the burgeoning wine industry in the Okanagan Valley. From weekly degustation menus for a romantic getaway, tabletop s’mores for the entire family, or a relaxing horse-drawn sleigh ride to the backcountry for a hearty meal in a warming cabin, the food scene at Big White is deliciously diverse.
An extended Powder Highway trip could continue south, and then east, and reconnect with the regular route near Nelson. Or it could deviate and continue west, and with a stop at Whistler Blackcomb, become a cross-province ski trip.

At Whistler Blackcomb, the culture strays into art and music, but, at its heart, this is an action-sports town. Top skiers and snowboarders come to live here for the challenging terrain and to surround themselves with other elite athletes: The best push everyone to get better.
What makes the Powder Highway special is not just the skiing, the snow and the terrain, but the people on the lifts, at the restaurant, in the stores, the locals willing to share. Life on the Powder Highway is not about the destination, but the journey.