The Old Silk Road. The Miracle Mile. The Northwest Passage. All of these fabled routes promise adventure and riches.
And then there’s British Columbia’s Powder Highway, which promises adventure and riches of a different kind: quaint, charming and friendly towns; white and fluffy powder snow; and fabulous mountains to ski and snowboard to your heart’s desire.
Our plane landed in Spokane, Wash., and after a scenic two-hour drive north across the Canadian border, we soon found ourselves in the town of Rossland, B.C.
Rossland, nestled in the Monashee Range of the Kootenay Rockies in the southeast corner of British Columbia, is home to the challenging Red Mountain Resort, a stone’s throw from downtown. The region, also comprised of the Selkirk and Purcell ranges, enjoys a reliable and abundant dry continental snowfall. This reality spawned the sport (and business) of helicopter and snowcat-accessible skiing in the 1960s, on seemingly endless slopes. British Columbia continues to be the world leader in this endeavor.
If you can’t or won’t spend the big bucks for the heli-ski experience -- but still want steeps, pristine slopes and "pow" -- then Red is for you.
Red Mountain Resort started life as a mining district in the early 1890s, when the lure of gold enticed, among others, Scandinavian immigrants. Soon they were schussing down Red’s slopes, later forming ski clubs to develop the mountain, and eventually building the first chairlift in Western Canada, in 1947. Canadian Olympic gold medalists Nancy Greene and Kerrin Lee Gartner grew up on these runs.
Drop into the ski area and you’ll step back to the 1970s, before mega-resorts and custom ski suits. Fall into the funky, down-home lodge where the cafeteria cook will whip up a semi-custom meal for you on the spot. The locals are friendly and helpful, and will even tell you where their powder stash is hidden if you’re equally amiable.
There are two lift-serviced cone-shaped peaks here, the Red and Granite Mountains. The latter tops out at 6,807 feet, offering almost 360 degrees of down and more than 2,900 vertical feet of skiing. Of the 1,700 acres that are lift-serviced, there are also 2,500 acres that are inbounds and hiking accessible, with fall-lines heading back to the lifts. Don’t fret, those 1,700 acres ski A LOT bigger than you think.
On the resort’s agenda are plans to open adjacent Grey Mountain with a chair for the 2013-14 season, but this year skiers will be able to sample Grey’s runs via snowcat. And there are three other side-country mountains accessible from Red, providing you have the proper equipment and backcountry training.
Tree skiing is king here, but, oh, so are steep chutes, fortified with an average snowfall of 300 inches a season. Experts can get all of these double-black offerings and more off of both mountains, with War Eagle being popular off of Red, and Captain Jack’s Trees as well as the first, second and third slides on Granite. If open powder is your thing, try the Alder and Jumbo gullies on the Paradise side of Granite. For big bumps, Towers of Red and Center Star shine bright.
Mika Hakkola of Red Resort loves the Powder Fields after a storm and the "wicked turns, where no two are alike." Intermediates are not forgotten, with some sweet runs in Paradise, including some not-so-intimidating well-positioned tree runs and some cruisers. Also sharing the mountainside is an assortment of beginner trails, including the super-long Rino’s Run. On the other side of Granite, the Silverlode chair opens up even more green and blue runs of the lower mountain. Don’t forget the great views of the town of Trail and the Columbia River from the top of Granite and Rossland from Red Mountain. There is also a terrain park here for snowboarders and trick skiers but, let’s face it, Red Mountain IS a terrain park.
Within a few runs you realize that there are so many trees, so many ski lines and so few people that there is no hurry, fresh powder for all. We hit the après-scene at the Rafters Lounge for a local brew before heading downtown.
The town of Rossland, like the ski resort, is a throwback to simpler times. It’s a laidback, fun-loving full-fledged town with barber shops, car repair businesses and, sure, a few upscale amenities. But it’s a far-cry from the pretentiousness of a cookie-cutter, cutesy, manufactured ski village. It started out as a gold boomtown, laid out by its namesake, pioneer Ross Thompson, incorporating in 1898 with four banks, seven newspapers and 42 saloons! After extracting $3 billion (2012 dollars) in gold from the local mine, the town went into decline after the workings shut down in 1929. Post-World War II, the community began a rebirth as a mountain sports and activities destination, but it still counts on local mining operations for much of its livelihood.
To experience Rossland in full cultural bloom, we were fortunate to visit in the midst of the annual Winter Carnival, held on the last weekend in January. From Jan. 25 to 27, they’ll celebrate their 116th annual rendition. Carnival events run the gamut from traditional to quirky to downright loony tunes. There’s a parade, pancake breakfast, beer garden, musical events and fireworks, snow volleyball, borscht-sampling and how-to-luge instruction. There’s the Rail Jam, on a slope next to the post office, where snowboarders and skiers fly down bumps and rails trying to impress the judges and cheering onlookers. There are also a lot of events on the mountain, including ski and luge races and family fun.
And then there’s crazy. The Sonny Samuelson Bobsled Race, run down the streets of downtown, is a must-see. The course, defined by the berm created by a snowplow, snakes down the slopes and turns of Spokane Street. Crowds are treated to the spectacle of seemingly out-of-control daredevil teams flying down on ski-shod contraptions ranging from vintage bobsleds, to bed frames and indescribable wooden things. Amazingly, there were few crashes, but lots of laughs.
Other things to do in Rossland when you’re not on the slopes include a visit to their fine museum, taking a self-guided tour of vintage buildings and sites, and perusing the shops for local art and treasures. If you’re into Nordic skiing, it’s huge here, with thousands of participants and four sublime trail networks close by, including the adjacent Black Jack Cross-Country Area.
For dining, locals recommend Drift Izakaya , a Japanese-style pub with paired food and drink, the Flying Steamshovel Inn and Saloon for traditional grub and grog and a warm atmosphere, and the Alpine Grind for fine lunches and morning grabs. Up near the ski hill is Gabriella’s for Italian and Gypsy’s for creative fusion eats.
Next stop on the Powder Highway, after a short jaunt, is the town of Nelson on the shores of beautiful Kootenay Lake. Nelson, with its stunning High Victorian architecture and more than 350 meticulously restored structures, is surely a jewel of the province. You might recognize it as the setting for the 1987 movie "Roxanne" starring Steve Martin. From its beginnings in 1897 as a silver-mining boomtown, Nelson has evolved from a lumber and natural resources center into an artists’ colony, counter-culture enclave and recreation mecca.
There are numerous winter pastimes available, including a visit to the excellent Touchstones Nelson, a combination historical museum and art gallery, and a walk down Baker Street, sampling the local fare and inspecting the local arts and crafts offerings. Inspect the Nelson Brewing Company and imbibe some of the microbrews in this century-old establishment. Tour and/or stay at the historic Hume Hotel, with its wonderfully-restored interior.
You might even catch a glimpse of the ghosts of J. Fred and Lydia Hume, the original owners, said to wander the halls of this 1898 inn.
As you might expect, there is an array of dining here, from gourmet to comfort to bargain fare. A local favorite is the Main Street Diner, featuring reasonably priced and consistently good food. Another is the Funky Monkey, specializing in the interesting tandem of burgers and sushi. We had a great meal at Bibo Nelson, with its cozy atmosphere and creative bistro delights.
About 20 minutes south of downtown was our second ski destination, Whitewater Ski Resort. Even though there has been skiing in Nelson since the early 1900s, Whitewater, developed in the mid-1970s, is a youngster in the ski scene. As luck would have it at that time, North American ski resort design was abandoning the European-style, cut-all-the-trees-down open bowl configuration, opting instead for the environmentally friendlier just-thin-it-a-little approach. The end-result is that Whitewater retains fantastic glade skiing, natural terrain and, with its annual snowfall approaching 45 feet, some of the best in-resort powder runs on the continent. Two years ago, a triple chair was added, along with an additional 750 skiable acres to bring the resort to three chairs, 1,200 acres and a tick over 2,000 feet of vertical. Whitewater, dominated by 7,867-foot Ymir Peak, is another relatively small resort that skis a lot bigger.
As with Red, the absence of high-speed lifts keeps the crowds at bay and ensures a mellow riding experience. Both ski areas appear to be fully embraced and supported by their respective towns, leading to a finer ski experience for visitors. All they ask, partly in jest, is that you just don’t tell too many people how awesome you found them!
Most of the double-black diamond action on this mountain is in the trees off of the Glory Ridge and Summit chairs, with the Backside Bowl and Diamond Glades runs respectively, among others. Advanced/expert runs account for a little more than half of the terrain, with more available in the near backcountry. If you love/hate huge bumps, then jump into/run away from Diamond Drill run (probably a dental reference!) off of Summit. Show off your fancy moves on Blast, under the chair. After a snow dump, locals like Whitewater’s Anne Pigeon love fresh tracks on Summit’s Catch Basin. Intermediates are well taken care off all three chairs, but beginners will stick to the Silver King. Morning Glory is a nice blue cruiser off of Glory Ridge.
Don’t miss lunch! The Fresh Tracks Café at the resort is so good that people actually come up here just to eat from the truly eclectic menu. They even have their own best-selling cookbooks, the Whitewater Cooks series. Try the pulled pork Panini!
Have a lot of time on your hands and a thirst for more adventure? Then hit the road north or east, because there is an additional 500 miles awaiting you on the Powder Highway loop, and six more great resorts to sample, to say nothing of the scores of heli and cat-skiing operations and backcountry lodges awaiting your patronage.
Another ski option, getting back into the U.S., is nearby Schweitzer Ski Resort, Whitewater’s sister mountain, located near Sandpoint, Idaho, and soaring over spectacular Lake Pend Oreille. The resort boasts seven chairs, including a six-pack and two quads, 2,400 vertical, 2,900 acres and an awful lot of tree skiing, ridge-line shots and cruisers. There is a compact village at the base, ski-in and out lodging and dining and shopping options. All in all, Schweitzer is another fine but little-known ski paradise.
Get your powder on soon, though. Word is getting out.
If you go
Travel to Canada is easiest with a valid passport. Kids traveling with one parent might require written permission from the other parent to enter Canada. Alert your credit card company that you will be traveling. Bring plenty of layers and face protection for the occasional very cold day.
Air: There are several airlines flying from Tampa to Spokane via Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix.
Lodging: Red Mountain has on-mountain accommodations, or in Rossland a few miles away. Visit both resort websites for stay and ski bargains. www.Redreservations.com or 877-969-7669
Whitewater has no on-mountain lodging but plenty in nearby Nelson. www.discovernelson.com/htdocs/lodging.html or www.skiwhitewater.com, or 800-666-9420
Kootenay Rockies Tourism: www.kootenayrockies.com
Nelson-Kootenay Lake: www.nelsonkootenaylake.com
British Columbia Province: www.hellobc.com www.discoverbcski.com
Rossland Winter Carnival: www.rosslandwintercarnival.com
Shuttles: Both mountains operate shuttles from downtown to the ski areas. Check the websites for times.