Deep in the heart of the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains lies a ski and snowboarder's dream destination: The Powder Highway. Located a couple hours west by southwest of Calgary, Alberta, this iconic, 630-mile circular route meanders through the impressive Kootenay Rockies region in the southeast of British Columbia, reaching eight ski areas, 20-plus backcountry lodges, and numerous cat and heli-skiing operators to take you even deeper into the mountains. It almost goes without saying, but this Great White North destination is renowned for its legendary powder skiing—hence the name—with annual snowfall often exceeding 60 feet in a single season.
Seeing is believing though, and while many visitors to BC head to the big name coastal resorts like Whistler, I recently opted to travel inland to two of the most underrated along the route, RED Mountain Resort and Whitewater Ski Resort, and their nearby mountain towns in search of untracked snow, unbeatable scenery, and the local mountain scene.
With more time I would have loved to road trip deeper along the legendary highway to complete the full loop, knocking off Fairmont Hot Springs, Kimberley Alpine Resort, Revelstoke, Panorama Mountain Resort Fernie Alpine Resort, and Golden’s Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in the process. But even with a handful of days I still packed my schedule and found that snow isn't the only thing the region has in abundance. Read on for the full breakdown of what makes Canada’s Kootenays and the Powder Highway one ski trip worth every bit the effort to get there.
Small Lift Lines & Big Heart at RED Mountain Resort & Rossland
RED is one of North America's 10 largest ski resorts but it doesn't have the long lift lines that one might expect of such a place. With 3,850 acres of skiable terrain spread out across five peaks and eight lifts and encompassing 119 marked runs, 2,919 feet of vertical drop, and even inbounds cat skiing, there's plenty of space here to avoid bumping shoulders with other skiers and snowboarders.
It was a crisp and clear morning following a massive storm when I first arrived at RED, but to my amazement, there were hardly any queues for the chairlifts. At other resorts, large crowds can be a burden, as everyone jostles for a spot in line, but here, with so much space to roam, people were thrilled to share the stoke, and there were plenty of fresh tracks to go around.
Tucked away in the Southern Selkirk Mountain Range, RED is just nine miles north of the US border, about a 2.5 hour drive from Spokane, Washington (the closest international airport), and only five minutes away from the small mountain town of Rossland, BC. With a population of roughly 4,000 residents, there's nearly one skiable acre per resident, which is one of the big draws for the community. Legendary deep snow helps too.
"Authentic" is a word that is often associated with Rossland, along with "underrated," and I found that both of these descriptions ring true. It’s one of those towns where the vast majority of the population suddenly happens to be “sick” when there’s a powder day in the forecast—the community is united by their shared love of the outdoors and adventure sports, and even during a brief visit, it shows clearly.
If you’re headed to or from Rossland don't miss out on the opportunity to join Big Red Cats for a day of powder skiing via snowcat. They're one of the largest cat skiing operations in the world with over 700 runs and eight mountains of wind protected tree skiing through gladed forests and open slopes in their tenure. This style of terrain allows for great skiing in any type of conditions, opening up endless opportunities for skiing all winter long. I still have a grin on my face from our day out with them.
Plan Your Trip:
Can't-Miss Ski Run: Corduroy off of Grey Mountain; this line offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and open slopes with great groomers and plenty of tree stashes to play in.
Sleep: The Josie Hotel; boutique ski-in, ski-out accommodation with stunning views of the resort and barrel saunas to help you relax after a day on the slopes (sadly no hot tub tho). With top-notch amenities and personalized service, The Josie is the perfect place to rest and recharge.
Eat: Gabriella’s; for a true culinary adventure, I highly recommend the very generous six-course "Tour Through Italy" meal. Each dish is inspired by chef Gabriella's experiences growing up in different regions across the country.
Drink: Rossland Beer Co.; this local brewery for après offers crisp, cold brews made with fresh mountain water. With a relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff, it’s a great place to grab a drink and chat with locals.
Unforgettable Skiing & Small Town Charm at Whitewater Ski Resort & Nelson
At the end of a winding valley in a large bowl lies the unpretentious ski resort, Whitewater. Don't expect to find wifi, a cell signal, hotels, or even snow making machines here; even with a growing reputation and popularity, the place hasn’t lost its original charm. But you will find experienced backcountry recreationalists mixed into the crowd of resort powder enthusiasts thanks to the resort's lift-accessible and seemingly never-ending slackcountry terrain that the surrounding mountains provide.
Come for the unparalleled skiing, but don't be surprised if you find yourself staying for the food. Thanks to Shelly Adams, a chef and former owner of the resort, Whitewater has a reputation for offering some of the best resort food anywhere, like the famous Glory Bowl, a hearty and healthy rice and vegetable dish with a creamy tahini sauce. Due to so many skiers begging for her recipes, Adams has released six cookbooks based on the meals served in the resort's Glory Lodge.
During my time at Whitewater, what struck me most was the pride that the down-to-earth locals had in their mountain and the level of devotion they showed towards it. Unlike most ski hills where tourists can sometimes feel like a burden, here it’s almost seen as an honor and a pleasure to welcome visitors from around the world who find their way to Whitewater. The locals' genuine warmth and hospitality made me feel right at home, and I quickly fell in love with the big mountain and its little community.
The closest airports are Spokane (three hours) and Cranbrook (three hours), both of which make for great starting points for a Powder Highway journey, but a quick 20-minute drive away will bring you to the eccentric and artsy town of Nelson, BC, the main hub for those visiting Whitewater. I don’t think that I've been to another small mountain community with as many unique restaurants, bars, and cafes as Nelson.
The vibrant main street culture, and the culinary and cocktail scene could easily rival those found in big cities. Art lovers will appreciate the vast amount of murals that line the streets and alleys around town, one of the most popular ones being Bryn Stevenson’s mural depicting 16 colorful birds leading up Gordon Road in honor of legendary skier JP Auclair, who tragically passed in an avalanche in 2014. The piece made its big debut in the iconic ski film Imagination by Sherpas Cinema, which is definitely worth the watch.
Whitewater and Nelson prove that venturing out to British Columbia's more remote parts can be incredibly rewarding. No matter how many times I visit Nelson, I always leave wanting more. Every time I return, I discover something new and exciting about this vibrant community. This most recent trip left me considering making the move permanent, firmly cementing Nelson in my heart and mind.
Plan Your Trip:
Can't-Miss Ski Run: Ramble On off of Glory Ridge; this long intermediate line takes you through some steep, perfectly gladed trees that are protected from the wind.
Stay: The Hume Hotel; a landmark building and boutique hotel in the heart of Nelson. Be sure to visit at least one of their three bars for a drink and enjoy the ambiance.
Eat: Pitchfork Eatery; this farmer-owned French/Canadian restaurant offers a seasonal menu that features fresh, local ingredients.
Drink: Broken Hill; with an impressive selection of craft beer and whiskey, it’s a must-visit spot for any self-proclaiming connoisseur.