The first thing you’ll likely notice as you approach Fernie, BC, from the south on Highway 3, is the abrupt shift in weather. Just outside of town, the highway passes through a tunnel. It’s roughly here that the broad bottomlands of the Elk River jackknife into the triangular valley in which the city sits. Locals talk of passing from bluebird to blower as they exit the tunnel and enter a snow globe. And the second thing you’ll notice, which completes the snow globe scene, is the peaks, jagged and imposing, the way a kid might sketch them with a crayon.
Located in the east Kootenays, 40 minutes from both the Montana and Alberta borders, this community of around 5,000 is still very much a blue-collar mountain town; despite the town’s growing acclaim as a tourism destination, mining and logging are still the top two industries. Pickup trucks line the streets in front of gear and guide shops. In Fernie, flannel has always been in fashion.
The home hill, Fernie Alpine Resort, boasts the kind of terrain that has made the Powder Highway—the collection of eight ski resorts and dozens of heli- and cat-skiing operations and luxury backcountry lodges linked by 677 kilometers of pavement across the Kootenay Rockies—a world-class ski and snowboard destination.
From the top of the cloud-piercing Polar Peak chair, it’s more than 3,500 feet of vertical drop back to the base area, with over 2,500 acres that hold a quintet of snow-collecting cirques providing plenty of opportunities for off-piste powder lines. But there’s plenty for the green-circle skier too, and no matter your skill level, the slopeside views enchant.
Fernie’s unique microclimate sees some 30 feet of snow each year. Time your trip right and you might benefit from the “Fernie Factor,” the resort’s tendency to get unforecasted dumps of snow that result in a surge of “sick days” in Fernie.
There’s plenty of terrain for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing, too, making use of the extensive trail system surrounding town. Across the valley from Fernie Alpine Resort, the new Montane Trails system offers a mix of meandering singletrack and roadbeds groomed for Nordic skiing and fat-biking. Aspens frame panoramic views of the Lizard Range.
Meanwhile, Fernie fixture Island Lake Lodge has begun offering non-skiers the opportunity to experience the lodge—previously only accessible to guests on highly coveted multi-day cat-skiing stays—with half-day snowcat and lunch packages that include free time to snowshoe among centuries-old cedars or book a massage at the spa.
And despite its blue-collar background, downtown Fernie has a hip yet casual dining and drinking scene with frequent live music and a lively nightlife.
A four-and-a-half hour drive on low-elevation highways from Spokane in good conditions puts Fernie within reach of a long-weekend trip. And an inexpensive ski shuttle from town to the resort, coupled with a walkable downtown core, allow for a vehicle-free visit once there.
But be warned: spend a few days here and it can be hard going back out of that tunnel. //