Load up the boards and fat bike for a mountain-town tour on British Columbia’s West Koot Route
This post is sponsored by these West Koot Route Partners
The West Koot Route connects over a dozen communities in the West Kootenay Region of southeast British Columbia just a few hours north of Spokane. The towns and small cities are as diverse and rich with character as the mountain- and lake-filled wild landscapes that make up this rugged corner of the Northwest. All of those mountains mean an abundance of outdoor winter adventures are possible without the crowds you’d expect in the states. Load up your boards, bikes, skinny skis and snowshoes and hit the road for a magical time north of the border!
The closest destination on the West Koot Route to the Spokane area, the historic mining town of Rossland, is a real-deal ski bum town and the home to the renowned powder grounds of RED Mountain Resort. With its nearly 3,000 feet of vertical and massive 3,850 acres of terrain, RED is comparable size-wise to some of the biggest resorts in North America, just way more real and uncrowded! Ski off five different peaks, score $10 in-bounds cat skiing runs, chow down at Canada’s only snowbound taco truck, and soak up some suds and high-energy vibes at Rafters Bar, once rated the #1 après ski spot in the world by Powder Magazine. With 300” average annual snowfall, fresh snow is often in the cards, but just in case, Big Red Cats serves up mind-blowing glade and tree skiing on 20,000 acres of backcountry terrain.
While RED has a growing list of excellent lodging options and a few places to eat and imbibe after a day of powder slashing, Rossland, a few-minutes drive from the resort, offers plenty of lodging, provisions, and nightlife options. Once you’re settled in for your stay, everything a well-rounded ski town needs is within walking distance, or, in the case of getting to and from RED, a quick ride on the Rossland Ski Bus. Places to rest your head range from budget to comfort-focused rooms. The historic downtown harbors an eclectic array of restaurants, bars, cafes, ski and gear shops and liquor and grocery stores.
Given that Rossland locals are as passionate about biking as they are about snow riding, it’s no surprise that Rossland is also a ski town with a fat biking problem. Largely viewed as something to do between powder dumps just a few years ago, riding the miles of groomed snowy singletrack around Rossland has of late become a draw of its own for fatty-rollin’ out-of-towners.
If Nordic is your winter sport of choice, Black Jack Ski Club across the highway from RED features 50k of groomed trails for classic and skate skiing, including 2.5k of lit trails for night skiing. Or, a few miles up the highway at Strawberry Pass, ski tour or snowshoe in to one of 12 funky yet functional day-use cabins for lunch or a snack around a wood stove fire. Visit Tourism Rossland at Tourismrossland.com for more info and winter adventure inspiration.
A choose your own adventure town that’s close to just about everything you could want to do outside in the winter. Back in the day, I wouldn’t think twice about bouncing around from one adventure to the next and sleeping wherever just to wake up, move on, and do it all over again in a new place. But these days, often with my family in tow, I’ve grown to appreciate settling in to a place and not having to pack and unpack more than necessary. Castlegar, a small city located at the confluence of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers, is the perfect home base for multi-day winter adventures in the Kootenays.
Conveniently located a short drive from two legendary BC ski resorts—RED Mountain (35 minutes) and Whitewater (55 minutes)—you can stay put and watch and wait for the weather to play out before committing to one or the other. If the conditions aren’t cooperating, there are endless backcountry skiing and splitboarding options close by.
For those looking for a serene glide through the forest, there are also excellent Nordic trails close to town. The Castlegar Nordic Ski Club grooms 52-kilometres worth of trails at the Paulson Cross Country Ski Trail system located 20 miles from downtown.
The expansive snowmobile terrain is also a big draw. There are several zones around Castlegar with groomed and ungroomed snowmobile routes ranging from beginner-friendly forest roads to more advanced steep slopes and open, ungroomed meadows. The Castlegar Snowmobile Association maintains several warming cabins and grooms over 70k of trails around Castlegar in the Norns, Ladybird and Goose Creek areas.
Back in town, Castlegar has everything you’ll need for the perfect winter getaway, including a wide range of lodging and restaurant options. Part of the unique draw of Castlegar is the beautiful and friendly small-town setting, and compared to urban areas in the U.S., the pace of life in this often-sunny river town is more laid back.
Make the time to walk the downtown streets after a day of outdoor adventures and check out the dozens of impressive sculptures on the Castlegar sculpture walk. (Castlegar is known as the sculpture capital of Canada!) There are several other winter walking trails around town too. Or take the kids sledding (aka tobogganing) at one of the local hills or ice skating at the outdoor skating rink. Find more trip planning info at Destinationcastlegar.com.
Arrow Lakes & Slocan Valley
The expansive wildness that I love about the B.C. Kootenays quickly becomes even more intense as you drive north from Nelson or Castlegar into the Slocan Valley. Mountains and water frame your view and the epic ski terrain that flies by your window as you drive north includes the makings of fairy tale ski resorts, yet this mostly pristine country largely remains the playground of backcountry enthusiasts.
One could earn their turns climbing up and sliding down world-class terrain through endless pow on day trips in these mountains all winter long, but the big draw for many skiers and snowboarders who come from all over the world is the concentration of helicopter and snowcat-accessed backcountry huts and lodges. From these cozy mountain oases, guests get access to remote, truly world-class ski touring terrain or heli-accessed adventures. Trips range from multi-day guided and fully-catered all-inclusive packages as well as DIY adventures. Once you and your crew are all set up in one of the many lodges or huts spread out in the surrounding Monashee and Selkirk mountains, days are filled with ski touring or heli-skiing legendary powder that can range from extreme alpine terrain more suited for advanced skiers and snowboarders to naturally gladed slopes that can be enjoyed by a wider range of abilities.
More off the radar but definitely worth a visit for any aficionado of smaller community ski hills, the Summit Lake Ski and Snowboard Area is the perfect laid-back winter adventure destination for any mixed group or family looking to play in the snow their own way at their own pace. Located 16k southeast of Nakusp, Summit Lake offers old-school T-Bar access to 30-acres of slopes. Plus, there’s a day lodge, rental shop, and night skiing on Friday nights.
After all of that time sliding through deep snow, nothing beats a soak in hot mineral water. 35k north of Nakusp, Halcyon Hot Springs Resort takes soaking to the next level. The pools, with gorgeous Upper Arrow Lake and Monashee Mountain views, are the perfect relaxation reset with cabin and cottage lodging options scattered in the surrounding forest. Plan to eat at the on-site restaurant Alcédo for what may be the best restaurant at a hot springs resort anywhere.
Nakusp Hot Springs, 16k east of Nakusp, offers an amazing community soaking experience at this non-profit-run pool. Properly soaked with mood-enhancing minerals, you should be plenty relaxed and ready to fit right in with the laid-back vibe of the local lakeside communities of Nakusp, New Denver, or wherever you’re staying in the valley. Explore the Arrow Lakes and Slocan Valley area online and find more trip-planning resources at Arrowslocan.com.
Nelson and Kootenay Lake Region
Out of all of the stops along a winter tour of the West Koot Route, Nelson offers the most urban cultural amenities, from craft dining and imbibing choices to boutique and mom and pop shopping, arts (check out the self-guided mural tour), and health and wellness experiences including yoga, spas, retreats and more. Even though Nelson has a more small-city feel and doesn’t have a ski resort on its doorstep, don’t get the wrong idea: this magical and historic community surrounded by mountains and overlooking Kootenay Lake is a skiers’ town.
Whitewater Ski Resort is just down the highway, a short scenic drive that will take just enough time to finish a large cup of local’s-choice Oso Negro coffee. Whitewater is a no-frills resort that’s all about the skiing and riding with 2,000 feet of vert and over 3,000 acres of terrain that happens to get some of the most snow in the pow-blessed Kootenays (40 feet average annually). While Whitewater proudly proclaims the mountain’s lack of cell service, the resort continues to invest in the quality of the skiing and snowboarding experience, adding a new quad chairlift for the upcoming 23/24 season. Whitewater is also your destination for resort-access to extensive out-of-bounds backcountry terrain. While the boundaries between resort and backcountry are well defined, the Whitewater culture is one that embraces the pursuit of powder in all of its forms inbounds or out. It also must be mentioned that any trip to Whitewater wouldn’t be complete without eating at least once at one of the excellent eateries that serve food that’s so good the resort has its own cookbook!
A little-known fact: the Nelson area has another claim to skiing fame. It’s the cat skiing capital of world! Backed up by having more cat skiing operations in one place than anywhere else on this massive planet, guests can expect powder run after run with day-long vertical drops of up to 18,000 feet or more.
A half hour north of Nelson, Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort—with public pool soaking sessions, a horseshoe cave, lodging that includes expanded soaking hours, and fantastic dining options—is a welcome oasis in the snowy Selkirk Mountains. If you’re looking to stretch your legs before a soak, head another 15 minutes north to the village of Kaslo, a snowshoer’s paradise with miles of trails winding their way up the Kaslo River from town. Find more info at Nelsonkootenaylake.com.
Start planning your north-of-the-border winter getaway along the West Koot Route at Westkootroute.com.
Cover photo by Kari Medig courtesy of Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism