Winter Road Trip: Canada’s Legendary Powder Highway
Backcountry junkies know it as “The Powder Highway” — a 680-mile stretch of blacktop in the Kootenay Rockies of interior British Columbia. It connects some 64 snow-laden ski operations: eight alpine resorts, nine heli-ski operators, 10 Nordic trail systems, 16 snow-cat guides and 21 backcountry-ski-touring outfitters.
Add in the smattering of funky, authentic and relatively-cheap mountain towns and a couple of picturesque, muscle-soothing hot springs resorts along the way and this powder-hound fantasyland begins to sound pretty ridiculous.
“The Powder Highway is one of those magical places where it’s always snowing somewhere,” says Griffin Post, a top-ranked professional big mountain skier. “It may ebb and flow a little, but something always seems to be coming out of the sky. One week on the Powder Highway can make up for a season of sub-par snow at home.”
Accessing the Powder Highway (also known as Route 95A) once meant a long road trip up to Fernie, British Columbia. But nowadays, thanks to a new flight from Delta, you can jump on a plane from Salt Lake City to Cranbrook, British Columbia, rent an SUV and head out from there. You can also fly into Calgary or Spokane, Washington, both of which are within striking distance.
Understand that unless you plan to quit your job and truly commit for a season, you’ll never experience all that Shangri-La has to offer. So here are a few highlights that should be part of any pilgrimage: the chutes and pillow lines of Fernie Alpine Resort; Kicking Horse’s expert-oriented 4,100-foot vertical drop; and Revelstoke, a relatively unknown monster that boasts the biggest vertical drop in North America, with more than 5,000 vertical feet of bowls, glades and groomers. All of these resorts offer lift tickets for about $60 per day — 40 percent cheaper than most large U.S. ski areas.
“While cat and heli-skiing are always a nice option,” Post says, “if you don’t have the coin for it, there’s more than enough terrain to max out your powdometer.”
That said, both cat- and heli-skiing were born in these mountains and you’d be foolish not to indulge. Just use the funds you save on the cheap lift tickets and reasonably priced lodgings like The Sandman Hotel ($129/night) in Revelstoke and the Red Tree Lodge ($90/night) in Fernie. The world famous resort CMH (Canadian Mountain Holidays) was founded in 1965 in the Bugaboo Mountains and now operates 11 heli-ski lodges in the surrounding mountains that access every type of terrain you can imagine ($5,000-$15,000 for five days).
“There’s nothing like buzzing around interior BC’s massive mountains searching for untracked powder. The heli ride alone is worth it,” says Post.
If steep and deep tree skiing is your jam, give Retallack ($568 to $848/day) or Mustang Powder Cats ($600 to $900/day) a try – disappointment simply isn’t an option with either. For the backcountry purist, there are tons of options from basic self-guided huts, including the Asulkan Hut Cabin ($36/night) on Rogers Pass to luxury backcountry lodges like Ice Creek Lodge ($200 to $300/day) that you access via helicopter and use as a base for guided day tours. (All above prices are in Canadian dollars.)
Along the way, be sure to stop and checkout the Ainsworth and Halcyon Hot Springs resorts and spend a night or two in genuine mountain towns like Golden and Nelson.
“Despite the world-class skiing,” says Ross Borden, a powder fanatic and founder of Matador Network who has skied all over the world, “there are no twenty million dollar mansions, or rows of massive condo developments. Just awesome little towns with a single main drag lined with local bars, diners and the occasional microbrewery.”
All the small towns on the highway are cool throwbacks to a time when the major employers of many mountain hamlets were railroads and lumber mills. On the powder highway, they still are.
“Golden and Nelson have these awesome old-school rustic mountain town vibes,” explains Post, “Quintessentially Canadian, the people are friendly to a fault and both towns have a great collection of local restaurants and breweries worth checking out. Just be careful that you don’t tilt too many back and miss first chair because chances are there’s probably going to be another powder day tomorrow.”