The 49th parallel is just a line on the map, but the ski world is a very different on the other side.
When you cross the 49th parallel – also known as the Canadian border – the resorts are bigger, the prices are cheaper and the cultural vibe is international.
Thinking of a trip north? The Okanagan-Thompson region is a great target, with four excellent, full-service resorts clustered within a short drive from each other. Hopping from resort-to-resort, you can easily explore every one of them in a week-long road trip from the Inland Northwest.
And when you cross into British Columbia, take 35 percent off everything, thanks to your powerful U.S. dollar.
Let’s hit the road and explore.
Apex Mountain: Just five hours away from Spokane, this friendly resort awaits just west of Penticton, B.C.
Apex may be smaller than the other resorts on your Okanagan-Thompson resort-hopping adventure, but it has some of the best terrain, starting from a base elevation of 5,350 feet.
“Apex is known as an aggressive mountain,” says James Shalman, resort general manager. With 2,000 vertical feet of skiing on 1,112 acres, roughly 36 percent of the terrain is considered advanced or expert, and even the blue runs are what Shalman calls “aggressive intermediate.”
“You can’t fake a pitch,” he says.
In addition to steeps, you’ll find excellent tree skiing off the top of the Quickdraw Express high-speed quad, a lift that services most of the terrain on the mountain. The Stock’s Chair, serving primarily intermediate terrain, a T-bar and magic carpet round out the lifts at Apex.
When the day is done, the Apex village offers distractions you’ll find at nearly every resort in the Okanagan: restaurants, shops, an outdoor ice rink, tubing, Nordic trails, fat-biking and snowshoeing. For ice-skaters, Apex offers something no other resort does: a lighted, Zamboni-maintained 1-kilometer “adventure skating loop” that winds through the trees in the village.
More than any other resort on this tour, Apex feels like a local secret, with no hint of a lift-line during a recent visit in December.
“We’re not ever that busy,” Shalman says. “You feel like you have your own private resort here.”
Big White: From Apex, head a couple of hours northeast through the bustling city of Kelowna to Big White. If Apex is a locals mountain, the sprawling Big White is a major resort.
With more than 2,700 acres of skiable terrain, Big White has 15 lifts to move people around, including five that are high-speed.
Big White has a family feel, with a vast village that includes 18 restaurants and an eight-person gondola to connect its various facilities.
“We have the most ski-in lodging in Canada,” says Katie Balkwill, regional sales manager for Big White, who estimates there are 17,000 beds on the mountain. Despite its size, Big White is a “much more intimate experience” than skiing at rival Whistler-Blackcomb, Balkwill says.
Another way Big White differentiates itself from Whistler is in snow quality. “It’s the snow” is the resort’s marketing slogan, and it receives nearly 300 inches of fluffy white stuff annually.
As a ski hill, Big White is great for intermediates. Every lift, except the challenging Cliff Chair, offers intermediate and beginning terrain.
If you happen to hit a sunny day at Big White, the Alpine T-Bar, serving the 7,606-foot summit of the ski area, is a special place. Low-angle glades wind through an otherworldly landscape of snow ghosts.
For steeps, the double-diamond drops off the Cliff Chair are excellent, best skied in the morning when the light hits the east-facing bowl.
Silver Star: Two hours north through the quaint town of Vernon, you’ll pull into the picture-postcard village at Silver Star. The Victorian-style buildings are painted in Easter-egg hues, giving this ski area a storybook feel.
Beyond the village scene, Silver Star offers lots of sprawling groomers on its front side. In all, you’ll find 3,282 acres of terrain at Silver Star spread out on four mountain faces served by 12 lifts, three of which are high-speed. With a top elevation of 6,283 feet, it’s slightly lower than the other resorts on this tour, but it still receives more than 270 inches of snow annually.
On the backside, known as Putnam Creek, skiers will find the resort’s most challenging runs winding through treed terrain on north-facing slopes.
While the alpine skiing is vast, what makes Silver Star special is its world-class Nordic trails. Combined with the nearby Sovereign Lake system, the resort offers 105 kilometers of trails, making it “the largest daily groomed Nordic terrain in Canada,” says Kristy Jahn-Smith, marketing manager for Silver Star. National Nordic teams from Canada and the United States regularly train on the trails, she says.
As with other resorts in the Okanagan, the village scene picks up at night at Silver Star. On a sub-zero December night, pick-up teams were playing hockey on the all-natural Brewer’s Pond while action amped up on the tubing hill nearby and visitors gathered around a blazing bonfire. Just off the pond, crowds were rolling in at Pinheads, “Canada’s only ski-in, ski-out bowling alley.”
Sun Peaks: A little more than two hours to the north, in the Thompson Country region of B.C., you’ll find the resort that proudly proclaims its place as “Canada’s Second Largest Ski Area.” For Sun Peaks, with its 4,270 acres of skiing spread out over three mountains, being No. 2 is much better than being Whistler.
“We’re Whistler without the crowds,” says Kyle Taylor, media relations specialist for the resort. Sun Peaks touts its “more than 2,000 hours of sunshine annually” as additional proof that it’s better than Whistler.
There’s a lot to love about Sun Peaks. The newest of the four areas on this tour has a well-designed village with 22 dining spots scattered among the attractive buildings. Among the best are the popular Voyageur Bistro and the rocking Bottoms Bar and Grill, the best place for an apres beer or three.
Sun Peaks also has a vibrant summer season, with excellent mountain biking and a golf course.
On its mountains, Sun Peaks offers a large assortment of groomers to choose from on its 2,893 vertical feet. More challenging terrain can be found on the slopes of Mount Morrisey and in the hikeable side-country of Gil’s Zone.
“That 20-minute hike separates you from 90 percent of the people,” Taylor says. Gil’s has several steep drops falling into gladed tree skiing.
During a recent December day, the snow in Gil’s was knee-deep, untracked champagne powder. It felt a long way from the crowded slopes of Whistler.
John Nelson is a freelance outdoors writer based in Seattle. Follow his blog at skizer.org.