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You’ve Never Thought About a Powder Highway Road Trip Quite Like This Before

The resorts along the so-called Powder Highway serve up plenty of the fluffy white stuff during any winter road trip. To understand how it all came to be is a different type of journey altogether.

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Long before there was the Powder Highway, or the ocean of peaks it now connects, there was the actual ocean. Once upon a time, Interior BC was under water. Today, to stand atop the ski resorts that dot this landscape is to take in some of the most pivotal bisections of British Columbia’s mountain geography. 

The variety of skiing here is a production eons in the making, and the top of every lift, every turn, and every bend in the river leads to your next adventure. To know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from—and where the mountains did, too.

Check it Out: Find Out Which Resort Along the Powder Highway Ranked No. 23 in the West in the 2022 Resort Guide

The Monashees, Selkirks, and Purcells all rose from the floor of an ancient seabed when the earth’s plates slid along a molten subfloor and crashed together some 350 million years ago. In different successions, set apart by periods longer than humanity’s current tenure on this planet, giant folds of the earth’s skin heaved upwards and out of the water. Across the fault line, where those drifting tectonic plates met, the earth then shattered in a slow-motion shock wave and created a separate wall of mountains—the Canadian Rockies—dividing Interior BC from the Canadian Prairies, along North America’s ancestral coastline. Next came the glaciers, and the big melt that wore away the soft sediment of these massifs to shape the ranges we know today, and leave us the rivers and lakes that offer passage through.

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in the Purcells sits in the middle of all this, set just back from the Selkirks and across from the Canadian Rockies—where a 20-mile-wide valley now known as the Rocky Mountain Trench stretches from northern Montana to the Yukon. Gifted with 290 inches of annual snowfall, this resort lies in the sunniest belt of the Columbia Mountains (the Cariboos, Monashees, Selkirks, and Purcells) and is an apex example of Purcells skiing.

Powder Highway KHMR
(Photo: Guy Fattal)

Stepping off the Golden Eagle gondola at 8,033 feet above sea level, the flowing ridgelines divide five bowls that offer gladed south sides and steep, chuted norths. Drop into CPR Ridge to find elongated ribs fluted with fluffy powder and consistent steeps. Navigate between diagonal cliff bands and scrubby alpine foliage to let your skis arc and bend at top speed, or test your mettle by airing clean over these features into consistently loaded fans.

For many, this is the sweet spot: The Purcells don’t get Arctic freezes, but are still just cold enough they’re almost immune to Pineapple Express storms (warm, wet tempests that often cause rain to ridgetop, even mid-winter), which instead bring powder here. 

From there, follow Highway 95 south, along the snow-stoking headwaters of the Columbia River, and for some 200 miles you’re framed by the Purcells on your right and the Canadian Rockies on your left—a younger, taller, and more foreboding range, still shedding rock and finding its form today. The Rockies are so stern and craggy along this route, they don’t hold much snow at all. Until you arrive at Fernie Alpine Resort, that is. In this precise spot, a rare pocket of B.C.’s interior temperate climate skips across the trench to feed the Elk River, and load Fernie’s broad peaks with so much precipitation it seems supernatural.  

The Currie Headwall and Polar Peak are the most striking examples of the rare climatological phenomenon here. At the top of the Polar Peak Chair, to one side, your ski tips point towards a 1,000-foot unskiable cliff. Dip below the chair itself, though, and you’ll find yourself slashing Alaska-style on an open face covered in rhymed rocks, where each turn reveals the next in perfect step with the slope’s sweeping rollover. Slide into Currie Bowl, on the other hand, and you’ll be caught in the wide-open embrace of Ullr’s own catcher’s mitt, with every turn and feature laid out before you in perfect sight.

Fernie is unique in this way, profiting from Rockies terrain and an Interior BC snowpack—a set of conditions no other resort in B.C. can boast. Laced with tall, wise old-growth at lower elevations, the resort receives 360 inches of snow each winter, and is more akin to Whistler than the drier resorts of the Alberta Rockies.

Powder Highway
Cole Richardson sees Revelstoke Mountain Resort from a new perspective. Photo: Graham McKerrell

Continue west from here to follow the Powder Highway back past the Purcells and arrive at Whitewater Ski Resort, planted in the heart of the southern Selkirks—at the divergence of the Slocan and Duncan River valleys. Set under the watchful gaze of Ymir Peak, Whitewater is emblematic of Interior BC skiing. Smash your first run of pillows in the Powder Keg Bowl, under an ever-puking sky, then lap the Summit Chair to find your tracks already reset, and you’ll understand why. This is a moody locale, covered in giant trees and playful, inviting terrain. On average, Whitewater gets 472 inches each winter—making it the prototypical B.C. ski playground. It has just enough alpine to widen the eyes, with a nearly endless abundance of tree skiing. When most people dream of B.C., this is what they think of. 

But, to bring your journey full circle, you must cross back over the Columbia River one more time and visit RED Mountain Resort, parked at the southern terminus of the Monashee Mountains. Three-hundred-sixty-degrees of flawless fall line tugs at your tips here, over rolling and gladed terrain in rounded hills just north of the Washington State border. But as you follow the Arrow Lakes north again, now flanked by both the Selkirks and Monashees, each range grows bigger once more. By the time you reach Revelstoke Mountain Resort, glaciers bear down on you from both sides of the valley. Here the blocky peaks of the Monashees and the brutish peaks of the Selkirks blend into proud rainforests below, painted winter-long with more snow than almost anywhere else in the world.  

Effortlessly whisk down the massive vertical drop in the northern Selkirks, wrapped in a consistent blanket of fresh snow, and you will have done a full loop through the ancient passages of Interior BC. Just remember, though it may only take a few days to tick off in modern times, it took Mother Earth millions of years to lay out.

Top 4 Pit Stops Along the Powder Highway 

Powder Highway Halcyon Hot Springs

The view from Halycon Hot Springs with the Kootenays in the background. Photo: Kari Medig

Kicking Horse to Fernie

World-famous Kicking Horse Coffee is roasted just one hour south of Golden, in the town of Invermere. Stop into the Kicking Horse Café to get the freshest cup of java possible.

Fernie to Whitewater

Legend has it that the town of Salmo was supposed to be named “Salmon,” and they misspelled it. Either way, the Dragonfly Café flows with your current.

Whitewater to RED

Feel surreal at the Hotel Ymir, which delivers a turn-of-the-century dining and drinking experience right out of an old Western movie (plus an insane art collection).

RED to Revelstoke

They say not to swim after eating, but no one ever mentioned soaking. Stop at Halcyon Hot Springs to loosen up, fill up at the restaurant, or stay the night.