Mountains? That’s British Columbia. Straddling the Canadian Rockies, much of BC’s nearly 400,000 square miles is wilderness—including lush rainforest, mountain ranges, and glacial peaks. It’s also dotted with delightful, laid-back mountain towns. Some are ski villages or outdoor adventure basecamps; others are reinvented mining and logging towns. But all are big on charm, quirky characters, and local color. Get to know the very best.
Claim to fame: The Rockies’ most epic powder
Try: Fernie Brewing Co.’s Trail to Ale challenge: Summit three peaks in 24 hours to win a pint
Low-key Fernie feels a bit frozen in time. There’s downtown’s turn-of-the-century 2nd Avenue, lined with historic brick storefronts that resemble a Wild West outpost. Then there’s the setting: Towering mountains on four sides cut by the Elk River, accented with handsome log cabins and alpine chalets. No wonder movie producers like to use it as a film set. A former coal mining and logging camp, today Fernie is a youthful, unpolished, unpretentious ski town for adventurous powderhounds. Though it gets hammered with an average 11 metres of light, fluffy snow each year, the place somehow manages never to be too crowded, attracting avid downhillers, boarders, and cat skiiers to Fernie Alpine Resort just three miles away. There’s hiking, biking, rafting, and fly fishing, too, and autumn is nothing short of spectacular with the trees below the Lizard Range all ablaze. Don’t leave town without sampling a honeycomb milk chocolate bar at Beanpod.
Claim to fame: Bona fide hippy culture
Try: Riding the restored 1920s vintage streetcar
Artsy Nelson is an appealing mix of hearty locals, salt of the earth characters, and urban escapees. Often called one of Canada’s prettiest, it’s set on the West Arm of sapphire-blue Kootenay Lake in southeastern BC’s Selkirk Mountains—an ex logging/mining town that’s culturally minded and outdoorsy, friendly and bohemian. People-watch at a funky café, dine out in a restored Victorian, and peruse the eclectic collection of galleries, crystal, ceramics, and knife shops set in Gold Rush-era buildings lining the forested hillside. Ski, snowshoe, and snowmobile in winter; fish, hike, climb, paddle, mountain bike, golf, and go boating in summer. Stay at the historic Hume Hotel & Spa and take a short hike up to Pulpit Rock for the best view of town and its 350 heritage buildings.
Claim to fame: North America’s largest ski resort
Try: Seeing coastal First Nations art at the new Audain Art Museum
The world knows Whistler Blackcomb, just north of Vancouver, as a top global ski destination. It’s stylish, glam, and high-end with a youthful, high-energy vibe. It’s also a year-round playground, famed for its ski-in-the-morning-golf-in-the-afternoon proposition. The Euro-style pedestrian Village boasts critically acclaimed dining and designer shopping, and is party central once the sun goes down. Get your adrenaline pumping outside all day—skiing vertical, riding gravity-fed mountain bike trails, hiking among glaciers, and ziplining across canyons—then dine out and dance the night away.
Claim to fame: The hugely popular mid-summer music festival
Try: Learning about railroad history at Bulkley Valley Museum
Alpine-style Smithers is where you go to get away from it all, get into outdoor adventure, and see wildlife—namely, moose, mountain goats, and bears. In northwestern BC off the Yellowhead Highway, it’s tucked into a scenic valley next to towering Hudson Bay Mountain. This northern community, a former railway hub, is authentic, fun-loving, and rough around the edges. Enviro-minded “Smithereens” adore their festivals and fishing (steelhead), hiking and skiing. There’s a surprising amount of cultural activity, too: Jazz and folk music showcases, free outdoor concerts, yoga in the park, field-to-table feasts, theatre, and quality restaurants. Take up residence in a rustic cabin and plan your hike/ski/canoe/horseback ride. This is also a primo spot to see the Northern Lights, and hunt and fish in fall.
Claim to fame: Mountain biking hot spot
Try: Watching ice carving at the lively Rossland Winter Carnival
With its extensive network of old miner’s trails and reclaimed rail lines skirting around the volcanic valley, Rossland is mountain biking heaven. The southern BC town is high up in the Monashee Mountains at 3,400 feet, just over the U.S. border. It’s an 1800s mining boomtown turned outdoor hub. Fans go to trail riding in summer and to downhill through powder at RED Mountain Resort in winter, lured by the hardcore sports and low-key free time mix. Refreshingly old-style with no traffic lights or malls, the town has an impressive number of cute, idiosyncratic indie boutiques. Sample the local craft brew and catch a concert.