Locals always have a better sense of the hidden gems, the special deals, the time-saving hacks, the un-crowded wonders. Still, after spending a few days at Sun Peaks Resort, I’m starting to think that tourists drawn to the interior hills of BC have figured it out as well.
“Whistler? Oh, we went to Whistler, but then it got so crowded and so expensive, and with the kids, we’re not looking for the wild parties anymore. We found Sun Peaks and it ticks off all the boxes, honestly, it blows Whistler out the water.”
This is basically the same conversation I had with a dozen Australian, British and East Coast Canadian tourists relishing the easy ski-in and out access, homey atmosphere, terrific snow, and sense of community on clear display in Sun Peaks. Located about four and half hours drive from Vancouver, (a little longer if the Coquihalla Highway isn’t playing nice) and serviced by Kamloops airport forty-five minutes away, Sun Peaks has grown from a single obscure mountain in the early nineties into Canada’s second largest ski area, bursting with energy, growth and enthusiastic locals.
“There were only ten permanent residents when Al and I moved here,” recalls Sun Peaks’ legendary Ski Director, former senator, and Olympic downhill legend Nancy Greene Raine. Today there are about 800 permanent residents, and Al is the long-serving mayor. I’ve joined Nancy for a morning ski, a complimentary service she generously offers to all visitors. She starts off with a quick look at the groom charts, quickly assessing the best runs on the mountain she knows perhaps better than anyone.
“Personally I’m a big fan of Mount Morrisey,” I tell her, referring to the adjacent mountain that casts a shadow over the village below. The previous day I had slalomed among the glades on my favourite run in the whole country, a little bit of heaven called The Sticks. Although it’s an easy green, The Sticks ushered me through wide-spaced conifers on a sweet meandering slope. Plus, the night before, I had joined a veteran groomer named Leo in the fighter-pilot cockpit of his Piston Bully, learning all about the art and science of grooming, the 16 hours of grooming performed by eight cats and 25 operators each day, and Leo’s impressive dedication to perfection. A popular evening activity available to all guests, my Cat Trax Groomer Ride on The Sticks gave me a whole new appreciation for corduroy, and how bumps and holes are carefully covered up to ensure the smoothest runs possible.
We’ll get to The Sticks, but first Nancy leads me to an epic rolling blue called Sundowner. Although she’s well into her 70s, there’s no point trying to keep up with her, so I surf my snowboard across the slopes, feeling the bright morning sunshine on my cheeks. Nancy must have descended Sundowner countless times, and yet she’s beaming when I catch up to her at the bottom of the high speed Sunburst Express quad lift.
“How great was that?” she asks, seeing the answer clearly etched into my smile. Sun Peaks is full of such runs, and beyond the slopes, full of such moments.
Chris and Taryn Schwanke are the parents of young twin children, and dozens of the happiest, yappiest mutts you’ve ever seen. Operating as Mountain Man Dogsled Adventures, they take visitors into the forest for daily ten-kilometre long mushes, an experience on par if not better than the dogsledding I’ve done in Yukon and Alaska. They also offer a shorter and well-named Bucket List Experience, which is perfect for younger kids or those seeking to tick this one off and head back to Bottoms bar in the centrally located Coast Hotel for après. Accompanying me is my good friend Jon, a former practicing vet and a dogsled virgin. With Sneaky in the lead, supported by the boisterous Arrow, Turtles, Goblin, Maple, Quicksilver and Stacy, I was eager to get Jon’s impression of the experience. With a Sun Peaks smile on his face, it was clear he enjoyed it. “I loved the synergy we had with the animals, and that we could share and enjoy an experience together, unlike human-animal interactions like hunting and fishing. It was a more than human experience, and man I loved that!” Our small group also consists of a British family on their third visit to Sun Peaks, and they tell me a familiar story. Whistler just no longer cut it. Too big, too expensive, too crowded, too much hassle.“ But Sun Peaks is further away,” I poke back.
“Sure, but have you seen how spectacular the drive is up here? The mountains and the change of landscape, it’s just incredible. Not a drive one minds doing at all.” Touché.
Jon took a tumble on an early ski run and decided to rest up for a while, so I joined the volunteer Sun Hosts who greet visitors of all abilities twice a day, eager to guide us to the best runs. Here I meet a group of Australians, elated to have some guy time while their kids are in ski school and their wives are no doubt enjoying time away from their husbands.
“We heard about Sun Peaks from an agent back home, when we complained that Whistler was getting too busy. We’re travelling from far away, we just don’t have time to spend thirty minutes waiting for a chair,” says Mark from Brisbane.
We never wait more than two minutes for any chair that afternoon, or any other day too. Less time in lines means more times on slopes. Less cash for lift passes and hotels means more cash for other activities, like cold beers, dogsledding, Cat Trax rides, or something more delectable. Take, for example, the scrumptiously rich crumbed brie wheel and succulent bison burger on offer at Voyageur Bistro, the locals favourite located in the Kookaburra Lodge. Sun Peaks might not offer the culinary diversity of Whistler, but restaurants like Voyageurs, Powder Hounds, Oya, Bella Italia, Cahilty Creek Kitchen, Masas and Mantles offer excellent quality and more than enough options. The small village similarly has everything one could need on a ski trip: gear and tuning shops, spas, chocolatiers, yoga, cheap eats, bars – all laid out according to a well thought out and executed long term vision. With the help from the deep pockets of its owners, Japan’s Nippon Cable, Sun Peaks continues to evolve and develop, including the opening of the new Orient quad chair in December 2018.
Learning about the sophisticated avalanche forecasting from a local expert named Kit Nillson, a large map shows how the resort’s terrain can magnify even further beyond its existing boundaries. At 16 square kilometres, Sun Peaks is already big, with room to get bigger. Taking in the stellar views with Nancy from the top of the Burfield Chair, this is a beautiful part of the world, blessed with champagne powder, and a growing community that doesn’t mind sitting slightly under the radar. During my conversations with tourists, shortly after hearing how they found Sun Peaks preferable to Whistler, I heard another request.
“Please don’t tell too many people about Sun Peaks, we don’t want everyone finding out just how special this place is. Otherwise, it might turn into another Whistler.”
Sorry guys, but you needn’t worry. With its bigger marketing budgets, bigger village, bigger terrain, and bigger reputation, Whistler will continue to soak up the majority of ski interest in British Columbia. Which leaves plenty of space in Sun Peaks for those of us in the know and in the snow, locals and otherwise.
Sun Peaks Quick Facts:
- Skiable Terrain: 16 square kilometres (4,270 acres)
- Lifts: 13 (4 high speed quads, 2 quads, 1 triple, 6 surface lifts)
- Runs: 137, including 17 glades
- Longest lift: Burfield, 23 minutes
- Vertical: 882m (2,894 feet)
- Alpine bowls: 2
- Terrain: 10% novice (green), 58% intermediate (blue), 32% advanced (black)
- Annual snowfall: 6m (237 feet)
- Highest elevation: Mt Tod, 2152m (7060 feet)
- Nordic: 37.8km of groomed trails, 17km of backcountry
- Sunshine: 2000 hours of sun per year