Golden, B.C. is one of those Trans-Canada Highway towns where you used to either stop for gas and a leg stretch or roll right through to better places. Then, about a decade ago, European ski resort developers bought the community-owned ski hill and the northern Columbia Valley went through a radical transformation. And the skiing and snowboarding got a whole lot better.
In 1999, Netherlands-based Ballast Nedam bought White-tooth Ski Area, and, after a $300-million, decade-long facelift, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort was born.
In December 2011, Calgary-based Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR), Canada's ski-resort behemoth, came calling to add another arrow to its quiver, a mere 14 kilometres west of Golden on the benchlands above the Columbia River and scattered among the Purcell mountains' Dogtooth Range.
Whitetooth began in 1986 with one 1,700-vertical-foot chairlift and a couple of runs. Kicking Horse now boasts 1,260 metres of vertical, serviced by an eight-person gondola that rises from base area to an elevation of 2,350 metres in under 12 minutes. A high-speed quad then rises to 2,450 metres and the top of Blue Heaven, where you can view the Rockies to the east or the Selkirk Range to the west.
Kicking Horse offers the third-highest vertical drop in North America and 1,133 hectares of skiable terrain, with a build-out plan for 1,621 hectares. Skiing magazine once bestowed the honour of "North America's Best Powder" on the resort and gave it second place for Steeps. The snow quality in this southeastern British Columbia ski resort is regularly described as "champagne powder" and annual snowfall is posted at 760 centimetres.
The resort's next-best asset is the Golden Eagle Express Gondola, which tosses you back into Dogtooth's powder fray in under 15 minutes without suffering through what used to be three chairlifts and the accompanying scouring winds.
The upper mountain sports more black diamond runs than blue, favourites being CPR Ridge and Bowl Over's Double-Black adrenalin-pumping routes. Feuz Bowl - one of four snow bowls - sports some wide-open snow pastures (and snow-covered boulders) before it bottlenecks into the lower mountain and tamer terrain.
If you like first dibs on first tracks, on-hill accommodations range from the Eagle's Eye Suites' two ultra-luxury rooms at 7,700 feet, with 24-hour butler service to base area slumbers such as Copper Horse Lodge (copperhorselodge.com), a boutique mountain lodge with 10 guest rooms just 100 steps from the Golden Eagle gondola.
Cuisine choices on-mountain include the tony Eagle's Eye, Canada's highest mountaintop restaurant; Heaven's Door in Crystal Bowl, where you can remain in your bindings while you enjoy a quick mid-mountain meal; or the Day Lodge at the gondola's base area.
Before the resort came to town and became it's largest employer, Golden (pop. 4,400) was known as the fly-in/out point for helicopters that serviced backcountry heli-skiing lodges, and 10 backcountry lodges still accommodate heli-skiers in nearby Rogers Pass and other remote locations.
Golden - situated at the confluence of the Columbia and Kicking Horse rivers - isn't the Banff experience, but that's the Kootenays' charm. The community's economic diversification, mostly from self-propelled newcomers, has spawned many new tourism ventures. Now this former mill and Canadian Pacific town offers what most urbanites seek: mountain-themed accommodations, urban-style restaurants, specialty coffee hangouts, bars and outdoor sports shops.
If you want to stay in town, generic pre-fab hotel chains dominate the slumber landscape, mostly along the TransCanada Highway. Check out the Brookside Motel, a decent budget sleeper with standard motel rooms and some rudimentary "mountain-style cabins" (with kitchenettes!) set on Hospital Creek, just off the highway and close to local amenities. If you want to go upscale on Golden's outskirts, choose from several rustic cottages and larger luxury lodges.
If you require more for breakfast than instant oatmeal, load up for a day of sliding at the Big Bend, a classic breakfast joint with colonial furniture and local history on the walls. Roddy and Alison MacIsaac's mountain-man-sized portions (many dishes feature chorizo sausage) are served with pan fries and paired with the Big Bend's wall of hot sauce, a mix of homemade concoctions and fire breathers like "Dave's Insanity." While your tongue cools, dive into the bookshelf filled with outdoorsy books.
When you've done enough runs for one day, limp into Eleven22 for some urban ambience. Chef and owner Konan Mar's pared-down fusion and grill menu and contemporary bar/lounge are situated in a converted 100-year-old house with four semi-private rooms. This fresh-food nosh-ery, which includes vegetarian dishes, organic Okanagan wine and Mount Begbie beer, is favoured by heli-ski clients who often dine here on the last night before heading home.
If you're keen to grab some locally roasted joe and search for area guidebooks, stop into that bright yellow, two-storey building in downtown Golden. Bacchus Books & Cafe, Golden's only bookstore, is well-stocked with new and 10,000-plus used books alongside a café that even creates some fresh cash-and-carry breakfast items to power you through your morning turns.
Golden and Kicking Horse country is roughly a seven-hour drive from Edmonton, so try to get through the pass between Field and Golden before nightfall and keep an eye out for bighorn sheep on the highway. Or you just might experience a kicking sheep instead of a kicking horse.
Keep track of the most up-to-date happenings on the hills in and around Edmonton with Colin Cathrea's blog at edmontonjournal.com/ opinion/blogs.