British Columbia’s south-central region is one of Canada’s best year-round travel destinations, and yet it’s often overlooked by Americans because it isn’t on the road to where they are going. Ah, but the Canadians know about it—particularly the Okanagan Valley, which runs up the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains from the U.S. northward, almost all the way to Trans Canada Highway #1. Thousands from western Canada’s largest cities seek out the Okanagan; they come from Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton—to play, and to stay.
Among the biggest attractions of the Okanagan is climate. The near-desert is hot in summer, cold in winter, perfect in spring and autumn, and dry year-round. It’s the dryness and clear skies that attracts so many people. There are winter activities of all varieties, and more things to do in summer than anyone has time for.
One measure of a region’s overall appeal is how many people move there after retirement begins. Well, the Okanagan has become highly desirable for many Canadians. So much so that there are new problems arising. When tens of thousands of people suddenly populate deserts, the question of freshwater resources becomes an important issue. One that is difficult to resolve.
But that doesn’t really affect travelers who want to enjoy a few days in this spectacular valley. It’s a great laid-back destination. Be active when you want; relax if you want. Perfect.
My favorite approach to the Okanagan is from western Washington. North of Seattle, I turn off Interstate 5 at Burlington and head east on state route 20 into North Cascades National Park. It is spectacular sightseeing as you climb the western flank of the Cascade Range to Washington Pass. At just over a mile elevation, the view from the sightseeing pullout is stunning. A short walk from the parking area brings you to the edge of the mountain, with a view straight downward and to the east that is without equal.
Then it’s winding down the steep grade to the lower elevations along the Methow River. RVers: down-shift manually at the top—but you already know that. The old-west town of Winthrop is along the river. As of 2007 it had a population of 373, but Mary-Beth and her husband were expecting twins, so it’s probably more by now. Quite a bit more in summer because it’s a nifty old town. But I can’t dally here now; we’re headed for Beautiful British Columbia’s Okanagan.
Just beyond Twisp, route 20 turns left toward Canada (those wanting a detour to take the boat ride on Lake Chelan should stay to the right and follow your map to the town of Chelan).
Coming into the town of Okanogan, you turn northbound on U.S. Highway 97. You may have noticed a difference in the spelling of the town’s name. On the U.S. side, the word is spelled Okanogan. On the Canadian side it’s spelled Okanagan. Don’t ask me why; I don’t even understand why objects in my car’s right-side mirror are closer than they appear.
Okay, we’re heading north to the U.S./Canada border. Even though we’re good friends with Canada, border crossings are more difficult than they were in the past. Passport books or cards are now required, so check on all aspects of making the crossing before you leave home.
“Welcome to Canada, eh?”
We’ve been in the Okanogan/Okanagan Valley for awhile, so I’ll mention a bit about how it and all the picturesque lakes got here. During the most recent Ice Age that ended 10,000 years ago, heavy snows formed glaciers that were a mile deep. After 100,000 years of carving and bulldozing the surrounding landscape, when the ice finally retreated, it left gigantic deep scratches. They filled with melting snow and ice plus the runoff from rainfall, giving us deep, clean, clear lakes of special beauty. Most are long and narrow; Okanagan Lake is 69 miles from end to end, three miles wide, and about seven hundred feet deep.
The lake edges include most of the towns in the region, and pretty much all the water recreational activities you could want. Resorts and public beaches abound. There is swimming, sail, pedal and power boating, fishing for rainbow trout and kokanee—which are landlocked sockeye (also called red salmon). There’s even house-boating available.
You might want to try your luck at spotting Ogopogo—the Loch Ness Monster’s New World cousin. First reported before the 1860’s, Ogopogo has been seen almost every year since (often on the way home from New Year’s Eve revelry). He (or she?) has the head of a horse (or goat) and is from fifteen to twenty feet long. I’ve heard him described thusly: “His mother was an insect, his father was a whale, a little bit of head and hardly any tail, and Ogopogo was his name.”
The Native Americans (who seldom celebrated on New Year’s Eve) also tell of the legend of Ogopogo.
Such legends as Ogopogo, Nessie and Bigfoot are fun because they’re impossible to prove wrong. But until someone shows me a dead one—well....?
While searching for Ogopogo, I recommend you also include some other activity such as fishing for kokanee. If you catch one you’ll have a really good fish story—one that you can eat.
The biggest city in the Okanagan region is Kelowna, with a metro population of 150,000. While at the Visitor Center, I came across some unusual information about the average length of time water stays in a lake before eventually flowing out. It’s called “Lake Water Retention Time.” I know, I’d never heard of it before, either. Some small lakes and ponds are a mere few weeks or months. Okanagan Lake is more than 50 years. Lake Tahoe is more than 600 years. Antarctica’s Lake Vostok is 1,000,000 years. Are we having fun yet?
Among the other towns in the Okanagan are Osoyoos, Oliver, Penticton, Summerland, Westbank, Vernon and my favorite—Peachland. Well, I like it because the name reminds me that although the surrounding land is hot and dry, irrigation has permitted the region to become the fruit-basket of Canada. They grow cherries, peaches, pears, apricots and plums. One-third of Canada’s apples are grown here.
Recent terracing of the surrounding hills has been part of the burgeoning grape and wine industry. The soil is right, the temperatures are right, and the growing season is long. The Okanagan is sometimes called “The Napa Valley of the North.” Why not take a winery tour? Sample a few of the wine-maker’s accomplishments. Offer a toast to Bacchus—the Greek God of Wine.
Native Americans lived in the region for thousands of years before westerners arrived. The most recent are of the Salish tribe. Before the economic and social changes that followed European settlements, the Salish were hunters and gatherers. Searching for and harvesting edible wild plants was pretty much an everyday activity for the women and children. Generally the hunting of game animals was done by the men. Fishing and preparing the catch was timed according to the great salmon migrations that took place up until the building of dams along the Columbia River. For thousands of years, migrating salmon found their way to the sea when they were young. Upon reaching maturity, they would return to their spawning grounds, swimming up the Columbia and then the Okanagan River, and finally to the small streams where they had been hatched. The many dams along the Columbia River have vastly reduced the salmon’s ability to survive the whole cycle.
In 1811 the first non-Indians settled in the Okanagan, mainly as fur traders representing large trading enterprises such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. Cold winters in the interior valleys of British Columbia led to animals growing lush, thick fur coats. Beaver pelts were popular, but so were river otter, lynx, mink and others. Scattered throughout the province, the Indians and white trappers worked through the winter, trapping and cleaning the furs. Come spring and summer, they would bring their furs to the trading posts and exchange them for needed supplies. Many of the lowest mountain valleys were along those trade routes—including the Okanagan.
By 1859 there was a Missionary settlement in what was to become Kelowna.
Then came ranchers and the seekers of gold.
During the latter stages of the 19th Century, as the European settlements grew, railroad and ferry boat services transferred goods and people. The railroad connected to the outside world, and the sternwheelers plied Okanagan Lake.
In 1892 the first apple orchards were started—without much success. It took until
the 1920s for the industry to really get going. But when it got going, it was a tremendous success.
As you travel the roads throughout the Okanagan, make it a daily routine to stop at roadside fruit stands. The fruit is high quality and delicious.
Nothing says “Mmmmm” like peach juice running down to your elbows.
Most of the towns in the Okanagan region are along Provincial Highway 97, which is the main road. Campgrounds and RV resorts abound along this route, plus there are a couple of nearby provincial parks that offer camping.
It’s easy to just drive through the Okanagan Valley and enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds you. It’s even better to spend a couple of nights camped near the lake. Disconnect (both literally and figuratively) and go exploring. You’ll be glad you did.