Pros: Family paradise, dry snow, great grooming, fast cruising, lots of ski in/ski out, 2nd largest ski resort in Canada, never crowded.
Cons: Less snow than some, steeps are short, not for powder hounds
Located in the North Thompson region of British Columbia’s South Central Interior, Sun Peaks is one of the more northerly of Western Canada’s major ski resorts. It is a 45 minute drive from Kamloops, B.C. Sun Peaks sits on the Western edge of the Shuswap Plateau and is about 20 miles east of the North Thompson River. It is not really in a mountain range and is the only alpine peak in the region so from the top of the mountain, on a clear day, you can see literally for hundreds of miles. The Monashee Mountains, some of the Purcell Mountains and the Coast Mountains, Dunn Peak, as well as Silver Star Resort, Big White Resort, and Revelstoke Mountain Resort on the other side of the Columbia River, are all visible from the top of the Burfield Chair at Sun Peaks.
Storm patterns typically involve frequent small amounts of very dry snow with an average of 18’ to 20’ or about 235” in an 18 to 20 week season. Much of the mountain has southern exposure but because of the northerly location a sunny day can be very welcome in mid winter with the sun’s warmth usually not affecting the snowpack until spring hits in mid March. Ski Canada Magazine rates the Thompson/Okanagan region of British Columbia as the best skiing weather in Canada and Sun Peaks has some of the driest snow of any resort in Canada. Skiers coming to SP after being at other ski areas often comment on the noticeably dry air at SP. SP does get its share of fog but it is almost always the upper third alpine area that gets socked in, leaving 4.5 chairlifts operating mostly below the fog. The resort is far enough north to get above freezing at the 3930’ Burfield Base elevation level usually for only a few days or part days in mid winter. So freeze/thaw cycles for most of the winter are not an issue and snow preservation between storms is excellent. Rain is rare and it usually turns to snow 300’-500’ above the village. Rain to the top of the mountain is really rare and based on personal observation I would say it happens about once a decade. The last time it did that it rained for about half an hour.
Sun Peaks opens a bit before U.S. Thanksgiving in mid to late November and from mid Dec. to early March Sun Peaks usually has a very reliable easy to carve snow pack. SP closes in early or mid April, like the rest of the B.C. Interior, for lack of people not lack of snow.
Lift serviced skiing started at the Burfield Base in 1961 as Tod Mountain Resort. The area struggled along through a number of under financed owners until it was purchased in 1992 by Nippon Cable who, with their very deep pockets and extensive worldwide ski industry experience, began to develop the area into the award winning family/intermediate heaven that it is today. With 2894’ vertical and as of 2014-15 SP has 4270 acres and 135 runs and glades it is tied with Lake Louise as the 2nd largest ski resort in Canada but far from the 2nd busiest. About 90 runs are beginner and mostly intermediate and 45 runs and glades are advanced. There are terrain parks totaling 9 acres for 3 ability levels. With annual skier visits of about 325k, even busy weekends and holidays are not crowded and the runs are mostly empty except for a very wide beginner run called the 5 Mile that has a half dozen blue and black runs that feed into it. For comparison: Whistler/Blackcomb at over 8,000 skiable acres get 2.2 million skier visits and Lake Louise at 4270 acres gets an estimated (by me) 500k to 600k skier visits.
Because Sun Peaks gets less snow than some of its competitors the resort has had an ongoing summer grooming program since the early 1990s. All stumps have been pulled (except on the Challenger run to hold snow), rocks picked and dynamited in a few places, weeds cut and grass planted. Early season, Sun Peaks will often be reporting 50cm to 80cm thinner base than other resorts but with equal coverage.
A very well designed snow making system (only ever used in early season) involved damning a creek outside the ski area boundary and creating a reservoir holding 35 million gallons at a high elevation with several miles of buried pipe bringing water to the village and back up the hill to the snow guns. So there are no pumps other than the ones on the snow guns. The reservoir system is hooked up to the village’s fire hydrants for excellent gravity fed fire fighting capacity. SP has snow making on the 5-Mile run, Sundance run, Cahilty run and some trouble spots. They also have snow making on the mid-mountain race training run: O.S.V (stands for Osterreich (Austria) Ski Venue) which allows the Austrian World Cup Ski Team and other ski teams to train in early November before the mountain is open to the public and just before the World Cup season starts usually at Lake Louise, about a 6 hour drive from SP.
The Austrians where not happy with the shared, limited, on snow training that their racers were getting in North America prior to the start of the World Cup seasons. So they paid SP a rumored $1 million per year for exclusive early November access to training on O.S.V. for 5 years prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Backhoes and dozers were put on the run in summer and it was reshaped under the Austrians’ direction and renamed O.S.V. For the first early November training session, snowmobiles were used to transport the racers back up the 1000’ vertical mid-mountain run. The following year a proposed future chairlift was fast tracked beside OSV with the loading area part way down the 5-Mile run so skiers coming off upper mountain runs can get on the mid-mountain Elevation Chairlift (1037’ vertical) rather than skiing all the way to the bottom of the mountain. Copper Mtn. in Colorado expanded their race training facilities a few years ago and the Austrians now go there in November. Ironically the race training at Sun Peaks has expanded as well, adding snow making and race training lanes on the lower Chute and attracting youth ski race clubs from all over Canada to train in early November before the resort opens to the public.
The purpose built Sun Peaks Village has approx. 7000 beds and a ton of ski in/out housing. A mixture of detached homes, townhomes and 8 hotels (most rooms with kitchenettes) form a compact village with a gentle sloping skiway through the centre with shops and covered walkway on either side. There are about 20 restaurants/bars/coffee shops and 1 grocery store and 1 liquor store. The 4-star Sun Peaks Grand Hotel is dog friendly as are some other hotels.
Sun Peaks markets itself as “Three Mountains, One Village” and there are indeed 3 mountains (well sort of as one is really a ridge but at 1559’ vertical that is a mountain to some people) with skiing on both sides of a valley with village and golf course in between.
To get to Mt. Morrisey from the village, skiers walk across the road, through a covered bridge over a creek, and then use a platter lift to get high enough to ski a cat track over to the 1306’ vertical Mt. Morrisey high speed quad Chairlift. There are 4 north facing black runs that lead back to the platter and 3 black diamond runs that are a short hike out if skied to the bottom. The hike takes you to the bottom of the Back in Time run and a traverse leads you to the Burfield Chair. The rest of the east facing runs are all very nicely laid out 12 intermediate and 2 beginner runs. All lifts at SP have at least 1 green run easy way down. From the top of the Morrisey Chair skiers can take the run Back In Time (the most aptly named run on the mountain). A long traverse and then a run and a traverse gets you to Burfield Drive and then walk across the road to the Burfield Chairlift. You are now about 2 miles from the SP Village. Or ski down Sun Peaks Grand Return to get back to the platter lift and the covered bridge and village.
The Sundance high speed quad chairlift is about 100’ from the Sundance Hotel and offers 14 blue runs, 3 green runs and 3 glades and 1559’ vertical. On sunny days most of the runs on Sundance Ridge get the afternoon sun. From the top of Sundance Ridge take the Morrisey Connector which at the end of the run takes you across the valley on a skier trail overpass over the road and to the base of the Morrisey chair.
About 200 ft from the Sundance chair is the Sunburst Express high speed quad chairlift, aka The Bubble, nicknamed for the Lexan dome that can be lowered in cold or snowy weather. This chairlift offers 1952’ vertical and a mix of 1 green, and 20 blue and black runs, with some black runs getting regular grooming and some left to grow moguls, and 10 glades between the runs. (One of the regularly groomed black runs is Broadway and it gets the afternoon sun on a sunny day.) The Sunburst chair is one of 4 chairlifts on Mount Tod. The top of the fixed grip Elevation Chair off loads near the top of the Sunburst chair and it is a short ski over to the fixed grip Crystal triple chair which takes the skier up 968’ vertical into the upper mountain Alpine. There are no high speed lifts on the upper mountain; fixed grip lifts preserve powder lines. From the top of the Crystal Chair on a foggy day, take the Spillway run as it has enough trees on either side to give perspective, or the Chute to the skier’s right for mostly fog free big moguls and steep pitch.
The fourth chairlift on Mount Tod is the fixed grip quad Burfield Chairlift (aka the Burf). At over 10,000’ length and 2894’ vertical and a bottom to top travel time of 22 minutes, it is likely the longest, slowest quad chair in North America and maybe the world. It is the reason that I ski at Sun Peaks. When I first came to SP in the mid 1970s the place was called Tod Mountain and the old two seat Burfield Chairlift (18 minute ride and then 20 minutes (if it didn’t breakdown) in its last 15 years of operation) was the only lift needed mid week as there were roughly 30 to 50 people skiing mid week and maybe 100 skiers on a Friday. Fast forward to today and all of the development including new lifts and village and golf course are a couple miles down the road. Most new skiers to SP ride the Burf once, figure it takes a half hour, and never come back. This includes most of SP’s 1,000+ staff and so riding the Burf mid week is akin to the 1970s. On mid-week powder days when the rest of the resort is skied off in a couple of hours, most of the black runs under the Burf are untouched. The exception sometimes occurs on sunny days when there can be a line up at mid-station but it never lasts for long as people new to SP tend to ride it once and then never return.
I will now reveal the Sun Peaks Secret: While it takes 22 minutes to go bottom to top on the Burfield Chair that everyone hates (except me and a few other long time hard core locals), the other way to the upper mountain is via the high speed Sunburst Chair from the village (which they run a bit slower mid week to reduce wear and tear) and takes 9 minutes. Then it is about 3 minutes to ski over and load on the fixed grip Crystal chair and an 8 minute ride up to the alpine. Total it up and elapsed time is 20 minutes and you are not as high up the mountain as the Burf Chairlift and don’t have access to all of the upper mountain alpine runs.
Even on weekends the 20 car parking lot at the 50 year old log Burfield Lodge is rarely filled. This impressive log building has served in many different configurations over the years: guest rooms, dining room, cafeteria, bar& lounge, bierstube, ski shop, hang-gliding shop, staff dining room, restaurant, dance hall. Currently the lower level is SP Corp. offices and the upper level has washrooms and a small boot change area as well as rarely rented out reception/meeting rooms.
I should mention that there is a T-bar in the West Bowl that runs weekends and holidays. I go out there about once a decade to remind myself of why I don’t ski there: the terrain is flat and so usually is the light and the snow is often windblown.
The biggest negative for Sun Peaks is that most of the steep slopes are relatively short 400’-1000’ vertical pitches, but there can be a couple 1000’ vertical pitches with mellow stuff in between on a single top to bottom run. The other negative is: less snow than some other mountains, but it also means way less mid-week powder hounds and thus a lot less competition for the powder.
Some of the best steeps are on the lower mountain under the Burfield chair but the runs face south and get the least snow and most sun on the mountain so I usually ski those runs from early January to very early March. One of those runs is a 1200’ vertical, fairly open tree run called Freddie’s Nightmare. It is fairly steep continuous fall line and while named on the S.P. resort map there are no signs telling skiers where the run starts and only a blaze mark on a tree at the end of the run showing skiers where to stop, cross a gully and get on a short trail to the bottom of the Challenger run. Miss the blaze mark and you will be slugging it out in Resort Creek for the next hour or more ‘til you make it back on-piste. One time a few years ago I was the first one down Freddie’s at 10:30 am on a powder morning!
Gill’s Hill side country is an easy hike and part skis-on traverse from the top of the Burfield Chairlift ( a slightly longer hike from the top of the Crystal Chair) and it is a kilometre long (or so) ridge of about 400’ vertical of fairly steep, wide open runs with a skis-on skate and traverse trail back to the lift serviced runs. It gets the most snow on the mountain, is rarely windblown and never foggy. As of 2014-15 Gill's Hill is now inbounds but is still a hike to area and is lightly patrolled, similar to lift serviced glades on other parts of the mountain. Gill's Hill area closes at 2 pm so the Patrol can do a sweep and then make it back to join the main sweep when the rest of the mountain closes. It gets just enough skier traffic to ski stabilize the slopes but not enough to grow moguls and can still deliver powder turns a few days after a storm. The frequent small snow storms that the mountain gets seems to help with stability and often times when skiing Gill’s Hill, your skis are in the old layers and the new snow is at your boot tops or knees (sometimes thighs and waist) and it all melds together flawlessly.
I once took the Western Canada Elan rep out to Gill's Hill after a 30cm+ dump on the lift service part of the mountain but deeper out there and it was so light and dry that the snow flew off the slope, completely engulfing the skier and shooting over his head (a face shot every turn and even if you weren’t turning). The Elan rep later told me that it was the best powder run of his life.... me too except that it was the best 5 powder runs of my life as that is the number of times I hiked out there that day. Gill’s Hill is one of the most benign side country areas in existence, there are some trees but it is mostly wide open terrain and as long as you don’t go past “Main Face” no avalanche gear or skins are needed.
There is some back country type terrain past Main Face and a run called The Elevator will sometimes get a skin track and sometimes the “outdoor rec” class from Thompson Rivers University (Kamloops) winter camp out there. Another run out there called The Executioner is really a cliff band and rarely gets skied or has enough snow. There are far better back country/extreme areas elsewhere in B.C., some with lift assisted access, some not.
Most of the mid-week local skiers are retired folks who usually ski 2 or 3 days per week (some, like me ski more). Most of the out of town visitors to SP ski out of the village and some never go to the top of the mountain. I ski 5 or 6 days per week (7 if it is dumping) so lots of days are spent fast cruising the hard pack and Sun Peaks is one of Canada`s best resorts for looking down a run, seeing that no one is on it, and then going as fast as you want, even on a weekend. Because of the size of the place and relatively low volume of skiers, Sun Peaks is a great family choice at Xmas time and a 10 minute lift line is considered long. The busiest day of the year is usually a couple days after Xmas, with the record for most skiers in a single day at I think about 6300. Not bad for a resort with 7000 beds and Kamloops, a city of 90k, 45 minutes away.
Sun Peaks Resort Corp. has done such a great job of turning the place into a family favourite that the late night party scene is limited and live music happens on occasion, so if you want night life you have to bring your own party. Lots of other non-skiing activities include:
Dog sledding (recommended by me); bungee trampoline; cross country skiing: 30 kms of groomed and track set and one XC run accessed by the Mt. Morrisey Chairlift. There is also one leash off XC ‘ski with your dog’ run (steady but slight ascent) out to the warming hut at McGillvery Lake, but by time you get there you’ll already be warm; ice skating; sleigh rides; snowmobile rental and kids snowmobile track; snowshoeing; public outdoor swimming pool and hot tub; tube park; spa; evening snow cat grooming machine rides (recommended by me). There are also bus trips that are regularly organized to see the Kamloops Blazers Major Junior A hockey games. A free shuttle bus runs throughout the resort on weekends and holidays. There is a shuttle bus that goes to Whistler a couple times a week and a bus to Revelstoke on weekends if there are enough customers.
Check out the trophy case in the lobby of the Nancy Greene Cahilty Lodge if you want to see Olympic Medals or World Cup Globes and other trophies and photos.
Sun Guides offer free mountain tours twice daily and Director of Skiing, former Olympic and W.C. champion, Nancy Greene also has a free “Ski with Nancy” program when she is at the resort. She was appointed to the Canadian Senate by Prime Minister Harper a few years ago so she is sometimes away in Ottawa on senatorial business. Any Bears reading this who want a private tour can look me up at Elevation Ski Shop in the lower level of the Delta Hotel, where I work part time, and I will take you on a tour of the mountain that you won’t get from the Sun Guides or Nancy. As well I may be able to hook EpicSki Bears up with “employee pricing” for demo ski rentals.
Most skiers arrive at Sun Peaks by flying to Calgary, Kelowna, or Vancouver and then taking a connector flight to Kamloops and a 45 minute shuttle bus ride from the Kamloops Airport. Or if arriving by car the driving times are roughly 8 hours from Calgary, 2.5 hours from Kelowna and 5 hours from Vancouver and 6-7 hours from Seattle. Once at Sun Peaks a car is not needed.
Hope this was of some value and interest.