There are more ways than one to enjoy snow season on an island in the Pacific
Depending on who you believe the rolling hills, meadows and lakes beneath Mount Washington Alpine Resort is either Forbidden Plateau or Paradise Meadows.
The legend of the latter goes something like this: when an enemy attacked the Komox First Nation they sent their women and children to hide in the sub-alpine area above the Comox Valley. The men survived the threat but the rest of the villagers disappeared without a trace, possibly at the hands of Sasquatch. Hence Forbidden Plateau.
Of course, this is fake news. Literally. It originated in a phoney newspaper article crafted to lure tourists to an early lodge on the plateau.
The name Paradise Meadows has always been accurate. No more so than during the winter, when metres of snow transforms the marshes and old-growth forest into a snowy wonderland.
Just driving up is a trip. Climbing 1,000 metres from the valley, the world goes from drab to bright as the snowbanks quickly grow until they tower over the road. Mount Washington often records the deepest snowpack in Canada.
Continuing beyond the downhill ski area the road ends at Raven Lodge, the cozy home of the nordic network. Upstairs in the airy timber frame building is a small store and self serve food bar. Downstairs are rentals for snowshoeing, cross country skiing and fat biking (tip: order online to skip the line).
These days sitting inside is discouraged, but there are picnic tables and Adirondack chairs positioned to take advantage of the southern exposure. Nothing feels better than absorbing a dose of alpine-strength vitamin D after a week of grey skies. And if the kids don’t have patience for that, distract them with the neighbouring tobogganing hill.
Recharged, it's time to hit the trail. Raven Lodge is the node of the trail networks, whatever the mode.
The newest addition is the fat biking. It pairs a mountain bike with extra-wide tires that float and grip snow and ice. It’s a fast-growing sport and Mount Washington is the only reliable place to try it out on Vancouver Island. There are three loops to choose from and all include a thrilling, twisting descent and grand views into the high mountains of Strathcona Park.
Snowshoeing, too, has never been more popular. For good reason. It’s naturally socially distanced, easy to learn and is basically walking on water. The eight dedicated trails offer a progression from easy stomping through open meadows along the Old Cabin Loop to the demanding climb up to a scenic ridgeline on aptly named Great Big View. And because no member of the family enjoys the snow more than Fido, dogs are welcome on the Snow Paws trail.
The most memorable way to try the sport is on Saturday nights when the Raven Lodge hosts snowshoe dinners. The experience starts with a guided walk through Paradise Meadows by headlamp and stars. Then it’s back to the warmth of the lodge for a cheese fondue feast.
But the jewel of Mount Washington’s nordic area is the 55 kilometres of cross country ski trails, groomed for both skate and classic style skiing. Several national teams trained here before the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics and Paralympics and the Canadian national team often uses the deep snowpack to extend their season.
But don’t let that reputation intimidate. The Learn to Ride (and glide) program includes rental gear, a trail pass and a lesson. Experienced instructors introduce the sport and get new skiers sliding before setting them out for their first solo adventure. And while there are plenty of tough trails - Lake Trail is the test piece - some of the nicest ones are beginner and intermediate friendly.
Lookout trail slides a short distance west to a promontory with views of some of the highest mountains on Vancouver Island and down to the ocean near Campbell River. For a longer ski, head into Strathcona Provincial Park on the Ponds and Paradise Meadows loops. They take in the best of the gently rolling terrain. Upper West is a little more challenging, but it’s almost all downhill – adrenaline junkies will love it. To get there, ski over to the alpine area and jump on the six-person Hawk Chair. From the top it’s about nine kilometres of epic views and (mostly) effortless skiing back to the lodge.
That’s the thing about the nordic side of Mount Washington. Most people assume it’s all hard work. And it can be. But it can also be the easiest, budget-friendly way to enjoy winter on Vancouver Island.
Travel 10 minutes on any trail, step a few more paces into the forest and just like that: solitude. It’s a more valuable commodity than ever and so easily achieved at Mount Washington. After a dose of that, there’s no doubt which name this slice of paradise deserves.