Explore Nelson’s Exceptional Ski Destinations, Arts, Cafés and More
The street is lined by shops and cafés in restored historic buildings. But the attractive setting, friendly vibe, thriving arts scene and café culture of this hidden B.C. mountain gem are as real as the astonishing natural beauty that surrounds the town.
Set on the shores of Kootenay Lake and enveloped by the verdant folds of the Selkirk Mountains, Nelson is a hub for recreation just 3 1/2 hours north of Spokane. Depending on the season, you’ll see vehicles loaded with mountain bikes, watersports equipment or skis heading into town.
In winter, Nelson buzzes with activity. The Whitewater Ski Resort, tucked into the mountains just 20 minutes east of town, is a powder powerhouse, with up to 40 feet of talcum-powder snow falling on average every winter. Whitewater has 1,184 lift-accessible acres, 82 marked runs and challenging terrain — most of the runs are intermediate to advanced. With groomed runs, open bowls, steep chutes and dreamy glade skiing, the resort draws locals and adventurous skiers from farther afield.
Ski enthusiasts have yet another powder experience available just over an hour south of Nelson in the mountain town of Rossland. Since 1897, RED Mountain has been the center for ski racing in Canada, with two Olympic gold medalists — Nancy Green Raine and Kerrin Lee-Gartner — scoring Rossland’s slopes in their training days. The mountain is steep with ultra-long runs; the longest is an amazing 4.4 miles in length. RED is massive, spread across three mountain peaks with 2,877 acres of ski terrain and 110 runs. And it boasts a rare opportunity: For only $10 for the first run, advanced skiers can hitch a ride on a snowcat to access pristine, off-trail skiing on Mount Kirkup.
Ski and Lodge
The Josie opened in November 2018 at the base of RED Mountain’s Silverlode chairlift as the resort’s first boutique hotel, and its first ski-in, ski-out lodging option. Among the 106-room hotel’ amenities are a spa, a ski valet and The Velvet Restaurant & Lounge, featuring fine dining by Chef Marc-André Choquette, a top chef from Vancouver who brought his focus on local foods to this spectacular setting.
Other lodging options are abundant, as well. Standouts include the elegant Hume Hotel & Spa, set in a renovated heritage building, and The Savoy Hotel, a boutique hotel that opened in a restored, more-than-100-year-old landmark building in 2018. It features 12 rooms, a nightclub, music lounge, micro-brew pub, rooftop patio and the Farm Fresh Café.
The Savoy’s slogan is absolutely spot-on for this lively, artsy mountain town: Where Mountain Meets Modern.
Outdoor Activities & Arts
Year-round, outdoor recreation is front and center in Nelson, whose streets are lined with outdoor gear and clothing shops. It’s not far to recreational venues. Pulpit Rock, accessed via the town’s iconic Big Orange Bridge across the west arm of Kootenay Lake, draws hardcore hikers to view heights, and the Burlington Northern Rail Trail just above town attracts walkers, hikers and bikers. A 45-minute drive northeast of town, Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort is an all-seasons attraction with thermally heated pools and even a cave to swim in.
In summer, visitors and locals flock to Nelson’s waterfront for swimming or sunbathing on the long, sandy beach at Rotary Lakeside Park. Kayaks and paddleboards can be rented at the marina adjacent to the park, and Streetcar #23, a vintage trolley, rolls through the park, ending at the Rose Garden Café, a seasonal concession.
In the heart of town, Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History examines local history, The Capitol Theatre offers live music and theatrical performances, and artists’ works are on display in shops and galleries, with a self-guided walking tour in the summer months. Fun locally owned shops include Otter Books, Cotton Creek Clothing, and Sea of Wolves, owned by a Nelson husband-and-wife team whose stunning graphic prints of the Milky Way and wild animals embellish a variety of garments.
The town is famous for its numerous cafes, among them, the Oso Negro Café, a cozy coffee shop that’s a community gathering spot with outdoor seating in a spectacular garden; the All Seasons Café, with patio seating; and The Yellow Deli, with lake views and indoor/outdoor tables. The deli’s owners have a farm that provides much of the food for the café.
–Written by Leslie Forsberg
Detours for Drivers Headed to Nelson
Headed north of the Washington/Idaho border for the ski hills in Nelson? Check out these stops for food and fun without taking too deep of a detour into the backcountry.
On Interstate 90 from Seattle, drive into Ellensburg for fish and chips at The Porch, which serves up fresh fare all day. About 30 miles later, find petroglyphs and petrified logs outside the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park interpretive center (winter hours are limited, so check before you go).
Drivers from Seattle and Coeur d’Alene should try Mama Sanchez Taqueria in Oldtown, Idaho, or burgers at the unassuming Usk Bar and Grill.
Motorists from Coeur d’Alene can eat like Sandpoint locals at Thai Nigiri, Dub’s Drive-In and Spuds. For something fancier, check out Ivano’s Ristorante for an Italian dinner. While you’re in Sandpoint, walk through the Bonner County History Museum and learn about the area’s Ice Age origins, indigenous tribes and local growth traced through the fur, logging, agriculture, mining and railroad industries.
Stop off Highway 31 at the Boundary Dam Vista House, where you can snowshoe or cross-country ski to a breathtaking overlook of the dam if snow has closed the road.
The historic Metaline Falls border inspection station on Highway 31 was built in the waning years of Prohibition as federal lawmakers funded northern outposts to fight liquor smuggling. The Metaline Falls port of entry and other less-traveled border crossings aren’t open around the clock, so check hours of operation along with ID requirements and other rules when planning your trip.
–Written by Cara Strickland
Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.
- From Seattle: About 428 miles
- From Spokane: About 149 miles
- All-year outdoor adventure
- Historic architecture
Call or visit your nearest AAA store for maps, guides and other travel-planning resources, including assistance from one of our expert Member Travel Counselors.