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A Winter’s Trail

by Malcolm Johnson

For cross-country skiers of all levels, Smithers offers some of the most scenic trails imaginable. The thing about good trails, and this is certainly true of the cross-country ski trails outside Smithers, is that they can capture your imagination in any number of ways.

It might be how the sun sparkles as you head into the forest on Goldeneye, or how your skis hiss in the tracks as you speed down the steep and twisting Wedzin’kwa hill. It might be the silence of skiing through snowfall on the Pine Creek Loop, or the wide-open mountain views from Wild Dog, or coming around a corner to find a mother moose and her calf wandering along in front of you. For the sky-gazers, it might be the thousands of twinkling stars on a frosty night ski. And for the youngest among us, it might be the way winter turns the snow-laden trees along Broadway into an outdoor museum of fantastical shapes, be they wampas from Star Wars or Gruffalos from the book they’ve stuffed into their backpack with the Thermos and snacks.

The list could go on, but it’s enough to say that the 52 kilometres of trails at the Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre have something for almost anyone. Set in evergreen forest on the shoulder of Hudson Bay Mountain—about 15 minutes by road from downtown Smithers—the volunteer-run centre has long been one of the hubs of outdoor activity in this winter-loving town. On a typical day on the trails, you’ll pass by a remarkable diversity of ages and skill levels, from two-year-olds shuffling along on strap-on skis to amblers with cameras, old-timers out for their daily loop and groups of friends taking some social time in the open air. And since Smithers is home to a healthy population of athletes and Strava addicts, you’ll also see a few spandex-clad racers swishing along the trails with what seems like hardly any effort at all.

Accessed from a well-plowed road and tucked out of from the winds that often rake the peak of the mountain above, the Nordic Centre is open every day from early December to late March, offering one of the best, and most dependable, ways to experience the white wonderland of the northern British Columbia winter. And although it’s low-cost—$15 for an adult day pass, or $30 for a family—the centre is carefully and lovingly maintained, with the trails groomed daily for both classic and skate skiing. There’s also access to the roomy main lodge, where you can gear up and plan your route before you set out, or come in to warm up and catch your breath on a couch when it’s time for a midday break. The lodge has a fully equipped kitchen that’s free to use, and kiddos can safely play on the sled hill just outside while they wait for lunch to be ready.

If you’re new to Nordic skiing, or interested in trying some of the latest gear, you can make a quick pit stop at McBike Ski & Sport in downtown Smithers, where you’ll find advice and affordable daily rentals. Once you’re all geared up and gliding along the tracks, you’ll find that the centre’s system of looping trails is easy to follow, with maps at the main junctions and trails that are colour-coded like downhill ski runs—green are easiest, blue are intermediate, and black are hillier and more challenging for experienced skiers. There are 11 kilometres of dog-friendly trails if you’re with a four-legged friend, and 5 kilometres of trails close to the lodge are flood-lit in the evenings, though skiing by headlamp on the farther-flung, unlit trails is also a favourite local nighttime adventure.

Whatever the time of day, the centre’s abundance of trails means you’ll mostly be on your own when you’re here—the crowd spreads out even on weekends, making it an ideal recreational option in times that call for careful social distancing. The winter of 2020-2021, in fact, saw the centre’s biggest-ever local membership, with a record number of day visitors and over 1100 people buying season passes—that’s more than a fifth of Smithers’ total population.

As noted above, and as you’ll certainly find, it’s a town that really loves winter. So despite the opportunities for peace and solitude on the trails, the Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre is also a place for chats, smiles and shared connections, and it’s always had a friendly, welcoming feel. Along with the skiing itself, its authentic, down-to-earth atmosphere is a big part of the draw for locals like Dustin Hersee, an Olympic swimmer and all-around endurance athlete who’s on the trails every weekend with his kids.

“It’s a family-focused environment with an incredible community vibe that makes us really want to hang out and ski together,” he says. “And when I’m on my own, skate skiing is by far the best aerobic exercise I’ve done, pretty much the ultimate way to stay in shape in the winter months.”

Whether you’re interested in a lung-busting, 30-kilometre rip on futuristic skate skis or a few contemplative hours meandering through picturesque Northern forest, it’s guaranteed that a visit to the centre’s trails will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired. For winter visitors to Smithers, however, there’s also much more to experience—there’s skating on the local lakes, wilderness snowshoeing in Babine Mountains Provincial Park or backcountry ski touring at Hankin-Evelyn. When your legs finally tire out, there’s plenty to do in the town itself, from the shops and boutiques of Main Street to the Smithers Art Gallery and a requisite photo op with the alpenhorn man. And if you really went for it on the trails, a therapeutic massage might be the perfect way to end the day.

But no matter how long you’re here for, and no matter how far you went on the winding, wintry trails, you can be sure that you’ll find more to explore than you imagined—which, of course, just means more reasons to come and visit again.

Where to Eat

Two Sisters Café is a local favourite for pre-ski breakfast. The rustic Bugwood Coffee serves up excellent espresso, and Paul’s Bakery, home of the cronut, is worth a stop too. After you ski, Smithers Brewery or the Bulkley Valley Brewery have fantastic craft brews on tap before you head to Roadhouse, Telly’s Grill or Blue Water Sushi for dinner. There are plenty more options - check out the listings on our EAT & DRINK page.

Where to Stay

From rustic getaways with glorious mountain views to family-friendly hotels, the Bulkley Valley has a wide range of accommodation options. Learn more in our PLACES TO SLEEP section.

photo of Malcolm Johnson

Malcolm Johnson grew up on Vancouver Island. A writer and creative director, he's now raising his family here in the Bulkley Valley, where his wife was born and raised.

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