For the past four months, we’ve been putting the top towns for outdoor sports and adventure to the test, and soliciting the opinions of our beloved readers in an attempt to find the ideal location in Canada for those looking to live the dream. And we’ve done it. Over the past months, thousands of readers cast their votes. Some voted based on their favourite events, their favourite trails or ski resorts, and others still for the culture of outdoor sports and adventure that pervades certain locales. We like it like that. Congratulations to both Fernie, British Columbia in the west and Collingwood, Ontario in the east as our champions, as well as our runners-up Squamish, British Columbia and Barrie, Ontario.
Here’s a look at what each of our winners has to offer.
Fernie, British Columbia
Average home price: $506,950
Unemployment rate: 3.7% (2015)
Craft Brewery: Fernie Brewing Co.
The three sisters of the Lizard Range of mountains look out over the Elk River Valley, home to the town of Fernie in the B.C. interior. The sisters, also known as Mount Trinity, have welcomed new visitors and residents since the formation of the town in 1887. Back then it was pick axes and gold fever that drew people to the area. The historic character of the town remains, and mining is still a big part of the local economy, but really it’s all about the powder. And such glorious powder it is.
While much of British Columbia’s adventure playgrounds toe the line between the coast and the hills, Fernie is an idyllic and pure mountain town surrounded by peaks on all sides in a box canyon style reminiscent of its iconic southern relative Telluride, Colorado — one of the reasons why it garnered so many votes. It’s the type of place that shuts down on a powder day, sure, but it’s so much more than that. Fernie combines a gorgeous natural environment with culture, history and community not to mention a good craft brewery and some very fine new restaurants.
Despite its growing reputation for powder skiing, Fernie has managed to retain a relaxed and family atmosphere. Young folks are being drawn to the area to work remotely or start small businesses that have helped to keep employment levels at better rates than much of the province. The town’s downtown core is thriving with unique businesses such as Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery, the old timey Fernie General Store, the Fernie Arts Coop and many more.
Fernie, located two hours from Calgary in the Kootenay region of British Columbia is not only on the much ballyhooed powder highway, it is establishing itself as the primo resort in the Canadian Rockies with more and higher runs that any other resort on the strip. If there is an area that defines “steep and deep” it is right here, to the tune of 37 feet a year of Champagne powder. The Fernie Resort offers up five alpine bowls, 142 runs, tree skiing and much more. And by much more we mean access to a backcountry that is second to none on the planet.
There are two lifts at the resort that open up a dizzying acreage to explore.
If steeps every day isn’t your thing, local residents can easily take advantage of the massive network of trails that loop around the town and provide easily accessible cross-country and snowshoe options. The two-years-young Elk Valley Nordic Centre, located next to the beautiful Mount Fernie Provincial Park, ups the ante with 15 kilometres of finely groomed trails and stunning scenery.
But when summer rolls around, and the tourist traffic starts to wane, the season for the two-wheel set begins and the mountains belong to the locals.
Again, as with much of Fernie, the action begins right in town. That’s what makes the move worthwhile. Just pedal and go, home before dinner. Yes, there is incredible lift-accessed biking at the resort, but there are more than 100 trails in six different areas around town from the easy-breezy community trail system to Ridgemont and Castle Mountain. There is a strong community of mountain bikers in the area, a good club, trail building and enough events to keep a person busy the entire season.
Just last summer, the Lazy Lizard Trail opened up to mountain bikers. The primo trail stretches for seven kilometres beginning at Island Lake Lodge and unwinding down the hill to town. The carefully crafted trail is extra-wide and flowy to accommodate novices to the sport but also features elevated boardwalks and incredible views of the surrounding Lizard Range.
Is that it? Hardly. Kayaking and rafting on the Elk River, which just happens to flow right through town, is primo. Directly north and south of Fernie the river is characterized best as meandering — ideal for stand-up paddleboarding. Class 5 and 6 rapids are located in a deep canyon pouring out of the hydro dam. Every once in a while, talk of a permanent Fernie Whitewater Park springs up like a frothy wave that won’t quit, demonstrating the desire to make kayaking a permanent part of the future.
Fly Fishing? Well, likely the best you’ll find in North America.
Yes, we could go on.
Average home price: $417,399
Unemployment rate: 6.62%
Craft breweries: Collingwood Brewing Co., Sidelaunch, Northwinds
Not that many years ago, skiing in Ontario meant an overnight trip to Blue Mountain, an evening spent at the Blue Mountain Inn, a little partying at Jozo’s and breakfast the next day at Pottery.
In 1999, Intrawest moved into the neighbourhood and plunked a miniature village at the base of the Niagara Escarpment. Everything changed. Now, it is almost standard to hear of the next person moving out of the big city and settling into Collingwood to live the dream.
It might come to while standing atop a run at the end of a long day of tearing up the slopes, looking out over Georgian Bay and Collingwood, or during a leisurely paddleboard along yet another stretch of drop-dead gorgeous beach. It’s the realization that this town, this area, is no longer the second choice. It’s no longer the best area for outdoor lovers who decide not to move to British Columbia. It’s doing just fine on its own.
That recognition was obvious by the resounding number of votes cast for Collingwood securing its position as the top Great Canadian Outdoor Town for Eastern Canada.
It’s the four seasons that matter most. Collingwood is no longer simply a winter destination.
Spring: As the snow melts, and the lifts begin to shut down, local residents busy themselves by tightening spokes, and testing brakes. Although Blue Mountain Resort has stepped up its downhill mountain biking game, the local scene is far more expansive taking advantage of the Escarpment and carving out a massive trail system that includes such sweet areas as the Kolapore Uplands, which offers 50-km of singletrack. Although having the biggest downhill trail network in the province nearby has its advantages as well. And, Blue Mountain is now home to a good weekly race series and a slew of fun events.
Summer: Georgian Bay is a big and deep body of water and as a result it takes a while to heat up. But when it does, locals flock to the sandy shores of places such as Wasaga, the longest fresh water beach in the world, to engage in all manner of hydro-powered activity. Kayaking on Georgian Bay is some of the best anywhere. SUP on Wasaga Beach or the nearby birding and marsh area Matchedash Bay? Well ya. There is also the pretty Beaver River for a leisurely canoe tour downriver.
Fall: And let’s not forget the rock people. Climbers have a lot to be happy about, as well. Lion’s Head, for example, is one of the top climbing spots anywhere. Old Baldy is another. The area, especially the cliffs of Lion’s Head, combines numerous and challenging sport climbing routes with incredible scenery overlooking the gorgeous Georgian Bay waters. Consider camping at Bruce National Park while you’re at it. They have yurts! Famous climbing type Sonnie Trotter loves the area, and currently holds down the toughest route Forever Expired, 5.14d. Don’t forget Metcalfe Rock, closer and can be accessed via the Kolapore Uplands parking lot.
Winter: Okay, yes, Collingwood still does winter very well. Blue Mountain is of course the centre of winter life. It has the most runs, the highest vertical, and a dizzying array of lifts to allow visitors to plough through a half dozen runs in record time. Further expansion has opened up nice new terrain allowing locals to stick to the fringes and find some solitude while tourists blasts through the centre of town over and over. But there are also a number of private ski clubs in the area such as Devil’s Glen that offer a different experience enjoyed by many. Scenic Caves is home to the area’s best snowshoeing, while the Wasaga Nordic Centre offers 30-km of cross-country ski trails as well as an eight kilometre skating trail.
Perhaps most importantly, thanks to everyone moving to town, there is no shortage of events throughout the year. There are obstacle course races, and trail running races such as the North Face Endurance Challenge, for example, or the Subaru Centurian Cycling event that keeps getting better every year. In addition, restaurants are catering to the get-up-and-go types, concentrating on local, healthy fare. Places such as the Flying Chestnut in nearby Eugenia do it up right.
We still like to hit Jozo’s once a year though…
*NOTE: After publishing this article we received lots of feedback from the good people of the Town of The Blue Mountains. With close proximity to Collingwood and collaboration on a variety of marketing efforts, we neglected to specify that a number of these destinations are within the Town of The Blue Mountains. That’s our bad! Be sure to check out Collingwood AND the Town of The Blue Mountains next time you’re in the area…you won’t be disappointed!
Squamish, British Columbia
Population: 17, 158
Average home price: $623,100
Unemployment rate: 5.3% one of the lowest in British Columbia
Craft breweries: Howe Sound Brewing Co.
The Chief towers over Squamish. It’s an appropriate symbol for the small British Columbia town that has evolved into an outdoor mecca for Canadians.
Nestled one hour from both Vancouver and Whistler, Squamish is the little town that proved it could be the best. it could provide residents with a small town, family friendly environment focussing on the rich diversity of outdoor sports in all four seasons.
For many, the naming of Squamish as the top outdoor town in Western Canada isn’t a surprise. It offers everything one might desire in terms of adventure. It is close to a major city, which generally finds itself ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world. If one so desired, commuting is possible, but who is crazy enough to leave such bliss each and every day?
Sure, to the east, people might be thrilled by Whistler, and why not? It’s drop-dead gorgeous. But where Whistler is the Disneyland of outdoor adventure, Squamish is real. It’s a place to put down roots and raise a family of grommets who value granite and singletrack over Pokemon Go.
And, while job opportunities in small towns such as Squamish were once largely service oriented, that has all changed. Now, young and creative types from across the country and settling in town and working remotely ushering in a refreshing and energetic change. The average age in Squamish is just 37, and a very fit 37 at that, and the population is booming.
The dirt: The town is surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of trails for walking, for mountain biking, for running. If a sport can happen in the rich dirt of a coastal temperate rainforest, it happens in Squamish. All that thick and rich loam also sees some serious events every year. Events are great, not just to test the mettle of athletes, but to really fertilize a sporting culture. Events such as the Squamish 50 race series take advantage of the incredible local conditions to provide a killer series of events for the locals. Test of Metal is one of the country’s premiere cross-country mountain bike races. Squamish is reaping the rewards of serious investment. But it doesn’t begin and end in the dirt. Far from it.
The water: Howe Sound, a 26-mile fjord that is as much a part of daily life in Squamish as the mountains, moderates the climate and provides the ideal proving ground for any number of water sports including some of the best kite surfing in Western Canada and SUP. It’s not just the water that makes it happen. It’s those famous Squamish winds. And then there is also Alice Lake and Brohm Lake nearby for all manner of natural lake activity and camping with the fam, as well as the Mamquam River for kayaking.
The rock: There are many places that claim to be the rock climbing capital of Canada, but it’s hard to argue against Squamish. And it’s not just the Stawamus Chief, although a 700-metre granite monolith is handy. There are many more primo spots in the area including Shannon Falls and Murrin Park and the Grand Wall Boulders for the bouldering set.
But, it’s not all adrenaline and adventure.
There is more to Squamish. Evening strolls can include the 2-km Oceanfront Trail, or a quick spin up the Sea to Sky Gondola to access a number of scenic alpine walking trails. There are farmer’s markets throughout the summer, and of course, a ready supply of fresh seafood. if you can’t find what you like in the shops or sushi restaurants, cast a line, Squamish is also a fishermen’s paradise.
And, one of the most majestic and cherished parts of Squamish life occurs in the winter months when thousands of bald eagles come home to nest in areas such as Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park in part to feast on the chum salmon that swarm local waters.
Average home price: 400,782
Unemployment rate: 9.7%
Craft Brewery: Flying Monkey, Barnstormer
A decade ago, Barrie would never be considered for such an honour. It would be lumped in with other typical Ontario towns. But, thanks to high home prices in Toronto and an expanded highway and public transit system, more and more people made the move to the north. And, a funny thing happens when a population gets younger, and more active — they do stuff and create a culture of outdoor adventure that has transformed the city.
Barrie is our runner-up for Eastern Canada, demonstrating just how far the city located an hour north of Toronto has come. Now, people with a desire to make the great outdoors part of their every day life are moving to the area in droves.
The city has more than 300 hectares of park space and it begins at Kempenfelt Bay. The bay is a recreational hub right in the heart of the city. Each morning and evening, the city’s increasingly active local residents can be found running or biking on the Barrie Waterfront Trail or out on the water. There are a slew of clubs — Kempenfelt Bay Yacht Club, Barrie Yacht Club, Barrie Canoe and Kayak Club — dotting the shoreline ready to introduce new residents to boating. And groups of stand-up paddleboarders enjoying a refreshing paddle is now commonplace, including a number of SUP schools such as Northern SUP.
But, it’s not just what’s in town, it’s what is just nearby that makes the area so attractive. Barrie is the perfect jumping off point to some of the best adventure playgrounds in the province.
The rural roads in the nearby Grey Highlands are a road cyclists dream. This is an exceptional area characterized but winding roads, breathtaking views and just the right amount of hills to make riders work for their espresso. Want to feel the burn, locals hit the Hills of Oro-Medonte route featuring the quad-busting Eady Stairs. A loop that includes the charming town of Creemore is also a fine way to start the weekend. Cyclocross is growing in popularity in the area and a new race series is up and running again this fall. It’s like a mud run on your bike. What could be better?
Hiking is also a big part of life in Barrie. There are numerous gorgeous spots about town and primo tromping ground such as the 400-km Ganaraska Trail and the Minesing Wetlands, a 6,000-hectare wildness area, nearby.
When the snow starts to fly, there is no better place to be than Barrie. It might start with a game of shinny hockey on the bay. But, it is likely to end at one of the many ski resorts that encircle the area: Horseshoe Resort, Mount St. Louis Moonstone, and Snow Valley are just minutes from the centre of town. For flatlanders, Hardwood Ski and Bike offers up 40 kilometres of the best Nordic ski trails in the area with enough variety to appeal to any level of skier, in addition to mountain biking in the summer.
It seems like there are cross-fit gyms opening up faster than coffee shops. The number of yoga studios, unique shops and galleries might out number the dwindling number of raucous bars downtown. There is now a bona fide half-marathon and many more outdoor events underway. It’s changing, and for the better.
Congratulations Barrie; where have you been all our lives?