Mount Washington and the Comox Valley: Snowshoeing and Beyond

According to its license plates, British Columbia is the most beautiful place on earth. A very big claim, but spend a couple days snowshoeing on Vancouver Island’s Mount Washington, and you may come to agree. On a bright, sunny day it is sheer perfection, while on a cloudier day the mist will suddenly shift, revealing ancient trees or animal prints in the snow. Regardless of the weather, a snowshoeing vacation on Mount Washington is an opportunity for an exhilarating getaway topped off with several warmup options, both on and off the mountain.

We dock in Nanaimo, and within 90 minutes, we are driving up the well-maintained road to the Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Snow appears along the road and levels increase steadily as we climb higher. We reach the Resort’s Raven Lodge, a stunning new building constructed from locally timbered wood. It operates as the hub for Mount Washington snowshoers and Nordic skiers. We are torn between heading out on our snowshoes immediately, or lingering fireside to enjoy the panoramic views from the Lodge’s windows.

The decision is soon made as we need to meet Elmar, our guide for the evening’s Snowshoe Tour and Fondue Dinner. This popular tour features a winning combo: an hour of snowshoeing followed by dinner at Raven Lodge. Elmar is entertaining, informative, and has a performer’s sense of timing. As he leads our small group through the forest, I am surprised that the bright snow makes headlamps unnecessary. At one point we emerge from thick old growth forest to a breathtaking view of the Mount Washington alpine runs, lights glowing against the white snow and dark trees.

Appetites piqued, we wind our way through the forest back to the warmth of Raven Lodge where everything is ready for a family-style fondue. The unhurried pace is a welcome break from fast-paced lives as we enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, good food, and camaraderie of the group laughing and re-living our snowshoe adventures. We start with a silky cheese sauce served with focaccia bread for dipping, followed by a meat, seafood, and vegetable course with three featured sauces. The best is yet to come … for dessert, a rich chocolate fondue with fruit and homemade banana bread. We have such an enjoyable evening that we can’t wait to return the next day to further explore the mountain’s snowshoe options, and perhaps work off some of the fondue dinner we have just consumed!

For snowshoers with navigation skills, Strathcona Provincial Park has over 250,000 hectares available for exploration on day, overnight, or weeklong trips. Strathcona is BC’s oldest provincial park, having celebrated its hundredth birthday in 2011. I’m a big fan of our National and Provincial Park systems, and am thrilled to be visiting Strathcona for the first time.

There are so many snowshoeing choices that it’s difficult to choose, but we opt for a loop that includes Battleship Lake and Lake Helen Mackenzie. Today is one of those glorious blue sky, sun glistening on snow days, a day when there’s nothing you’d rather be doing than snowshoeing. Although trails to the lakes are not marked, it’s easy to follow tracks made by other snowshoers. We snowshoe through scenic forest trails with glimpses of the surrounding mountain peaks. Mount Washington is famous for heavy snowfall but since it is still early in the season, we enjoy Christmas card views of half-frozen streams and frost-covered trees that will be buried in snow later in the season. The lakes are ringed by pristine forest, every bit as pretty as anticipated.

It’s hard to leave Mount Washington but we decide to save time to explore the Comox Valley and enjoy some of the après-snowshoe opportunities on offer there. As we point the car down the mountain, we have views of the Strait of Georgia and beyond to mainland British Columbia. A line of clouds hovers above the mainland with white mountains poking out the top.

Courtenay is the main urban centre in the Comox Valley, and the location of the Old House Village Hotel and Spa where we are staying. As we enter the lobby, we are greeted with the fragrance of mulled apple cider, and our suite is luxuriously comfortable with a sitting area and kitchenette. It is wonderful to see local photography on the walls, a feature that is carried through into the hotel’s Oh Spa. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to relax after a day of snowshoeing than indulging in a hot stone massage. This is a new experience for me and I guarantee it won’t be my last hot stone massage. The warmth of the stones spreads through my muscles, easing me into deep relaxation. OK, I confess … I fall asleep! Any achy snowshoeing muscles are easily forgotten.

For our final evening, we walk to Courtenay’s popular Atlas Café for dinner. The friendly and casual atmosphere suits us perfectly. Both of the servers we talk with have also been on Mount Washington earlier today, so some good common ground to start us off. The menu is imaginative, eclectic, and has lots of vegetarian options. I de-veganize the Vegan Plate by adding feta cheese, while my husband enjoys the Morrocan Braised Lamb Shank. A couple glasses of pinot gris from local winery Beaufort make a nice finale to a very satisfying getaway.

During our time on Mount Washington and in the Comox Valley, I am struck by the several appealing options available in such close proximity. Snowshoers can opt to stay and eat on the mountain, literally snowshoeing out their back doors on Mount Washington’s famously abundant snow base. Or they can do as we did, travel up the mountain for snowshoeing (and perhaps fonduing!), while also enjoying the accommodation, dining, and attractions at the bottom of the mountain. Either way, Mount Washington and the Comox Valley offer a big slice of winter fun and warmup activities for snowshoers.

Practical Information:

HelloBC, Tourism BC’s website is a great place to start when planning any travel in British Columbia.

We travelled by BC Ferries to Nanaimo. From Nanaimo, it’s an easy and scenic drive of less than 90 minutes to reach Courtenay, the urban centre of the Comox Valley. From Courtenay, depending on weather, another 30 to 45 minutes and you’re at Raven Lodge on Mount Washington ready to strap on your snowshoes.

Mount Washington Alpine Resort offers snowshoe rentals and a variety of tours including their popular Snowshoe Tour and Fondue Dinner. Book early … it fills up quickly! Dietary restrictions are easily accommodated. If you prefer to snowshoe on your own, purchase a trail pass for trails maintained by the Resort, or create your own adventure in the wilds of Strathcona Provincial Park.

For accommodation on the mountain, check out Mount Washington’s Slopeside Accommodations or Tourism Mount Washington. Many options are available for families or groups of various sizes, and most include cooking facilities. Bear and Deer Lodges are appealing choices operated by the Resort.

We stayed in the Comox Valley at the Old House Village Hotel in Courtenay, also home of the Oh Spa. Courtenay has a friendly small-town vibe with interesting shops and a vibrant Saturday farmers’ market  that we lucked onto. For dining, I highly recommend the Atlas Café. If you can tear yourself away from the snowshoe trails long enough, a visit to the Courtenay & District Museum & Palaeontology Centre is also a worthwhile addition to your itinerary. This place is seriously cool. Think large prehistoric reptiles … need I say more? With a little more time, you can also check out the town of Comox and village of Cumberland. For views and refreshing ocean breezes, take a stroll at Goose Spit Regional Park in Comox.

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Debbie McKeown

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1 Comment

  • I know Mt Washington, having lived in Nanaimo for 18 years.
    Started snowshoeing in the Okanagan Valley- the place of gentle winters. Enjoyed your piece on Waterton Lake Park, since we’re now in Calgary and looking forward to visiting Waterton soon. Thanks !