April 25, 2017

SUN PEAKS: A Long Time Local's Unofficial Guide
A Review by @DanoT

Family paradise, dry snow, great grooming, fast cruising, lots of ski in/ski out, 2nd largest ski resort in Canada, never crowded.

Cons: Less snow than some, steeps are short, not for powder hounds

Located in the North Thompson region of British Columbia’s South Central Interior, Sun Peaks is one of the more northerly of Western Canada’s major ski resorts. It is a 45 minute drive from Kamloops, B.C. Sun Peaks sits on the Western edge of the Shuswap Plateau and is about 20 miles east of the North Thompson River. It is not really in a mountain range and is the only alpine peak in the region so from the top of the mountain, on a clear day, you can see literally for hundreds of miles. The Monashee Mountains, some of the Purcell Mountains and the Coast Mountains, Dunn Peak, as well as Silver Star Resort, Big White Resort, and Revelstoke Mountain Resort on the other side of the Columbia River, are all visible from the top of the Burfield Chair at Sun Peaks.

Storm patterns typically involve frequent small amounts of very dry snow with an average of 18’ to 20’ or about 235” in an 18 to 20 week season. Much of the mountain has southern exposure but because of the northerly location a sunny day can be very welcome in mid winter with the sun’s warmth usually not affecting the snowpack until spring hits in mid March. Ski Canada Magazine rates the Thompson/Okanagan region of British Columbia as the best skiing weather in Canada and Sun Peaks has some of the driest snow of any resort in Canada. Skiers coming to SP after being at other ski areas often comment on the noticeably dry air at SP. SP does get its share of fog but it is almost always the upper third alpine area that gets socked in, leaving 5.5 chairlifts (the Burfield chair has a mid station allowing the choice of upper mtn or lower mtn skiing) operating mostly below the fog. The resort is far enough north to get above freezing at the 3930’ Burfield Base elevation usually for only a few days or part days in mid winter. So freeze/thaw cycles for most of the winter are not an issue and snow preservation between storms is excellent. Rain is rare and it usually turns to snow 300’-500’ above the village. Rain to the top of the mountain is really rare and based on personal observation I would say it happens about once a decade. The last time it did that it rained for about half an hour.

Sun Peaks opens a bit before U.S. Thanksgiving in mid to late November and from mid Dec. to early March Sun Peaks usually has a very reliable easy to carve snow pack. SP closes in early or mid April, like the rest of the B.C. Interior, for lack of people not lack of snow.

Lift serviced skiing started at the Burfield Base in 1961 as Tod Mountain Resort. The area struggled along through a number of under financed owners until it was purchased in 1992 by Nippon Cable who, with their very deep pockets and extensive worldwide ski industry experience, began to develop the area into the award winning family/intermediate heaven that it is today. With 2894’ vertical and as of 2014-15 SP has 4270 acres and 138 runs and glades it is the 2nd largest ski resort in Canada but far from the 2nd busiest. About 90 runs are beginner and mostly intermediate and 47 runs and glades are advanced. There are terrain parks totaling 9 acres for 3 ability levels. With annual skier visits of about 400k, even busy weekends and holidays are not crowded and the runs are mostly empty except for a very wide beginner run called the 5 Mile that has a half dozen blue and black runs that feed into it. For comparison: Whistler/Blackcomb at over 8,000 skiable acres get 2.2 million skier visits.

Because Sun Peaks gets less snow than some of its competitors the resort has had an ongoing summer grooming program since the early 1990s. All stumps have been pulled (except on the Challenger run to hold snow), rocks picked and dynamited in a few places, weeds cut and grass planted. Early season, Sun Peaks will often be reporting 30cm to 50cm thinner base than other resorts but with equal coverage. Some runs are on a 3 year rotation for summer weed cutting, some on a 5 year rotation.

A very well designed snow making system (only ever used in early season) involved damning a creek outside the ski area boundary and creating a reservoir holding 35 million gallons at a high elevation with several miles of buried pipe bringing water to the village and back up the hill to the snow guns. So there are no pumps other than the ones on the snow guns. The reservoir system is hooked up to the village’s fire hydrants for excellent gravity fed fire fighting capacity. SP has snow making on the 5-Mile run, Sundance run, Cahilty run and some trouble spots. They also have snow making on the mid-mountain race training run: O.S.V (stands for Osterreich (Austria) Ski Venue) and on lower Chute and this allows ski teams to train in early November before the mountain is open to the public. SP has around 20 snow guns.

The Austrians where not happy with the shared, limited, on snow training that their racers were getting in North America prior to the start of the World Cup seasons. So they paid SP a rumored $1 million per year for exclusive early November access to training on O.S.V. for 5 years prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Backhoes and bulldozers were put on the run in summer and it was reshaped under the Austrians’ direction and renamed O.S.V. For the first early November training session, snowmobiles were used to transport the racers back up the 1000’ vertical mid-mountain run. The following year a proposed future chairlift was fast tracked beside OSV with the loading area part way down the 5-Mile run so skiers coming off upper mountain runs can get on the mid-mountain Elevation Chairlift (1037’ vertical) rather than skiing all the way to the bottom of the mountain.

Copper Mtn. in Colorado expanded their race training facilities a few years ago and the Austrians now go there in November. Ironically the race training at Sun Peaks has expanded as well, adding snow making and race training lanes on the lower Chute and attracting youth ski race clubs from all over Canada to train in early November before the resort opens to the public.

The start to the 2018-19 season was a bit of a struggle for the PNW but less so for Sun Peaks so race teams from Oregon and Washington showed up for race training at SP in late Nov. and early Dec. for the first time ever, while they waited for their local mountains to get enough snow to open.

The purpose built Sun Peaks Village has approx. 8000 beds and a ton of ski in/out housing. A mixture of detached homes, townhomes and 8 hotels (most rooms with kitchenettes) form a compact village with a gentle sloping skiway through the centre with shops and covered walkway on either side. There are about 20 restaurants/bars/coffee shops and 1 grocery store and 1 liquor store. The 4-star Sun Peaks Grand Hotel is dog friendly as are some other hotels. New condos, townhouses and ski in/out hostel at West Village aka Burfield Base as well as a drug store, deli/liquor store, and 2 licensed restaurants.

With the Dec. 2018 opening of the Orient Chair, a fixed grip quad going part way up Orient Ridge, Sun Peaks now has skiing on 2 mountains and 2 ridges with skiing on both sides of a valley with village and golf course in between. As skier visits to the resort grow, the Orient Chair will be extended up Orient Ridge and made into a high speed detachable and about 1500' vertical.

To get to Mt. Morrisey from the village, skiers walk across the road, through a covered bridge over a creek, and then use a platter lift to get high enough to ski a cat track over to the 1306’ vertical Mt. Morrisey high speed quad Chairlift. There are 4 north facing black runs that lead back to the platter and 3 black diamond runs that are a short hike out if skied to the bottom. The hike takes you to the bottom of the Back in Time run and a traverse leads you to the Burfield Chair. The rest of the east facing runs are all very nicely laid out 12 intermediate and 2 beginner runs. All lifts at SP have at least 1 green run easy way down. From the top of the Morrisey Chair skiers can take the run Back In Time (the most aptly named run on the mountain). A long traverse and then a run and a traverse gets you to Burfield Drive and then walk across the road to the Burfield Chairlift. You are now about 2 miles from the SP Village. Or ski down Sun Peaks Grand Return to get back to the platter lift and the covered bridge and village. The new for 2018-19 Orient Chair now provides an alternate way of getting to the Village from Mt Morrisey without having to take skis off and cross the road.

The Sundance high speed quad chairlift is about 100’ from the Sundance Hotel and offers 14 blue runs, 3 green runs and 3 glades and 1559’ vertical. On sunny days most of the runs on Sundance Ridge get the afternoon sun. From the top of Sundance Ridge take Rambler to the Morrisey Connector which at the end of the run takes you across the valley under the road to the base of the Morrisey chair and the base of the Orient Chair.

About 200 ft from the Sundance chair is the Sunburst Express high speed quad chairlift, aka The Bubble, nicknamed for the Lexan dome that can be lowered in cold or snowy weather. This chairlift offers 1952’ vertical and a mix of 1 green, and 20 blue and black runs, with some black runs getting regular grooming and some left to grow moguls, and 10 glades between the runs. (One of the regularly groomed black runs is Broadway and it gets the afternoon sun on a sunny day.) The Sunburst chair is one of 4 chairlifts on Mount Tod. The top of the fixed grip Elevation Chair off loads near the top of the Sunburst chair and it is a short ski over to the new fixed grip Crystal quad chair which takes the skier up 1037' vertical into the upper mountain Alpine where it off loads near the Burfield chair at "The Top of the World". There are no high speed lifts on the upper mountain; fixed grip lifts preserve powder lines. From the Top of the World on a foggy day, take the Spillway run as it has enough trees on either side to give perspective, or the Chute to the skier’s right for mostly fog free big moguls and steep pitch.


This pic was taken on the Sun Peaks' Big Headwall, opening day Nov 20, 2015 on the upper mount Tod. It lead to the best snow year in almost 20 years and a near record snowfall season. And a new skier visit record of over 350k skier visits which was broken the next season.

The fourth chairlift on Mount Tod is the fixed grip quad Burfield Chairlift (aka the Burf). At over 10,000’ length and 2894’ vertical and a bottom to top travel time of 22 minutes, it is likely the longest, slowest quad chair in North America and maybe the world. It is the reason that I ski at Sun Peaks. When I first came to SP in the mid 1970s the place was called Tod Mountain and the old two seat Burfield Chairlift (18 minute ride and then 20 minutes (if it didn’t breakdown) in its last 15 years of operation) was the only lift needed mid week as there were roughly 30 to 50 people skiing mid week and maybe 100 skiers on a Friday. Fast forward to today and all of the development including new lifts and village and golf course are a couple miles down the road. Most new skiers to SP ride the Burf once, figure it takes a half hour, and never come back. This includes most of SP’s 1,000+ staff and so riding the Burf mid week is akin to the 1970s. On mid-week powder days when the rest of the resort is skied off in a couple of hours, most of the black runs under the Burf are untouched. The exception sometimes occurs on sunny days when there can be a line up at mid-station but it never lasts for long as people new to SP tend to ride it once and then never return.

Even on weekends the 20 car parking lot at the 60+ year old log Burfield Lodge is rarely filled. This impressive log building has served in many different configurations over the years: guest rooms, dining room, cafeteria, bar& lounge, bierstube, ski shop, hang-gliding shop, staff dining room, restaurant, dance hall. Currently the lower level is SP Corp. offices and the upper level has washrooms and a small boot change area as well as rarely rented out reception/meeting rooms.

I should mention that there is a T-bar in the West Bowl that runs weekends and holidays. I go out there about once a decade to remind myself of why I don’t ski there: the terrain is flat and so usually is the light and the snow is often windblown. Some skiers love the West Bowl, so to each his own.

The biggest negative for Sun Peaks is that most of the steep slopes are relatively short 400’-1000’ vertical pitches, but there can be a couple 1000’ vertical pitches with mellow stuff in between on a single top to bottom run. The other negative is: less snow than some other mountains, but it also means way less mid-week powder hounds and thus a lot less competition for the powder. Typically it will snow all day with flakes the size of grains of sand, resulting in it taking forever to build depth but those tiny flakes make for silky smooth turns. Also typically when the mild weather hits and it turns to rain, there is rarely a great deluge of water but rather a mist or light rain causing limited impact to the snowpack.

Some of the best steeps are on the lower mountain under the Burfield chair but the runs face south and get the least snow and most sun on the mountain so I usually ski those runs from early January to very early March. One of those runs is a 1200’ vertical, fairly open tree run called Freddie’s Nightmare. It is fairly steep continuous fall line and while named on the S.P. resort map there are no signs telling skiers where the run starts and only a blaze mark on a tree at the end of the run showing skiers where to stop, cross a gully and get on a short trail to the bottom of the Challenger run. Miss the blaze mark and you will be slugging it out in Resort Creek for the next hour or more ‘til you make it back on-piste. One time a few years ago I was the first one down Freddie’s at 10:30 am on a powder morning!

Gill’s Hill side country is an easy hike and part skis-on traverse from the top of the Top of the World (Burfield and Crystal Chairlift top stations) and it is a half kilometre long (or so) ridge of about 450’ vertical of fairly steep, wide open runs with a skis-on skate and traverse trail back to the lift serviced runs. It gets the most snow on the mountain, is rarely windblown and never foggy. As of 2014-15 Gill's Hill is now inbounds but is still a hike to area and is lightly patrolled, similar to lift serviced glades on other parts of the mountain. Gill's Hill gets just enough skier traffic to ski stabilize the slopes but not enough to grow moguls and can still deliver powder turns a few days after a storm. The frequent small snow storms with small snowflakes that the mountain gets seems to help with stability and often times when skiing Gill’s Hill, your skis are in the old layers and the new snow is at your boot tops or knees (sometimes thighs and waist) and it all melds together flawlessly.

I once took the Western Canada Elan rep out to Gill's Hill after a 30cm+ dump on the lift service part of the mountain but deeper out there and it was so light and dry that the snow flew off the slope, completely engulfing the skier and shooting over his head (a face shot every turn and even if you weren’t turning). The Elan rep later told me that it was the best powder run of his life.... me too except that it was the best 5 powder runs of my life as that is the number of times I hiked out there that day. Gill’s Hill is one of the most benign side country areas in existence, there are some trees but it is mostly wide open terrain and as long as you don’t go past “Off Set” no avalanche gear or skins are needed.

There is some back country type terrain past Off Set and a run called The Elevator will sometimes get a skin track and sometimes the “outdoor rec” class from Thompson Rivers University (Kamloops) winter camp out there. Another run out there called The Executioner is really a cliff band and rarely gets skied or has enough snow. There are far better back country/extreme areas elsewhere in B.C., some with lift assisted access, some not.

Most of the mid-week local skiers are retired folks who usually ski 2 or 3 days per week (some, like me ski more). Most of the out of town visitors to SP ski out of the village and some never go to the top of the mountain. I ski 4or 5 days per week (7 if it is dumping) so lots of days are spent fast cruising the hard pack and Sun Peaks is one of Canada`s best resorts for looking down a run, seeing that no one is on it, and then going as fast as you want, even on a weekend. Because of the size of the place and relatively low volume of skiers, Sun Peaks is a great family choice at Xmas time and a 10 minute lift line is considered long. The busiest day of the year is usually a couple days after Xmas, with the record for most skiers in a single day about 7,000 and that includes XC skiers and probably people wandering around the Village. Not bad for a resort with 8,000 beds and Kamloops, a city of 90k, 45 minutes away.

Sun Peaks Resort Corp. has done such a great job of turning the place into a family favourite that the late night party scene is limited and live music happens only on occasion, so if you want night life you have to bring your own party. Lots of other non-skiing activities include:

Dog sledding (recommended by me); bungee trampoline; cross country skiing: 30 kms of groomed and track set and one XC run accessed by the Mt. Morrisey Chairlift. There is also one leash off XC ‘ski with your dog’ run (steady but slight ascent) out to the warming hut at McGillvery Lake, but by time you get there you’ll already be warm; ice skating; sleigh rides; snowmobile rental and kids snowmobile track; snowshoeing; public outdoor swimming pool and hot tub; tube park; spa; evening snow cat grooming machine rides (recommended by me). There are also bus trips that are regularly organized to see the Kamloops Blazers Major Junior A hockey games. A free shuttle bus runs throughout the resort on weekends and holidays. There is a shuttle bus that goes to Whistler a couple times a week and a bus to Revelstoke on weekends if there are enough customers.

Check out the trophy case in the lobby of the Nancy Greene Cahilty Lodge if you want to see Olympic Medals or World Cup Globes and other trophies and photos.

Sun Hosts offer free mountain tours twice daily and Director of Skiing, former Olympic and W.C. champion, Nancy Greene also has a free “Ski with Nancy” program when she is at the resort. She was appointed to the Canadian Senate byCanada's Prime Minister a few years ago so she is sometimes away in Ottawa on Senatorial business.

Most skiers arrive at Sun Peaks by flying to Calgary, Kelowna, or Vancouver and then taking a connector flight to Kamloops and a 45 minute shuttle bus ride from the Kamloops Airport. Or if arriving by car the driving times are roughly 8 hours from Calgary, 2.5 hours from Kelowna and 5 hours from Vancouver and 6 hours from Seattle. Once at Sun Peaks a car is not needed.

Hope this was of some value and interest.


Duckfeet (from Epicski)
Thanks Danny. This is an excellent review!

@David Chaus
Great review! sounds pretty much like the extended conversations we had at the Gathering and in Victoria. Hope to get there this year, if not next.

Skierish(from Epicski)
Wow, what an incredibly thorough review! Nice job.

Good accurate review, that pretty much sums up Sun Peaks .

@Tony S
"Rain to the top of the mountain is really rare and based on personal observation I would say it happens about once a decade." Groaaan ... you are pretty much making this Eastern rain-attractor cry. Where we ski, I would say it happens about once every couple of WEEKS. I see a trip to Sun Peaks in my future.

Thiago (from Epicski)
Great job Danny! Reading your review made me miss Sun Peaks. Looking forward to sharing some runs with you this coming winter!

Canali (from Epicski)
nicely detailed review...
when i got back into skiing after a 18yr hiatus (2007), it was Sunpeaks that I was reinitiated to the sport. was with my (now ex) girlfriend and we stayed 3 nights...did some cross country skiing as well as downhill ....had a WONDERFUL time, yet the nightlife was quite tame. despite that, each day we were dealt with lovely sunshine and fresh snow and few crowds--and this was even during march break!
have nothing but fond memories of that place, such that i'm tempted to go with a ski tour group and do 2 days of skiing, or by myself and take advantage of their 'early bird' pkg and stay 4 nights.

Carpe Diem (from Epicski)
Most excellent review providing a ton of information. I've been skiing the mountain for 18yrs and I learned a ton.
A statement you made piqued my interest, but much googling didn't give me an answer, so I'm hoping you can
expound on it.
"fixed grip lifts preserve powder lines."
How ?? and thanks.

"Fixed grip lifts preserve powder lines" just means that less skiers/hour get delivered to the slopes on a fixed grip lift vs a high speed detachable lift so it takes longer to ski the powder off. Of course each skier also gets less runs/hour.
The original 2 person Burfield Chairlift had a 360 skiers/hour capacity so even on a busy weekend day when every chair was full, there still wasn't enough uphill capacity to ski the powder off in a single day.

Jhkc (from Epicski)
Very detailed. Thanks. It's been over 10 yrs since I've been there - brings back fond memories

MTpwFiend (from Epicski)
This sounds rock solid. Definitely on the list.

Great review, thanks. Now on our list also.

@Pete in Idaho
Thanks Dano. Will try to make next year.

Joel Hayes(from Epicski)
Hey Dano, Great review basically sealed my decision of which resort id prefer to spend my season at. I'm wanting to spend the 2014/15 season up at Sunpeaks I'm wondering what there is for work other than with the resort (preferably casual night work) and also if theres some place I can check out for accommodation when I get there staff housing is ok but id prefer to rent privately.

Woodhach (from Epicski)
Hi Dano, booked for dec 19th 2016, what can I expect early Xmas season ?

Woodhatch, while I can't predict what the snow conditions will be like, I can guarantee that the week before Xmas will not be very busy st the skiers from nearby Kamloops do not come skiing until a day or two after Xmas.

MiguelCanada (from Epicski)
Awesome review!!

Woodhach (from Epicski)
Awesome place. Just returning from what was a lifetime experience xmas time