Story and photos by Craig Romano
I’m not sure if it’s the ample sunshine, pine-scented golden hills adorned in wildflowers, wide-open spaces, or the immense 80-mile long sparkling Okanagan Lake that draws me to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley every year. Probably a combination of them all, coupled with the region’s miles of excellent hiking trails, is why I love recreating in this region. And while I’ve gotten to know the valley from Kelowna to Osoyoos fairly well, Vernon and the northern reaches of the Okanagan have long remained a gap in my Northwest outdoor travel resume. Last year, however, that changed and that valley community – and the breathtakingly beautiful Kalamalka Lake just to its south – have rapidly risen in my favorite places list for outdoor play.
Like other cities in the Okanagan, much of Vernon’s early development was due to its favorable climate for agriculture – particularly fruit production. And the region is still an important fruit producer along now with wine. Like other cities in the region it continues to draw retirees from the Lower Mainland and urban refugees from throughout Canada and beyond, who come for the region’s wide array of excellent outdoor activities: mountain biking, road biking, kayaking, canoeing, SUP, hiking, trail running, downhill skiing, snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
While Vernon sits on the northern reaches of Okanagan Lake, it’s another lake – one far more mesmerizing – that has me hooked on this area. Occupying a nearby trough parallel to Okanagan Lake and just a few miles south of downtown Vernon is Kalamalka Lake. Its shoreline of rocky cliffs, groves of towering pines and golden grasslands is pretty enough. Kalamalka is a marl lake, however, so when sunlight scatters through the calcium carbonate crystals suspended in its waters, it gives off a range of dazzling hues. Shades of indigo, cyan and turquoise give Kalamalka the moniker the Lake of a Thousand Colours.
On a bluebird day, Kalamalka is a sight to behold. When the resplendent lake becomes the scenic backdrop to your hike, bike ride or run – or when you are paddling across it admiring puffy white clouds reflecting in its sublime waters – the lake becomes inspirational. Close to half of the shoreline along this 10-mile-long lake is protected in parks offering unparalleled opportunities to bike, run, hike or paddle in ethereal beauty. And that’s exactly what I, my wife and young son did on our exploratory visit.
One of the best ways to get acquainted with Kalamalka Lake is by taking a run, walk, or bike ride along it on the Okanagan Rail Trail. Officially opened in 2018, the Okanagan Rail Trail is sure to become one of British Columbia’s most popular rail trails. This 52-kilometer (32-mile) trail runs from Kelowna to Coldstream, just south of Vernon, traveling along the entire western shoreline of Kalamalka Lake en route. This old rail line that once transported the region’s agricultural bounties now abounds with folks from near and far – young and old, on bikes and in running shoes delighting in the area’s natural beauty.
From Coldstream’s Kal Beach, you can follow the graded hard-packed trail south along the lake. It passes briefly through quiet neighborhoods before reaching undeveloped shoreline hemmed in by steep slopes sporting pine groves, and throughout the summer, scads of brilliant wildflowers. About midway along the lake, the trail passes though Kekuli Bay Provincial Park with its spacious lake-view campsites. The park’s one-mile nature trail winds up an open hillside providing breathtaking views of the sprawling lake reflecting forested mountain slopes and shoreline ledges. It’s worth stashing the bike to check it out – or if you’re on a long run, it offers an opportunity to add a little elevation to your otherwise generally level course. If you’re spending the night here, count on hiking this trail to witness glorious evening light dance on the lake’s vibrant waters. The rail trail continues south to eventually traverse a narrow isthmus separating Kalamalka Lake from Wood Lake before continuing its journey to Kelowna.
The lake’s eastern shore is wilder and contains large tracts of protected natural areas traversed by excellent trails. We spent a day hiking some of the many miles of well-marked and maintained trails in the more than 10,300-acre Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. We did a long loop up and over Rattlesnake Hill with its exceptional views over Cosens Valley and the sprawling lake before hiking out to the cliffs on Turtles Head Point, which protrudes into the lake at its narrowest point. We then headed to Jade Bay for some wading in the lake’s welcoming waters before hiking back to the trailhead through a minefield of some of the biggest piles of bear poop I’ve ever seen. My 5-year-old son absolutely loved this stretch of trail.
The park’s forested and grassy hills, rocky ledges and sandy beaches are indeed a draw. But so, too, is its diverse plant and animal life. Protecting some of the last tracts of natural grasslands in the Okanagan, many species at risk call this park home, western harvest mice, Townsend’s big-eared bats, and Great Basin spadefoot toads among them. And yes, as you may have figured out by park place names, western rattlesnakes make their home here, too. You’ll find a Bear Valley and Cougar Canyon in the park as well, that’ll either allure or concern you.
While hiking and running alongside and near Kalamalka certainly gave me an appreciation of the lake’s beauty and grandeur, you have to actually get on it to really experience it. We arranged with Ed’s Mobile Kayak Rental to have a couple of kayaks dropped off for us at Kal Beach. Rather than having a fixed location like many kayak outfitters, Ed’s is really unique. You can arrange to have kayaks dropped off at different locations at several of the lakes in the region.
On an absolutely beautiful sunny day we set out paddling across placid waters, sending ripples across puffy white cloud reflections. Since it was a weekday in late September, we shared the massive lake with only a couple of boats – and a lot of avian life. Eagles and waterfowl were prolific. And it was still early enough in the fall that a couple of my favorite birds of all, the common loon (I grew up in New Hampshire where they are on almost every lake) were still out on the lake. We paddled to Cosens Bay at Kalamalka Provincial Park, rounding the stark towering cliffs at Turtle Head Point. It was a great spot to raft up and get the binoculars out for a little bird watching. We then went ashore to a deserted beach at the Twin Bays for a lunch break before paddling back to Kal Beach.
Our lake-based recreation wasn’t over, however. We decided that Kalamalka Lake would be the perfect place for us to take stand-up paddleboarding for the first time. So with a crash lesson and boards from the beachside Kalavida Surf Shop we – thanks to some stormy weather approaching – had an entire beachfront to practice our paddling. And being at the north end of a 10-mile-long lake with wind coming from the south meant white caps to practice on, too. It was a good workout and lots of fun, but I think I’ll wait for a calm sunny summer day before I SUP at Kalamalka again. But for running, kayaking and hiking, I would return a good portion of the year. I hear the skiing is good here too, so no doubt a winter trip is in the plans. x