The Thompson-Okanagan is a region in the central interior of British Columbia, Canada. It encompasses wineries and fun-in-the-sun Okanagan Valley, summer boating adventures on Shuswap Lake in the east and the pretty Thompson River valley to the north.
Occupying the semi-arid area between the majestic Rockies and Selkirks to the east and the rain forests of the Coastal Mountains to the west, the Thompson-Okanagan looks and feels different than much of the rest of British Columbia. There’s more blue sky (often over 2000 hrs of sunshine in a year), more grasslands and ponderosa pines, and more hot days in the summers. All of this has combined to make the area an increasingly popular region to live in and visit.
One of the benefits of the hot sunny summers is the emergence of the Okanagan Valley (and to a lesser extent, the Similkameen) as a wine producing region. Generally smaller in scale, there are over 100 wineries, mostly in the central and southern parts of the valley. Most offer tastings, some offer tours and an increasing number have restaurants on site.
There are also plenty of opportunities for what’s considered more traditional BC outdoor pastimes. The Nicola Valley, Shuswap and Okangan all have many lakes and are popular for fishing. The Shuswap and Okanagan Lake are also very popular for boating. Skiing/snowboarding is popular, with a number of ski resorts throughout the Okanagan and in the Kamloops area. Although nowhere near the size of more famous Whistler, the resorts are more intimate, have quicker access to lifts and tend to have drier “Okanagan” or “champagne" powder. Hiking trails abound through the region and range from alpine mountain treks to grasslands to interpretive trails through desert scrubland. Of particular note is the Kettle Valley Railway, which has been converted to trail that connects much of the southern Okanagan and Similkameen. Popular with cyclists, it combines scenery and a glimpse into the history of what it took to cross the region before cars and the Trans-Canada Highway.
The Okanagan Valley is a popular vacation destination and fast-growing region centred on the 155-km-long Okanagan Lake. The lakes provide many beaches and boating opportunities, while the mountains offer hiking in the summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter. The hot dry summers are ideal for grapes and the valley has emerged as one of Canada's leading wine producing regions. Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon (British Columbia) are the main centers and provide a good base to explore the valley's trails, wineries and beaches.
Nestled between the Okanagan Valley and the Lower Mainland the Similkameen Valley is an important transportation route but less touristed and developed. The main attraction is two remote mountain parks — Manning Provincial Park and Cathedral Provincial Park — with some spectacular camping and hiking. The eastern end of the valley around Keremeos is known for its roadside fruit stands filled with fresh produce from the nearby orchards and a growing number of vineyards.
Centered on Shuswap Lake, the region is the epitome of cottage country. The communities here are small and the tourism infrastructure less developed — don’t expect luxury hotels or glitzy nightlife — it’s mostly about the great outdoors. Salmon Arm is the largest town and main service centre for the region, while nearby Sicamous is called the “Houseboat Capital of Canada”.
A diverse area in the south central interior of British Columbia. To the south, in the Nicola Valley and Merritt, the spaces are wide open and the grass is dry. Heading north from Kamloops, the main city of the region, the mountains get closer and the scenery gets greener as you head up the North Thompson River valley. At the northern end of the region is Wells Grey Country. This is the headwaters of the Thompson River and is a land of many lakes and waterfalls, protected within Wells Gray Provincial Park.
- 1 Kamloops - The second largest city in British Columbia's interior and crossroads of three major highways. With grasslands, mountains, two rivers and many lakes in the vicinity, there's a wide range of things to do outdoors. Fishing, golf, hiking and mountain biking are all popular.
- 2 Kelowna - The life of the party in summer with water, beaches, microbreweries and wineries. The nearby mountains provide many options for outdoor activities year-round, with Myra Canyon notable for hiking and cycling and Okanagan Mountain Park providing hiking and camping. More tame options include enjoying one of the many golf courses in the area. Kelowna is the largest city in the Okanagan, the transportation hub and has the widest range of accommodation options.
- 3 Osoyoos - A recreation center, with beaches, accommodation and boating along Lake Osoyoos. It's also wine and orchard country with 30+ vineyards and over half of the vines in British Columbia nearby. The region’s scrubland and aridness is unique within Canada (often referred to as the only true desert in Canada) and local attractions allow you to learn about and explore this ecosystem with walking and interpretive trails.
- 4 Penticton - A very popular summer holiday destination and small city at the southern end of Okanagan Lake. Enjoy the water by renting a boat or seadoo, floating your way down the canal or hanging with the locals (and other visitors) at one of the beaches. Off the water, Skaha Bluffs has trails and rock climbing and the old Kettle Valley Railway — a hiking and biking trail — has some outstanding views. Penticton is also a good base to explore the South Okanagan's orchards and wineries.
- 5 Princeton - The largest town in the Similkameen and home to two copper mines. There are some trails in the area (including a branch of the Kettle Valley Railway) and the center of town has a number of buildings with a frontier heritage look and colourful murals.
- 6 Salmon Arm - Lakeside town, summer vacation spot and main center of the Shuswap. The main attraction and focus of activities is Shuswap Lake. There are houseboats to rent, fishing and a handful of beaches.
- 7 Vernon - Largest community in the northern Okanagan Valley with three lakes, beaches, wineries and plenty of outdoor activities. Highlights include the many parks that offer swimming, walking and hiking trails and Predator Ridge, an acclaimed golf resort, located just southwest of town.
- 1 Big White — Ski resort and village southeast of Kelowna in the Okanagan. It lays claim to having to more ski-in ski-out accommodation than any other resort in British Columbia. Summer activities include hiking and sightseeing.
- 2 Cathedral Provincial Park — It isn't easy to get to (a steep hike in or pay for a shuttle to the lodge up top) but the reward is some stunning scenery and hiking. The alpine lakes are beautiful, the mountains dramatic and the 360° views from the mountain ridges go on and on. There are several campgrounds in the park and a lodge if you're looking for a little more comfort.
- 3 Manning Provincial Park — Large provincial park with year-round activities located at the western end of the valley. The valley floor has lakes, cross-country skiing and a downhill ski area. The mountains have many trails — some multi-day — and the sub-alpine meadows are known for their mid-summer wildflowers. There are a number of campgrounds accessible from the highway, as well as hike-in backcountry spots in the mountains.
- 4 Silver Star — A ski resort and provincial park in the northern Okanagan Valley. The ski village is small but the brightly coloured buildings are memorable and make for easy ski-in ski-out access. Nearby Sovereign Lakes is noted for its Nordic skiing trails. Activities are year round with mountain biking and hiking in summer.
- 5 Sun Peaks — Ski resort and village northeast of Kamloops. The ski area has the second largest terrain of any resort in British Columbia. Summer activities including hiking, mountain biking and golf.
- Wells Gray Provincial Park — The "waterfall park" (as it's sometimes called) has over 30 named waterfalls, including Canada's fourth highest, Helmcken Falls. Beyond the waterfalls, there are fish filled lakes, miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, and alpine meadows. Over 5,000 sq km in size, you can stick to the main access road and see one or two highlights for the day, or bring a canoe or hiking boots and venture deep into the park to the campgrounds and sights less visited.
The Thompson-Okanagan region is at the crossroads of several of British Columbia's main highways.
- The Trans-Canada Highway 1 connects the Kamloops and the Shuswap with Vancouver and the Lower Mainland to the west and the Kootenays and Calgary to the east. Travel time to Kamloops from Vancouver is about four hours, and to Kamloops from Calgary is about eight hours.
- BC Highway 3 connects the Similkameen and southern Okanagan Valley with the Lower Mainland to the west and the southern Kootenays and Southern Alberta to the east. It's a five to six hour drive from Vancouver to Osoyoos or Penticton.
- BC Highway 5 connects Kamloops and Merritt with the Lower Mainland to the south and Hwy 16 near Mount Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park in the northeast. The section between Kamloops and Hope is called the Coquihalla Highway. It's built to freeway/motorway standard and is the fastest connection between Vancouver and Kamloops at roughly 3.5 hours.
- BC Highway 97 runs north-south and connects Kamloops and the Okanagan Valley with Prince George and the Cariboo-Chilcotin to the northwest and to the state of Washington to the south. The border crossing just south of Osoyoos is the only road to/from the United States and the Thompson-Okanagan.
- Ebus and Rider Express provide motorcoach service.
- Mountain Man Mikes Bus Service. One bus a week going eastbound to Castlegar, Nelson and Kaslo on Sunday, and one going west to Kamloops, Hope, Abbotsford and Vancouver on Saturday. The bus runs on recycled cooking oil from restaurants.
The two main airports for the region are Kamloops Airport (YKA IATA) and Kelowna International Airport (YLW IATA). Both have connections to larger cities in western Canada like Vancouver, Prince George, Calgary and Edmonton. Kelowna also has flights to Victoria, Toronto, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Via Rail's The Canadian passes through the region en route to Vancouver, Jasper, Edmonton and eventually Toronto. Service is three times a week May to mid-Oct and twice a week otherwise. Kamloops is the only scheduled stop in the region, however the train will stop in Valemont, Clearwater, Blue River or Ashcroft if notified prior to departure. Pickups are available at all five stations.
Having your own car is the most convenient way, and sometimes the only way, to get around the region. The BC Provincial highways are generally in good condition and reach urban destinations and some provincial parks. Access to other provincial parks require getting off the main road, which can vary from well maintained paved roads to the gravel FSRs (Forest Service Road) that sometimes require 4WD and care to avoid logging trucks.
The Greyhound bus service can get you between the main destinations in the region. The schedule typically focuses on connecting the main centers (Kelowna and Kamloops) to other destinations in British Columbia, so depending on where you're trying to go, the route may require a transfer.
The train services communities along the Thompson River, but it is infrequent and not really designed for short haul trips. If you don't have your own transport, the bus will be a better option for getting around.
- West of the region is the Lower Mainland with Vancouver and Whistler.
- Northwest is the Cariboo-Chilcotin with more wide open spaces, guest ranches and gold mining history.
- Immediately east is the Kootenays with more mountains, lakes and great scenery.
- Further east and to the northeast are the Alberta Rockies with world famous destinations Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.
- To the south is the North Central Cascades region of Washington state.