Snowmobiling in British Columbia
January 15, 2019
Take a guided snowmobile tour in the Invermere, British Columbia area using Toby Creek Adventures. If you have never taken a snowmobile tour before, below is a detailed description of what you might experience.
Toby Creek Adventures offers a variety of guided snowmobile tours including half-day, full-day and private/custom tours. Book your tour in advance via their online web page. Their customer service quickly answers any questions you have.
We chose the public Paradise Mine Half Day Tour. This 3-hour tour is designed to give a scenic tour up the mountain, playtime in the ‘bowl’, and a stop at Smith Icefall on the way down.
The mid-day tour at 12:30 p.m gave us plenty of time to eat a late breakfast at HuckleBerry’s Restaurant and then drive the 30 minutes up the snowy mountain road to the base location.
Our tour group included six customers on three machines and a tour guide on his own machine.
The machines are two-person machines with 65HP engines and include hand-warmers for the driver. There is an option to upgrade to a higher horsepower machine. We stuck with the default rental since this was our first time snowmobiling.
The driver and the passenger can switch roles at any stop during the tour. Sharing a machine gave me the best of both worlds – the thrill of driving as well as the luxury of gawking at the scenery as a passenger. If an adrenaline rush is your goal, reserve your own machine so you do not miss out on drive time.
The starting location is off of Toby Creek Road (also called Panorama Drive) – a windy, mountain road. From Fairmont Hot Springs, it is about a 45-minute drive. This is the access road for the nearby Panorama ski resort so during the winter it is plowed on a regular basis. If you drive yourself, ensure you have snow tires (not just all-season tires) on your rental car – these are legally required in British Columbia between Oct 1 and March 31. If you prefer to take a shuttle, check out options available on Toby Creek Adventure’s website.
The tour includes altitudes up to 8000 feet. If you are not acclimated, you might feel the effects – some shortness of breath and dehydration. You may even have some mild symptoms of altitude sickness such as a headache and dizziness.
During our tour, one of the machines toppled over into a snowdrift. Not a big deal (powder is a soft landing spot). However, the driver found the lack of oxygen impacted his ability to right the machine so he told his passenger to help him push. Her response “Glad to as soon as you lift it enough to get it off my foot!”
What to wear
Dress like you would for a full day of skiing, minus the ski pants and the ski jacket. Layers are ideal – base layer (e.g. long johns) for top and bottom, and a mid-layer (e.g. fleece) top and bottom. Know your internal temperature gauge. One customer who is always cold under-dressed and struggled to maintain her core temperature. Another customer who is usually hot over-dressed and sweated the whole time. Take a small backpack on the tour to add/remove layers as needed.
Bring your own warm gloves as these are not included in the rental package. The rental package includes a snowmobile suit and boots, a full face helmet, goggles, and an avalanche beacon locator.
The goggles fit over a normal pair of glasses and eliminate the need for sunglasses. The goggles occasionally fog up when you put them on but the fog dissipates after you start moving on the machine.
The distribution of the beacon locator is low-key. Just an explanation on how to put it on with a double-check by the guide that you have done so properly. It is the first time I’ve had a reason to wear one and I’m now looking forward to future adventures that would require it.
Driving the machines
Driving the machines was surprisingly easy. If you have ever driven a jet ski, it was similar. Right-hand controls the speed, left-hand controls the brake.
- If you have a fear of heights, know that the tour is on a groomed trail that does have drop-offs. It is a wide trail but you may want to remain a passenger so you can close your eyes during short stretches.
- A full day tour may have caused hand fatigue for me as the stretch from the lever to the handle was a far reach for my short fingers.
Our tour was the half-day paradise mine tour. Other tours will differ from our experience.
The vibe at the base location is both laid-back and professional. There are dogs running free around the compound as well as warming themselves by the wood-burning stove as you go thru the check-in process.
When you arrive, each participant fills out the typical liability release forms at the check-in building. The front-office staff guides you through the forms, offers you additional insurance options, and then introduces you to your guide.
Your guide will meet you in the changing building to provide you with the rental gear detailed above. We found our guide, Matthew, was happy to give us advice on our layers.
Restrooms are located around back of the building. Plan to use those before you put on the full snowmobile suit.
Prior to getting on the snowmobile, your guide will instruct you on the basics of the machine. This includes:
- How to start/stop the machine.
- When and how to use the kill switch.
- How to use the brake, including pumping it on steep down slopes
- Basic hand signals:
- Stopping = Left Fist up.
- Turn off the machine = Slicing motion across the throat.
- Steep slope so pump the brakes and leave extra room between machine = hand duck quack.
- OK = thumbs up to indicate your machine is running and you are ready to go.
At the bottom of the trail, the guide leads you around the practice course. The practice course takes about 3 minutes to complete and includes weaving around cones to practice turning and cornering. You then take a lap (or two if you want more practice) around the course on your own. When every driver in the group is comfortable with the machines, the group heads up the trail with the guide leading.
Up the mountain
The tour guide leads the way up the trail. Periodically, the group stops for pictures and a check-in to ensure everyone is OK. Occasionally during the drive, the guide pauses to get a thumbs-up from all participants.
As you wind your way up the trail, you get views of the Purcell mountains (which are not part of the Rocky Mountain range). The timing will vary depending on your group size and how long each stop is, but it took us about 45 minutes including stops to get to the Paradise Mine area.
Top of the Mountain
Two things happen at the top – playtime and snack time. The order may vary depending on other groups and which activity they are undertaking.
Everyone gets free playtime in the bowl area. The tour guide leads you through the course first. He indicates where non-interested passengers can sit at the picnic table area and watch rather than ride. Then you are free to go play on the course. Turning and zig-zagging as you wish. There are a few rules such as boundaries to stay within (due to lack of snow or machine capabilities) and watching out for other snowmobiles. Other than that, you are free to zoom around for approximately 30 to 45 minutes. Heed the advice that the passenger feels the bumps more than the driver – I had a few teeth-jarring moments as the driver gleefully took bumps at full speed.
The view from the bowl area on a clear day is phenomenal. You can see the 10,000-foot peak of Mount Nelson. If it is snowing, the view might not be as good but then you will get the upside of fresh powder to play in. According to our guide, driving in fresh powder feels like the machine is floating on waves.
Snack time occurs in a cabin that historically was part of the Paradise Mine operation. Hot cocoa, coffee or a mocha and a monster cookie are available. The cookie is about as big as your face. It’s a great time to warm-up and hear about the history of the mine and to grill your tour guide with questions. This pit stop also boosts your sugar and hydration levels (recall the impact the altitude can have on you) prior to the ride down.
Down the mountain
The drive down takes about 45 minutes.
Part way down, there will be a stop at Smith Icefalls. A short walk up gets you to the base of the blue icefalls. A prior guide may have chopped in steps into the snow or you may be post-holing up to the base of the falls. If there is enough fresh powder, snow angels and a butt luge slide are encouraged.
As you approach the bottom of the trail, you will drive past “Caution – explosives” signs. The guide explained that is where they used to store the devices used for manual avalanche control. Now avalanche control is achieved via helicopter and takes about 15 minutes to put in place.
- Be prepared to tip your guide in cash. 10-20% of the trip cost is the typical amount.
- You are in the mountains. Altitude may impact you.
- Acrophobics may want to consider being a passenger on the way up and down the mountain.
Snowmobiling in the Purcell Mountains offers both sight-seeing options and fuel for adrenaline seekers. Add it into your schedule of fun activities in Columbia Valley
- Trip Date: early December 2018
- Name: Toby Creek Adventures
- Location: Purcell Mountains, near Invermere
- Cost: $$