Words and pictures by Jim Bamboulis
“It’s super hot and it’s super different than anything you’ve seen before in Canada”, said a friend of mine prior to our trip to British Columbia. But it was what he said next – “Osoyoos is in the heart of Canada’s only desert” – that really perked my curiosity.
We got to Osoyoos late. It was already dark by the time we checked into our beach-side hotel but before going to bed, we opened our balcony door to get a glimpse of what to expect at daybreak. Couldn’t make out much but the sound of the gentle waves crashing ashore made going to sleep soothingly easy. For a city guy who’s accustomed to street noise and bright lights peeking through curtains, hearing only the water and the sound of silence made for a relaxing nights’ rest. Little did we know what was in store for us at daybreak.
Got up early. Refreshed, we opened the curtains and our balcony door again. This time, our jaws dropped to the floor, our senses on overload. Speechless, we gazed over Lake Osoyoos and the surrounding mountains with total bewilderment. Pictures of Canada have traditionally featured majestic mountain ranges, and cityscapes. What we were looking at was neither of those. This landscape looked more like the Southwestern US even dry and arid parts of southern Greece. The rocky slopes, swirling dust, and super warm breeze both confused and excited us as we started to explore the beauty of Osoyoos, and tackled the must-do experiences of Canada’s desert town.
A dip into Osoyoos Lake
An international lake located in both BC and Washington State, Osoyoos Lake has an average summer water temperature of 24 °C (75 °F), making it the warmest freshwater lake in Canada! Float, boat, swim, stand-up paddleboard or just dip your feet into this serene lake that looks and feels like a Caribbean oasis. Clean, big and with stunning views of the surrounding mountains, it’s easy to spend the day here and get lost in your daydream.
The name ‘Osoyoos’ comes from the word sẁiẁs (pronounced “soo-yoos”) meaning “narrowing of the waters” in the local Okanagan language. That said, this town and overall region is very rich in Indigenous culture that dates back thousands of years. As a passionate history-lover myself who believes deeply in preserving, celebrating and showcasing local traditions, learning more about the history of the area and the Okanagan was a top priority.
A visit to both the Osoyoos Desert Centre and Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre is essential. The former is located a couple of kilometers north of the town and puts you in the centre of the shrub-steppe Okanagan desert itself. Take the 1.5km long boardwalk trail through arid landscape where you’ll find rare species of plants and animals here that aren’t found anywhere else in Canada. Respect the surroundings and be aware that the southern Okanagan Valley is on average one of the hottest areas in Canada during the day. Temperatures do exceed 35 °C (95 °F) and even top 38 °C (100 °F). Make sure to stay hydrated at all times.
Meanwhile, the Nk’Mip Desert Culture Centre is a beautiful and symbolic structure that displays not only the history, culture and, triumphs of the local Indigenous population but also its struggles and challenges. Architecturally stunning it’s home to both indoor and outdoor exhibitions, interactive activities, multi-media theatre experiences and, education stations. It’s a perfect experience for the entire family!
View Spotted Lake
As Bob Etienne, an interpreter at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre put it – “Spotted Lake is the grandfather of the other lakes in the area”.
For thousands of years, the Okanagan people have called Spotted Lake the most sacred of lakes. Located just northwest of Osoyoos, it’s said to have 365 rings, each representing one day of the year. Each ring is not only highly concentrated with magnesium, calcium and sodium sulphates, making them highly visible during the summer months but according to the Okanagan First Nations, the minerals found in Spotted Lake and the mud these minerals are attached to have healing properties, especially when rubbed on arthritic joints.
Over the past hundred years, the minerals of the lake were pillaged and plundered to create, among other things, ammunition. In the 1970s, private investors made plans to create a spa at the lake. In 2001, the First Nations purchased 22 hectares of land and in turn implemented protections to prevent further abuse and damage. These days, you’ll find a gate and a fence atop a small hill overlooking the lake. Safely park your car along Highway 3 and view Spotted Lake from the roadside.
Osoyoos Desert Model Railroad
This is the kind of experience that beforehand, you give yourself an hour to enjoy before moving on. Only to realize that once there, three hours have gone by and you’re still acting like a giddy schoolboy.
The Osoyoos Desert Model Railroad is easy to miss. Fairly inconspicuous with a simple sign atop the building that’s barely seen from the highway, you could drive by and never realize what you just missed. Even pulling up to the front entrance gives you absolutely no indication as to what’s in store for you. But once inside, and the doors are opened, you find out quickly that this place is what you wished your childhood toy train set actually looked like!
Open year-round, and a work-in-progress for the past 18 years, this is an experience that shouldn’t, mustn’t be missed! A miniature wonderland with over 16,000 hand-painted little people and animals, you’ll also find 45 computer-controlled trains traveling on over 2km of tracks through replicas of European cities, landscapes and, even unique streetside scenes. You’ll be mesmerized by the 4000 sq. feet of sights and sounds but it’s a good bet that you’ll be even more stunned by the exact and precise hand-crafted detail of every conceivable corner of this model railroad. Magical, surreal, amazing, it’s no wonder this is one of the top experience in Osoyoos yearly!
Sip on wine, of course
Osoyoos is located on the southern tip of BC’s wine country. That said, there are dozens of exceptional and world-renowned wineries to choose from and get your vino on. Here, red wine is considered to be the must-drink and several wineries offer amazing vista and vineyard views with your sipping experience.
Get a wine map from the Osoyoos Visitor Centre and go winery-hopping. Thanks to soil variations and microclimates in this region, you’ll find 60+ types of grapes grown here and in turn, wineries that produce everything from Merlot and Cab Sauv to Pinot Gris and Ice Wine. All are easy to spot and are located both on the and off-the-beaten highways. Many also have on-site restaurants, creating dishes from local sources that pair perfectly the wines they produce.
So go ahead, stay awhile. Indulge a bit and take in that Canadian desert experience.
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food, and cultural experiences.
I’ve created content and collaborated with everyone from Chevrolet, Lonely Planet, Trivago, Nevada Tourism and The Weather Network to New Brunswick Tourism, Yellow Pages, Tourism Toronto, and Airbnb. Safe travels, y’all.
I’d like to thank the following:
*Chevrolet Canada for supplying the vehicle for our trip to Osoyoos. Bright and beautiful, #TheNewBlazer in cherry red gave us the chance to #FindNewRoads, including the one that led us to Osoyoos.
*Destination Osoyoos for taking care of us during our stay in Osoyoos. Your help, suggestions and, guidance really amplified our experience in your beautiful corner of Canada.
*Our host hotel – Coast Osoyoos Beach – for hosting us for the night. Our room overlooking Osoyoos Lake was outstanding, your amenities, proximity and, staff made our experience memorable!