Adobe-style storefronts, an Indigenous cultural centre, warm climate and a desert ecosystem: no, it’s not the American southwest, it’s Osoyoos, British Columbia. But you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve crossed the border when you arrive here, because this little town is unlike any other in Canada. This uniqueness, and the laid-back things to do in Osoyoos are undoubtedly some of the reasons why this town has been listed as one of “Canada’s 15 Charming Small Towns for a Relaxing Getaway” by Conde Nast. And having visited Osoyoos for the first time in September, Henk and I couldn’t agree more, especially after experiencing these 7 attractions and activities that are oh, so Osoyoos!
1. Get Into – or Onto – Osoyoos Lake
Osoyoos’ warm welcome has to start with its lake, quite literally the warmest fresh water lake in all of Canada and one of the reasons why so many visitors come to this town, especially in the summer. So a visit to Osoyoos should definitely include enjoying the lake itself, even if that’s something as simple as admiring its beauty while having a picnic in Gyro Park (a downtown waterfront park with the largest beach in Osoyoos that is mere steps from Main Street). But there are actually several public parks and beaches in Osoyoos that are perfect for swimming and sunning, and with water temperatures around 24 degrees celsius, there’s no excuse for not getting into the water.
For those who love to get onto the water, Osoyoos Lake’s shallow waters and sheltered shorelines are perfect for kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding especially in early morning or at dusk, which is when Henk and I chose to go. We were lucky to have no wind at all and enjoyed calm waters that mirrored both shoreline and skies, providing the perfect photo opportunities. I can’t think of a more relaxing place to watch the sun set than from the water, with only the ripples from our paddles disturbing the surface and making the cloud reflections undulate gently as we glided by.
TIP: Wakepilot is the local rental company right beside Walnut Beach Resort that outfitted Henk and I with our kayak and gear. They also rent all kinds of watercraft, including the motorized ones, but we preferred the serenity that came with paddling ourselves.
2. Take in the Views from Anarchist Mountain
To get a different perspective of Osoyoos Lake, and to enjoy one of the best panoramic views in the southern Okanagan Valley, put the Anarchist Mountain Overlook on your Osoyoos to-do list. The winding road that takes you up the mountain is part of the fun and the overlook not only gives you the chance to see the lake in its entirety, it also gives you a view across the Canada/US border. The town of Osoyoos sits just north of the border and the lake itself extends into Washington State for about 3 kilometres, so this is the ideal location to peer right across that border into our neighbour’s backyard!
TIP: Approach the lookout pullout by driving east on Highway 3 for about 7km until you see the pullout on your right side. (It does come up quick.) If you are driving west on Highway 3, you won’t be able to access the overlook because the entrance is one way and on the opposite side of the highway.
3. Explore Downtown Osoyoos
Downtown Osoyoos isn’t big but because it sees so many visitors, it has a nice eclectic selection of stores and businesses. Main Street and its adjacent streets are where you’ll find everything from the obligatory beachwear stores (this is a lake town after all), to vintage and home decor boutiques.
Start your downtown discovery with breakfast or some ‘aromatherapy’ in the form of coffee at Jojo’s, a cute cafe with good food, a cozy vibe and some quirky artwork on the walls.
If you’re actually shopping for artwork, two galleries in town feature works exclusively made by local artists and artisans, so stop by the Osoyoos Art Gallery or the Okanagan Art Gallery to see what’s on display.
Of course there’s street art around town as well, including some fun murals that give you a sense for the character of Osoyoos and the residents who live here.
4. Admire Amazing Metal Sculptures by Virgil ‘Smoker’ Marchand
There’s art everywhere in Osoyoos, it seems, even at the gas station en route to Nk’Mip Cellars: Henk and I had stopped to fill up with gas at the turnoff to the reserve and noticed a beautiful metal sculpture of an Indigenous chief on a horse. Curious as to the artist, we learned this was the work of well known Indigenous artist Virgil “Smoker” Marchand, a member of the Arrow Lakes Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington State. It turns out Marchand was commissioned by Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band to create several pieces of sculpture for the Nk’Mip property, including the “Man and Horse 2” that we had seen at the gas station.
Marchand’s works are rooted in the land where he grew up, and reflect the heritage and culture of the Indigenous Peoples of the Okanagan, a region that extends into present day Washington State, where Marchand lived.
Every piece Henk and I encountered seemed to interact with the land, from “The Chief’ at the entrance to Nk’Mip, who greeted us with an upraised peace pipe which seemed to double as a salute towards the lake in the distance, to the “Spiritual Guardians” honouring the sky and the Anarchist foothills against which they were framed.
NOTE: Marchand passed away in early 2023, but his legacy lives on in the art installed around the Okanagan valley both in Canada and the U.S.
5. Sip a Stellar Vintage at Nk’Mip Cellars
Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced ‘Inka-meep’) holds the distinction as the first Indigenous-owned winery in North America. But that’s not the reason why you should visit, or why it’s made it onto every wine-lover’s radar. The reason is quite simply, the wines. It’s taken decades to get to this point, however, from the early days in 1968 when Inkameep Vineyards was first established, through a decision in 1989 to remove half of the vineyard hybrids and replace them with premium vinefera vines, up to today, when Nk’Mip is recognized as one of the best VQA winemakers in the region.
Henk and I were booked for a tour and wine tasting and after touring the actual vineyards and learning a little about the challenges of growing wine in what is Canada’s only desert climate, we headed into the tasting room to sample some of Nk’Mip’s signature vintages, including their Qwam Qwmt series (which means “achieving excellence” in the traditional Syilx language).
Wine tastings are a ritual in the Okanagan, but this one was particularly good, matching flavourful samplings of truffled popcorn, marinated feta, olives, and even chocolate mouse to complement the notes of the corresponding wines.
TIP: You can see some of the original artwork done by Linda Anderson for Nk’Mip on display in the boutique. Or just take home a bottle of wine, since her designs are on the Nk’Mip labels.
6. Learn about Indigenous History at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre
Nk’Mip Cellars was the first enterprise here on the Osoyoos reserve, and it serves as the cornerstone of an extensive development that includes a recreational campground, golf course, Spirit Ridge Resort, (a Hyatt-operated luxury hotel), and the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, which is where Henk and I headed next.
Situated in one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems, the Centre serves multiple functions, one of which is to educate visitors about how unique and fragile this particular desert microclimate and environment is.
This environment here actually is not classified as Sonoran desert as many people think, but is actually more of a semi-arid steppe plateau, but it does share characteristics with other desert climates in the U.S. Regardless of its classification, the architecture of the Nk’Mip Centre was designed to reflect the land that surrounds it, both in materials and aesthetics.
Designed by Bruce Haden as a semi-underground structure, the building is as much a sculpture as it is a museum: Haden was inspired by the desert materials and palette and use a ‘rammed earth’ construction technique where layers of colourful earth and different mineral pigments are mixed with cement to create a subtle strata effect on the exterior walls that allows the building to blend seamlessly with its environment. The result is something that feels like it belongs here.
Inside the Centre, visitors are invited to learn about the history of the Indigenous Peoples of the Okanagan who have lived here for generations: there is a theatre and a small but particularly meaningful exhibit of displays and artifacts, including beautiful decades-old artwork that was done by children when they attended a residential school here under the stewardship of Anthony Walsh.
Walsh was a rarity in that he actually supported the cultural growth of the students by encouraging them to do artwork. He even entered their art into international competitions, a piece of which reputedly resides in the Tower of London.
The story of how this artwork was saved from subsequent ‘teachers’ who replaced Walsh and wanted to burn it all, and how it was gifted to the Nk’Mip Cultural Centre after decades of being hidden by a local woman, is a testament to the resilience of the people here, and their desire to preserve their culture at all costs.
A great way to understand the importance of the land to the Indigenous People who lived here is to follow the self-guided trails outside of the Centre. Interpretive signs and sculptures (including more by Smoker Marchand) help to describe the uniqueness of the flora and fauna of this area, and give context to why the land is so important to the cultural identity of the Indigenous People who live here.
TIP: There are rattlesnakes in the Osoyoos area, but they are an endangered species, so seeing one would be a good thing so definitely let the staff at the Centre know. At the same time, it might be a good idea to wear covered shoes!
7. Marvel at Kllilx’w (Spotted Lake)
You can’t visit Osoyoos without taking the time to visit one of the region’s natural wonders: the lake known as Kllilx’w or ‘Spotted Lake’. This little mineral-rich lake has been known to the Indigenous People of the Osoyoos area for generations and is a sacred site revered for its healing properties. The name comes from the phenomenon that occurs as the water in the lake evaporates over the summer months, leaving behind circular, concentrated ‘puddles’ of minerals.
With different concentrations of calcium, sodium sulphates and magnesium sulphate, each spot can be a slightly different colour, depending on the minerals within, and can range from blue to green to yellow. Henk and I had chosen a great time of year to visit, as the ‘spots’ were very visible in mid-September, which wouldn’t be the case in the earlier months when the basin is filled with water, (so you might want to time your own visit accordingly).
You can find Spotted Lake along Highway 3, just about 8 minutes’ drive west of Osoyoos. Please respect that this is sacred land and visitors are welcome to view the lake but are not allowed to go past the fences that surround it.
TIP: There is a small pullover (short driveway) with a gate and a sign on the left side of the highway where you can view the lake. Even better views can be found a little farther north: there is an unsigned, two-track road that leads up a hill where there is a small parking area/turnaround from which you can walk to the fence line to view the lake.
Osoyoos for First Timers
As the old saying goes, “you only have one chance to make a first impression”, and as two first-time visitors to this little BC town, Osoyoos couldn’t have made a better impression on Henk and I. From the moment we drove down Main Street, Osoyoos surprised and delighted us: first with the desert-climate-inspired architecture and easy walkability between lakefront and downtown, and afterwards with its deep Indigenous roots that reflect the uniqueness of the people and the place. And while we know there is much more to explore and do in Osoyoos, this was the kind of sampling that, like the Pinot Noir at Nk’Mip Cellars, ensures we will want to return.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR VISITING OSOYOOS
Getting There: Osoyoos is less than 1 hour south of Penticton, BC on Highway 97 (1.5 hours from Kelowna). Along the way you’ll pass through some of the Okanagan’s richest fruit and wine country. Make getting there more than half the fun by picking up some of that fresh fruit at roadside stands, or visiting the District Wine Village near Oliver. The Village is home to 13 wineries, a brewery, distillery and eatery all constructed around a circular plaza, a collective wine destination that is the first of its kind in Canada.
When to Go: Henk and I visited in mid-September and it was perfect timing: no crowds, plenty of availability for restaurants, rentals, etc, and the weather was still beautiful (this is one of the warmest places in Canada, remember!) Summer is obviously the busiest season for the town, so if you do want to visit during July or August, plan in advance especially if you want to secure specific accommodations.
Where To Stay: Walnut Beach Resort
Henk and I were hosted at Walnut Beach Resort, which is a beautiful, perfectly-situated all-suites hotel right on Lake Osoyoos. The suites are all named after wines (they know their audience!) and offer full kitchens as well as all the hotel amenities you would need. We stayed in the one-bedroom suite which also had a fireplace in the sitting area, a balcony overlooking the pool and a super-comfy king-sized bed.
There’s a large heated year-round outdoor pool and hot tubs on the expansive deck in the centre of the U-shaped resort, (even BBQs for guests who may want to cook for themselves in their suites) and there’s also a sandy beach right in front of the resort with loungers and ‘tiki’ style palapas for shade.
As an added bonus, Wakepilot rentals is located right next door to the resort, so if you do want to rent any watercraft, it’s very convenient (just note that you will need to walk along the street-side of the resort to get to Wakepilot, not by going along the beachfront, as the rental company is not part of the resort property itself.)
Where to Eat: Pointe 49 Restaurant, Walnut Beach Resort
Henk and I were only in Osoyoos for one night, so we kept it simple and made a reservation at the resort’s on-site restaurant and we weren’t disappointed! Not only did we enjoy some great local wine and good food, the prices were reasonable and we didn’t have to drive anywhere!
Special Thanks to Destination Osoyoos who hosted Henk and I on our first-ever visit to Osoyoos, BC.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.